Anton Rubinstein is best known as the leading pianist of his day and a tireless educator. His professional life also revolved around the issue of "Nationalist vs. Eclectic" and got rather nasty. Rubinstein had a host of enemies in those composers and their followers who were trying to establish a Nationalist style of Russian classical music. At the same time, Rubinstein was pushing an eclectic style that borrowed greatly from the Germanic experience. He was nicknamed "The Russian Brahms", a term that might sound good from a distance but was a supreme insult for Rubinstein.
The Octet is scored for flute, clarinet, french horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano. It's likely a student work, and it shows. Rubinstein has wonderful initial ideas/themes that he essentially does little with. Instead, he ends up being extremely repetitive, engaging in a strong dose of note-spinning. But I have to say that those initial themes are quite compelling. The 1st Movement Allegro non troppo begins with a hell-fire theme that knocked me out of my chair. The 2nd Movement Vivace has an even better start with a quick-silver piano solo that made my body move in unfamiliar patterns. The slow 3rd Movement's first theme is gorgeous and loving; this time around, Rubinstein also offers an effective second theme highlighted by the pulsating menace of the double bass. In the 4th Movement Allegro moderato, the spit-fire first theme reflects high times and a great absorption of energy.
When I listen to wonderful music that goes nowhere, I immediately think of the miniature as the preferred form. As miniatures, each of the four movements would be fantastic to listen to – state the argument in a concise manner, then move on to the next one. Alas, we have almost 40 minutes to slog through, and my patience has its limits (30 minutes). Overall, the Octet certainly has appeal, but the excessive length is debilitating. Almost forgot – the piano dominates the other instruments, a condition that considerably reduces the potential for a wide variety of colours.
The Piano Quintet is an improvement over the Octet and clearly reveals a more mature and expert composer. For the combination of french horn, clarinet, bassoon, flute and piano, Rubinstein gives each instrument a significant role; this alone creates a more varied and interesting palette that is sorely lacking in the Octet. Still, thematic development occasionally gets stalled in a wasteland of repetition. Further, the basic melodies are not as enjoyable as in the Octet, the 3rd Movement Andante con moto being especially mediocre in melodic content.
Don's Conclusions: The Consortium Classicum and Thomas Duis deliver superb performances, but are up against two compositions that have few compelling traits. At Naxos prices, I would give the disc a mild recommendation. However, the music simply isn't worth the premium price of an Orfeo recording. Recommended only to those who must have every chamber work found along the side roads of the Romantic era. As for better alternatives, one relatively obscure composer who immediately comes to mind is Sergei Taneyev who wrote outstanding chamber works including his String Trios, String Quartets, Piano Trio, Piano Quartet, and Piano Quintet. Go directly to Taneyev and give Rubinstein a pass.
Copyright © 2005/2006, Don Satz