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Anton Rubinstein's music is almost totally neglected, with only a handful of works emerging on disc, and virtually none in the concert hall. He's known more by legend as Tchaikovsky's famous teacher who once scolded him for the audacious orchestration to his early tone poem, The Storm. Yet in his day he was extremely well-known as a pianist and composer, and many of his works held the stage to great acclaim. While I won't make extravagant claims for his music (it's quite inferior to Tchaikovsky, for example) it's still enormously exciting, representing the best of the conservative side of 19th century Romanticism. Rubinstein learned the lessons of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann quite well, and emulated many of their strengths in his music, while adding his own blend of Slavic darkness. While nothing here sounds remarkably "Russian," it definitely isn't German, either. However, the composer he most resembles is Schumann, though with Mendelssohn's talent for orchestration. All six of his symphonies are worthy to stand beside Schumann's Four (as lesser, but related works, perhaps) and in some small ways, Rubinstein can occasionally be preferred to Schumann's orchestral style.
Rubinstein's youthful First Symphony is a case in point: it reminds me a lot of Schumann's First and Second symphonies, particularly the scherzo and the finale of the Second. It starts out with a stern, but not very serious motif which becomes all light and airiness. It's very much a 'spring' symphony, and has some nice tunes which stay in the memory (without, of course, reaching Schumann's level). The scherzo is as inspired as anything the Mighty Five wrote in their own symphonies, and bears comparison with the scherzos of Balakirev. However, whereas Balakirev is more rambunctious and folk-like, Rubinstein is graceful--always with a look back at his Classical heritage. The slow movement is not entirely tragic, yet it has a wistful, almost operatic seriousness--a little melodramatic, perhaps, but still very pleasing. To me, the finale is the highlight, full of a very engaging theme which reminds me a little of the high spirits of Schumann's First. At 9 minutes it never wears out its welcome and is a dashing conclusion to a very enjoyable symphony.
Since this is a re-release of the earlier Marco Polo disc, the sound isn't perfect--a bit boxy and hollow. The orchestra plays quite well and is inside this music, though they obviously don't have the power of a major symphony orchestra. Stankovsky seems to know and appreciate Rubinstein and I think he does a great job with this work, though I would have liked to hear Guzenhauser have a go at it (he does Rubinstein's more famous 2nd symphony for Marco Polo/Naxos).
The Ivan the Terrible Overture is a massive, sprawling work--episodic like Liszt's late tone poems. However, it's much less vulgar than something like Hamlet, or From the Cradle to the Grave, or The Ideals. It's brooding without being too dark, has some nice drama and tunes, and toward the end, introduces a clever march which really sticks in your head. It's a fascinating piece and would be nice to resurrect in the concert hall as forgotten voice among 19th century Russian composers.
From here I would recommend going for his 2nd symphony, the "Ocean" symphony, which is surely his finest (especially the 7 movement version--don't settle for the early 4 movement one--much good music is lost). His 3rd symphony is similar to this one, yet with a little less sparkle (though I know it the least of his symphonies), and his 4th is an attempt to be more dramatic--indeed, it's called "The Dramatic." It's a fine work, maybe a tad overlong, but it shows Rubinstein in his best Beethoven/Liszt mode. However, perhaps my favorite his symphonies after the 2nd is his 6th, which is close to a masterpiece. It's very concise, full of great music, and a surprising sense of drive and flow--as if he had been really learning from his former student, Tchaikovsky. And the Naxos disc comes with his best tone poem, Don Quixote. Give Rubinstein a chance and if you don't expect a master, you'll find yourself enjoying some unfairly neglected, surprising music.