ANTON RUBINSTEIN: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 95, “Dramatic” – State Symphony Orchestra of Russia/ Igor Golovchin – Delos DRD 2012, 65:24 [Distr. by Naxos] ***:
As Igor Golovchin and his orchestra proved in their recording of the original version of Rubinstein’s Second Symphony (Delos DRD 2010), the composer could make a cogent and forceful symphonic statement when he wasn’t carried away by his own musical eloquence. Unfortunately, Rubinstein had a tendency toward prolixity, resulting in the much expanded (and thus much diluted) final version of his Second Symphony (“Ocean”). One has the same impression after hearing the Fourth Symphony of 1874. It’s dramatic, all right, but its drama would be enhanced if Rubinstein had been more capable of judicious self-editing. As it is, the composer’s mostly effective thematic material doesn’t outlive his long-winded development of same. The first movement, coming in at a Brucknerian twenty-two minutes in this performance, is the most obvious example, but even the muscular scherzo has a tendency to go on. And on.
Rubinstein’s contemporaries pronounced this movement the most successful. It reminds me a bit of Danish composer Niels Gade in one of his more tough-minded moods, though it may simply reflect an influence that both Gade and Rubinstein shared, that of Robert Schumann, whose influence is evident elsewhere in the Fourth Symphony. Apparently, Rubinstein’s contemporaries were also puzzled by the work’s subtitle, “Dramatic.” While Rubinstein stayed mum on the subject, the notes to the recording seem rightly to point at a possible meaning behind the name. In his symphony, Rubinstein was reacting to the claim by the champions of program music that the symphony was dead as an expressive vehicle. Rubinstein wanted “to demonstrate the possibility of reviving Beethoven’s style of symphonic composition; of bringing his sort of ‘symphonic drama’ back to life.”
Somewhat perversely, my favorite movement is the Adagio, an unruffled almost balletic oasis in this stormy and occasionally bombastic work. I think some classically-minded choreographer along the lines of Balanchine could turn it into an affective little entertainment; but then Balanchine’s style of dance seems almost as passé, sadly, as Rubinstein’s symphonies.
Another beef that contemporary critics such as César Cui—especially those, like Cui, who allied themselves with the Russian nationalists—had against Rubinstein was that his music was too much influenced by Western composers such as Schumann and Brahms. Rubinstein’s answer was the Symphony No. 5, subtitled “Russian,” of 1880. It’s shorter and definitely sweeter than some of Rubinstein’s other symphonies and effectively deploys folk melody. The most popular of Rubinstein’s symphonies in his day, it probably has the best shot at getting a nod from audiences today, if conductors would take a chance on programming it.
Meanwhile, we’re considering the dramatic—yes—but somewhat shapeless Symphony No. 4. It probably won’t ever return to the concert hall for even an occasional hearing. Hence the undoubted usefulness of recordings. Rubinstein is certainly worth knowing from a historical standpoint—and worth hearing as well since at his most effective he can still impress. The current recording by Golovchin and the Symphony Orchestra of Russia has the virtues and vices of the aforementioned recording of the Second Symphony. There’s Russian fire here, and that blaring, sometimes watery brass gives this music an authentically Russian feel that for me enhances the experience. The strings and winds don’t have the polish we expect in Western orchestras, and string entries are occasionally ragged, as are extended fast passages. The sound recording, from the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, falls into the same category: decent but hardly state of the art. Nonetheless, I’m glad for the opportunity these Russian recordings provide for hearing the work of a once-celebrated master who has something to say as well to today’s music lovers.
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