ANTON RUBINSTEIN: Piano Quartet in F Major; Piano Quartet in C Major – Leslie Howard, p. / Rita Manning, v. / Morgan Goff, viola / Justin Pearson, cello – Hyperion

ANTON RUBINSTEIN: Piano Quartet in F Major, Op. 55bis; Piano Quartet in C Major, Op. 66 – Leslie Howard, piano / Rita Manning, v. / Morgan Goff, viola / Justin Pearson, cello – Hyperion CDA68018, 76:28 (5/13/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Over the years, I’ve tried to acquaint myself with as much of Anton Rubinstein’s music as I thought I had a chance of enjoying enough to make a return visit. And I have enjoyed myself, though not quite as much as I had hoped when setting out. Despite Rubinstein’s reputation as an important influence on Russian music and his even larger reputation as a virtuoso pianist, and despite his obvious gifts as a melodist, there’s too much sprawl and waywardness to even his best work. Even Rubinstein’s most famous pupil at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Piotr Tchaikovsky, took him to task for this failing.

However, having taken a flyer on Hyperion’s recording of Rubinstein’s cello sonatas with Jiří Bárta and Hamish Milne (CDA67660), and now getting to hear Rubinstein’s lovely piano quartets, I’ve come to think this less-explored corner of the Russian master’s catalog may contain some of his most effective music. The quartets seem less garrulous than most of Rubinstein’s symphonies and windy tone poems. Plus, Rubinstein’s undoubted melodic gifts are clearly to the fore. Both quartets are fine works, but the C Major Quartet (1864), one of the composer’s most popular works in his day, is special. There’s a folksy charm to its faster movements, especially the bouncy scherzo marked Allegro vivace, which reminds me of Rimsky-Korsakov’s equally folksy and ebullient Quintet for Piano and Winds. But in a very different vein is the elegiac Andante assai third movement, which Leslie Howard, in his intelligent notes to this recording, calls “a music drama in miniature.” That drama is powerfully sustained, reaching an impassioned climax before subsiding into a relaxed reverie, with the strings taking the melody and the piano weaving filigrees of sound around them. Then there is an abrupt halt, and the brooding air of the movement’s opening returns. This may be the most beautifully accomplished writing I’ve heard from Rubinstein.

The first theme of the bright-eyed finale has a Schumannesque conversational quality about it, as the strings and piano thrust and parry at one another, while the second theme sounds like one of Schumann’s patented chorale-like melodies. With the introduction of a brief third theme, however, Rubinstein reminds us that he’s a Russian composer. (Actually, he hailed from the Ukraine.) It’s a modal-sounding, folk-like utterance that might have come from the pages of Rimsky’s collection of Russian folk tunes—though it’s entirely original. The development section of the movement fractures and fragments these themes in an interesting way, though the foreshortened recapitulation and triumphant coda restore them with a flourish.

The earlier F Major Quartet (published in 1855) shows Rubinstein’s debt to Schumann—and Mendelssohn—even more. The scherzo is an updated version of a Mendelssohn scherzo, and some of the working out sounds like Schumann, though the melodies and certain turns of phrase are pure Rubinstein. The Op. 55bis numbering indicates that this is an arrangement of an earlier quintet for piano and winds. I haven’t heard the original, but I’ll take Leslie Howard’s word for the fact the reduction from five to four instruments “is accomplished without loss of any contrapuntal lines, and with some serious enrichment of texture through the use of multiple-stopped chords.” It’s certainly a fine work that seems made for the present instrumental forces, though it isn’t as finished or memorable as the C Major Quartet.

Howard specializes in this sort of out-of-the-way musical fare and has, in fact, set down four discs’ worth of Rubinstein’s piano music, including the four sonatas, for Hyperion. In the quartets, Howard manages Rubinstein’s intricate piano lines with aplomb and shows obvious affinity for the Rubinstein idiom. His partners play with equal relish; Rubinstein gives the strings, especially viola and cello, opportunities to shine in expressive little solos, and they don’t let him down.

The recording is very good, too, though it doesn’t have quite the bloom I’ve heard in other recordings from Suffolk’s Potton Hall. Small matter. In any event, I count this disc one of the finer additions to my growing Rubinstein collection. What’s next? Maybe those four piano sonatas. . . .

—Lee Passarella

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