Rubinstein: Piano Quartets
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Movement 1: Allegro non troppo
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro assai
Movement 3: Andante con moto
Movement 4: Allegro appassionato
The reduction in instrument numbers for the string version parallels Beethoven’s similar reworking of his Op 16 quintet/quartet, and is accomplished without loss of any contrapuntal lines, and with some serious enrichment of texture through the use of multiple-stopped chords. This is striking from the first bar: the four wind notes of the original cannot really begin to compete with the firmly arpeggiated string chords. This brilliant flourish, characterized by robust alternations between strings and piano, sets a scene which is immediately contradicted by a lyrical theme from the violin that instantly forsakes the home key of F major, and adopts A flat major instead. The opening gesture soon returns but dissipates, allowing the viola to present the second subject in C major, before a triumphant ending of the exposition. After portentous rumblings from the piano, the startling dissonance that opens the development—B flat forced to cohabit with B natural—can be easily explained away by the ‘rules’ of harmony, but is disturbing for all that. A lovely moment finds the piano in tremolo accompaniment which gives way to quavers then triplets, and the recapitulation of the opening is surrounded by florid arpeggios.
The piano introduces the main material of the scherzo (in A minor): a mercurial theme with many a rhythmic twist. A secondary idea appears from the strings alone, but it is some time before the piano allows this new theme to take hold. The trio (in A major) reminds us immediately of Rubinstein’s sheer melodic fecundity, with a memorable cello theme that stands aloof from any compositional artifice. The scherzo is repeated unaltered.
It is again the cello that takes the principal theme of the C major slow movement. Whilst Rubinstein’s fundamental debt to Mendelssohn is proudly displayed, there are many individual touches and harmonic quirks of quite another order. The culmination of the central working-out of the material finds a gentle triplet accompaniment of delicately woven string motifs that wind the music through some delightfully unexpected modulations, before a gentle cadenza from the piano leads to the reprise of the opening.
The opening salvo of the finale threatens to unseat the expected F major tonality of the work by stressing D minor, but the main theme proper—given to the violin over an alarmingly acrobatic piano part—is firmly in the tonic. The second theme sounds for all the world like a homage to Schumann with its crisp staccato altercations and dotted rhythms, but it is none the worse for this nod to one of Anton Rubinstein’s heroes. This theme is interspersed with a syncopated string melody, with a curiously rattled accompaniment of hand-alternating semiquaver shakes from the piano. A series of longer quiet chords from the piano introduces the development, and the recapitulation soon breaks upon the ear, quite without warning, in A flat major. We are lead to C flat major and then B flat minor before all is restored with the second theme once again establishing F major as the tonal centre. A mighty peroration is suspended in full cry, and the quiet chords of the development return before the final Presto brings the work to a contented close.
Research has failed to unearth details of any performance of the Op 55 Quartet with the composer at the piano, although there are a few documented performances of Rubinstein participating in the Quintet version with wind instruments.
from notes by Leslie Howard © 2014