Rubinstein Piano Concertos 1 & 2 – Anna Shelest, Estonian Symphony Orchestra – Music & Arts

by | Aug 24, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

A. RUBINSTEIN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 25; Pièces caractéristiques, Op. 50: Barcarole; Berceuse; Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 35 – Anna Shelest, piano/ Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/ Neeme Järvi – Music&Arts MA 1308 (75:05) (8/18/23) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Conductor Neeme Järvi has engaged in a survey of the piano concertos and concerted keyboard works of pianist and pedagogue Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) with Ukrainian musician Anna Shelest, a pupil of Jerome Lowenthal at the Juilliard School. The series of Rubinstein concertos derives from sessions at the Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn, from September 20-23, 2022. The remaining cycle of 3 concertos and the Caprice Russe is available on the Music&Arts label (SCCD013-014).  

As a result of having studied with Siegfried Dehn, Anton Rubinstein’s style, however Russian in temperament, conforms to German tastes and aesthetics, his most direct models those of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Rubinstein’s principal piano teacher, Alexander Villoing (1804-1878), receives the dedication of the Piano Concerto No. 1 of 1850 (pub. 1858). In three movements, the bravura work begins Moderato, in sonata form. A kind of four-note motto theme has some decoration prior to the piano’s typically, grandiose rhetoric enters: large-spanned octaves, running scalar passages. Dotted figurations. A lyrical secondary theme and a quasi-tarantella round off the exposition. The cumulative effect strikes us as Mendelssohnian in character, a lively but inflated series of bold etudes. The woodwind scoring offers colors that the strings do not share, as their contribution seems obligatory, in the manner of the Chopin concerto in the same key. The play of the tarantella motif remains intriguing, and the four-note pattern assumes something of a “fate motif” monumentality in lieu of any formal cadenza. The coda attacks and then retreats, only to make a conclusive, defiant utterance in the last chord.

The second movement, Andante con moto, is introduced by a warm, French horn motif and the piano in a serene mode. The intertwining of piano, horn, and strings assumes an air reminiscent of Schubert before a more dramatic, dark turn sets in. The upheaval reminds one of sections from a Weber opera, the keyboard part generously contributing rich arpeggios. The lyrical theme emerges with increased passion, almost worthy of MGM movie treatment. This lulling resonance continues, with a throbbing bass line, into the last pages, where horn, flute, and piano glide to a close. 

The Con moto finale in E opens with transition figures from movement two, but the piano wants an acrobatic theme in staggered metrics that begs for transformations into foreign keys, F and A-flat Major. A kind of march-chorale erupts in a style that Saint-Saens loves to cultivate, allowing pianist Shelest her full measure of fierce double octaves and brilliant riffs in broken rhythm. If cadenza this be, the piano has, after a pregnant pause, an extended, lyrical meditation that has a Lisztian persuasiveness, an enchanted nocturne, before the Estonian strings and winds join in, the Mendelssohn affect once more active, now in E Major for the extended coda. As the piano gains relentless momentum, the orchestra surges into the march-chorale yet again, the four-note “fate” motif resonant, until the whole comes crashing upward in a vehement peroration.    

As an intermission, Järvi performs two of the six Characteristic Pieces of 1850, originally for piano, four hands, in an orchestral arrangement by Arkady Leytush. The Barcarole sings a haunted song without words, the string line quite active as the brass line swells. A mere two and one-half minutes, the piece ends with gentle strokes from the harp. The Berceuse lasts twice as long, a chromatic melodic line that spins a throbbing motif in a French style, a la Gounod or Massenet. The declamation becomes quite intense, playing with string lines in competing registers. The piece end with an epilogue In chorale style.

Anton Rubinstein Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 35 (1851) presumably had an influence on Mili Balakirev as he composed his own 1855 Piano Concerto No. 1 F# Minor, Op. 1. The Rubinstein first movement, Allegro Vivace Assai, projects a martial sensibility, softened by the secondary tune from strings and woodwinds. Unsurprisingly, the music might easily be ascribed to Mendelssohn. The orchestral tutti proves extensive, almost 3 minutes, before pianist Shelest bursts in with a rolling series of arpeggios and declamatory chords and scalar figures. The rhetoric then proceeds, bravura style and luxuriantly romantic, ending in a solo flight of poetic fancy for Shelest. The orchestra soon supports the rhetoric, now embellished by flights of upward scales in 32nd notes. The “acrobatic” similarity to the Saint-Saens style has now become self-indulgently familiar. The formula persists throughout the rest of the movement, rounding out the motifs in sonata form. What makes the performance captivating lies in the ease and fluency of execution. The Estonian Symphony string bass line makes its presence known.  The cadenza that suddenly appears has Bach, polyphonic ambitions, rising and falling through several registers and then becoming decisively martial, with sweeping attacks and a series of half cadences to the chromatic melody line. The orchestra reappears to rhapsodize with the keyboard, moving in rising steps to a lushly resonant coda based on the initial swagger that opened the movement.

The minor key Adagio non troppo gives a very brief orchestral introduction for the piano entry, which proceeds solo in an improvisatory style, a nocturne. An antiphon ensues, alternating piano and orchestra or allotting the orchestra a few, chosen harmonies for the keyboard’s musings. The colors darken, slightly, and Shelest continues to extemporize over small moment of orchestral sound or solo. The melody line becomes grand when the tutti sweeps up the chorale statement of the theme, the Estonian first trumpet in high relief. The piano sings over a sustained string and tympani pedal, the harmonic movement similar to the first movement in the Saint-Saens G Minor Concerto opening movement. The cascading scales of the keyboard fade away as the music concludes.

The last movement, Moderato, has a dark cast, but only for a moment. What Rubinstein institutes is a dance movement, virtually balletic, in a Mendelssohn salon mode. When the large forces of the orchestra join in, it sounds like an excerpt from a Gounod opera. The piano flourishes remain rhetorical, lightly bravura in style. The sprightly development enjoys a playful innocence, which only the keyboard wizardry makes interesting. The orchestral tissue has become repetitive and predictable. The French horn makes a flurry, along with the flute and strings, all above a keyboard ostinato or scale figures. The dance tissue returns, weak Mendelssohn or maybe Delibes. Pleasantly enough the participants enter into the extended coda, dancing and cavorting so that Shelest’s potent octaves have the final say. 

–Gary Lemco  

More Information through Music & Arts

Album Cover for Anna Shelest plays Rubenstein Concertos 1 & 2


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