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November 25, 2004

Paradise Briefly Revisited - Anton Rubinstein in St. Petersburg

Posted by David Conway

Anton Rubinstein: Das verlorene Paradies
(Paradise Lost - text after John Milton)
St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra
conductor Nikolai Kornyev
Philharmonic Hall, St. Petersburg
16th November 2004

Anton Rubinstein Celebration Concert
Glazunov Hall, St. Petersburg Conservatoire
18th November 2004

"To the Jews I'm a Christian, to the Christians a Jew; to the Russians I'm a German, to the Germans a Russian; to the classicists I'm an innovator, to the innovators I'm a reactionary, and so on. Conclusion: neither fish nor fowl, a pathetic individual."

Anton Rubinstein.

Few declines from adoration and respect have been as spectacular as that of the composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894). From his modest beginnings in a family of merchants and part-time smugglers in remote Berditchev (now in the Ukraine), he became the first pianist who could be said to have conquered the world – not only Europe but also America in his triumphant if exhausting tour in the 1880s. His leonine countenance, which caused Liszt to nickname him 'Ludwig II' (after Beethoven), and his fiery temperament, made him the very model of a piano virtuoso in the decades after Liszt himself retired from the concert platform after 1848. His operas, symphonies and concertos were performed to acclaim. Until his death he remained an unfailing draw for the concert-going public. But nowadays we remember only his Melody in F, and even that as a Palm Court joke; or else he is confused with the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (no relation).

Rubinstein's profile by the way is still perfectly preserved in the face of his great-grandson the conductor Anton Sharoyev, whom I had the pleasure of meeting during the events in St. Petersburg celebrating the 175th anniversary of the composer's birth. Mr Sharoyev is understandably devoted to his ancestor and has even conducted and recorded a goodly chunk of what Rubinstein considered one of his masterworks, the religious opera Christus (1888). Rubinstein himself would perhaps contemplate the near extinction of his musical legacy with the sardonic philosophical resignation displayed by the quotation prefacing this article.

In fact his greatest contribution to music still survives, although his name has been rudely stripped from it. It is the St. Petersburg Conservatoire itself. Anton, and his pianist brother Nikolai, who founded the Moscow Conservatoire, by their dedication to musical education transformed Russian music, until then largely dominated by the enormous but dissipated and rather xenophobic talents of Borodin, Mussorgsky and Balakirev. Anton, at the age of 12, had been made to forgo the chance of studying at the Paris Conservatoire, at the time the only state music school in the world open to pupils entirely on the basis of their musical talent. Having had to survive near-starvation before he could forge his fame and career, Anton was determined to establish similar foundations in Russia and against all the odds, he and his brother succeeded. Every single great name in Russian music since then, from Tchaikovsky onwards, has owed a debt to their vision, even though the Russian regime of the 1940s renamed the St. Petersburg institution after Rimsky-Korsakov and the Moscow one after Tchaikovsky himself. Anton and Nikolai between them undoubtedly transformed the history of Russian music, virtually double-handed.

Rubinstein's opera The Demon still appears on Russian stages, and some of his pleasantly Mendelssohnian chamber music is (theoretically) available on recent recordings, but opportunities of hearing his music live remain scarce even in his home country, so two concerts arranged to celebrate his anniversary offered a rare opportunity for evaluation.

Programming a complete performance of the oratorio Das verlorene Paradies ('Paradise Lost'), was certainly a bold step. This work, completely unknown to modern ears, was written when the composer was 28 and is the first in a line of Biblical works which extended through his life, all to German libretti, all equally forgotten. First performed under the baton of Franz Liszt in Weimar in 1858, it is scored for massive forces – double choir (for the Heavenly Host and the Rebel Angels), huge orchestra and soloists. My attendance, which I initially feared might be a call of duty, turned out to be a pleasure, albeit slightly qualified.

The music is basically Mendelssohn plus some chromatic harmony, with the odd touches here and there of Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Liszt. There is plenty of variety and colour – but there is an absence of hummable melodies you can take away with you. Partly this is because none of the solo roles – God, Satan, Adam or Eve – have much in the way of arias, expressing themselves largely through accompanied recitatives. Although Satan, boldly – indeed, brazenly - sung by Evgeny Ulanov (bass) certainly had the best part, far more interesting than the rather smug and self-satisfied lines of God (Mikhail Aleksandrov, baritone), he cannot therefore be said to have the best tunes. The Heavenly Host, similarly, have nothing much more to do than to say how wonderful God is, whereas at least the inhabitants of Hell can indulge in some high-power wailing, moaning and threats of revenge. The choral writing in these passages is highly enjoyable: the inventive orchestration and harmony, especially during the Creation passages, compare not unfavourably with Haydn's benchmark efforts in this sphere. Overall therefore, to adapt Dr Johnson, worth hearing but perhaps not worth going to hear. But it is no worse than many other works by more famous names which are revived only on the strength of their reputations, and which seem to crop up fairly regularly in the concert hall – for example, Dvořák's deeply boring Te Deum.

At the concert given by the Conservatoire's own orchestra, once again the honours went to the dark forces, in this case to the first movement of Rubinstein's tumultuous Fourth Piano Concerto (soloist Pavel Raikerus), and to an excerpt from the opera The Demon, with Vladimir Stepanov singing the title role and the statuesque Veronica Dzhoieva as his annoyingly virtuous inamorata, Tamara, in an electric confrontation. The concerto, which a hundred years was a concert-hall regular, really deserves resurrection – it has all the melodic and virtuosic qualities of Rachmaninoff, without any of his musical incompetence. I wish I could argue for a similar resuscitation in the West of The Demon, but for all its excellent parts, as a whole the opera founders on its religiously sentimental book – rather, in fact, as does Das verlorene Paradies. I am pleased to report that the concert also included the egregious Melody in F, in a highly appropriate arrangement for string orchestra and trombone quartet. This great institution was prepared to salute all aspects of its titanic founder, from the sublime to the (almost) ridiculous.

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