ANTON RUBINSTEIN: Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 42, “Ocean”; Ballet Music from the Opera “Feramors” – State Sym. Orch. of Russia/ Igor Golovchin – Delos DRD 2010 [Distr. by Naxos], 66:11 ***(*):
Here we have the original, very substantial first version of Anton Rubinstein’s Second Symphony, a work whose programmatic intent is to convey the triumph of the human spirit over the raw, nearly unconquerable energy of the sea. That energy is portrayed in the seething, darkly dramatic first movement, where the sea seems to have the upper hand.
The second movement, a contemplative Adagio non tanto, bears an epigraph from Rubinstein: “deep is the sea, deep is the human soul, with feelings like waves.” It introduces the human element for the first time and seems to represent the inner life of humankind placed against the constant, impersonal momentum of ocean waves.
Tchaikovsky thought the rollicking good humor of the third movement scherzo captured “the rough gaiety and the dances of the sailors in an ecstatic way.” That’s certainly reading more into the movement than most critics would in our day. Besides, there is more refinement in the movement than in your typical sailors’ hornpipe. There is more about Mendelssohn’s sprites and fairies in this music than there is about salty old mariners, just as Delos’s anonymous note-writer concludes that the triumphant finale “happens to be closer in its outlook to Mendelssohn rather than Beethoven.”
But then again, Rubinstein’s work was written only three years after Mendelssohn’s death, and as a student and admirer of Western music, the Russian composer would have looked to Mendelssohn (and to a less degree the more radical Schumann) as a symphonic model. Given its 1851 date, the Ocean Symphony is a pretty remarkable document, coming as it did fifteen years before the first symphonies of Rimsky, Tchaikovsky, and Borodin.
Not content to leave “remarkable” alone, Rubinstein sought to improve the piece by adding movements to it over the years, believing by 1880 that three additional movements, the total now matching the number of the Seven Seas, was sufficient. Tchaikovsky, reacting to the six-movement version of 1863, opined that the added movements, “although very charming. . .destroy the artistic balance of the classical sonata form and make this perfect work excessively long.” I couldn’t agree more. If you want to sample the final, seven-movement version of the work, it’s available in a recording by Stephen Gunzenhauser and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra on both Marco Polo and Naxos; see what you think.
Rubinstein composed a staggering sixteen operas of which only The Demon is ever heard and that rarely, if ever, outside of Russia. His opera Feramors of 1862 rode the crest of a wave of interest in oriental subject matter that especially captivated French composers such as Bizet, Delibes, and Massenet. Rubinstein’s libretto is based on the once-popular Lalla Rookh by Irish poet Thomas Moore; Schumann had treated the work in his oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (1843), and French composer Félicien David’s opera based on the poem appeared the same year as Rubinstein’s. The ballet music from Feramors is very attractive though there’s little of the exotic about it. The four numbers might have come from a French ballet, on just about any subject, of the same time period. Still, the music is pert and skillfully orchestrated; I can see why it’s one of Rubinstein’s more popular works, at least on CD.
The performances by the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia under Igor Golovchin aren’t the last word in refinement, but there’s a special energy to the playing (including a healthy Russian blare to the contributions from the brass) that commend this CD over rival versions. The recording, from the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, is a good one as well—quite colorful in the ballet music—although the symphony seems recorded at a comparatively low level, especially the first movement, so you’ll have to fiddle with the volume control to get the full impact of the music. This should not be a disincentive, however; if you’re not familiar with Rubinstein’s music, here is an excellent place to start an acquaintanceship.
Inspired and Inspiring…