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CD Review

Anton Rubinstein

Naxos 8.555476
  • Symphony #1 in F Major, Op. 40
  • Ivan the Terrible, Op. 79
Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice)/Robert Stankovsky
Naxos 8.555476
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This is a reissue from a Marco Polo series (8.223277) that covered all six of the Rubinstein symphonies. This is labeled as "Volume 1"; so presumably all are scheduled for reissue on Naxos over the coming months or years. The series for many will be a mixed blessing, however, since it was split up among several orchestras and conductors. Still, there are no competing cycles, so who can complain?

This 1850 First Symphony was an early work, the composer's first surviving effort strictly for orchestra. It doesn't sound very Russian, and could easily be mistaken as a little-known work by Mendelssohn. There are hints of Schumann in the music too, especially in the lively second movement Allegro. The first and third movements are particularly reminiscent of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, both in their orchestration and mood: the opening Allegro con fuoco is sprightly and sunny like its counterpart, while the Moderato third has that air of stately gloom heard in the second movement of Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony.

The finale, marked Allegro, is rhythmically attractive, again invoking the style and spirit of Mendelssohn. For all its derivative qualities, however, this symphony is well-crafted, thematically appealing, and colorfully scored. Had Mendelssohn lived another three years to hear this work, he might well have liked it. Stankovsky and his Košice-based players deliver the music with commitment and clean playing, even if their energy is lacking in a few places.

Ivan the Terrible catches Rubinstein in a much more Russian mood. It is a musical portrait of the 16th century Tsar using Lev Alexandrovich Mey's Ivan as its source of inspiration. Overall, Rubinstein's music here is more mature, darker and more skillfully orchestrated. Also, its themes divulge greater subtlety and, in general, one notices the hand of a master everywhere. Yet, it's the First Symphony that proves of greater interest, not least because Ivan seems structurally diffuse, less unified. It may be a vivid and imaginative portrait of Ivan, but the sum of its attractive parts is less than that of the derivative but spirited First Symphony. Again, the incisive Stankovsky and his forces render the music with fine playing. The sound on the disc is vivid, though the acoustics are a bit dry.

Copyright © 2001, Robert Cummings

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