RUBINSTEIN: Caprice Russe; Piano Concerto No. 5; Overture to Der Thurm zu Babel – Grigorios Zamparas, piano/ Bohuslav Mintinu Philharmonic Orch./ Jon Ceander Mitchell – Centaur

by | Dec 14, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

RUBINSTEIN: Caprice Russe, Op. 102; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 94; Overture to Der Thurm zu Babel, Op. 80 – Grigorios Zamparas, piano/ Bohuslav Mintinu Philharmonic Orch./ Jon Ceander Mitchell – Centaur CRC 3204, 74:55 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The music of Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) survives in a kind of nationalistic twilight world, centered on the German forms he tried to instill in Tchaikovsky, yet indulging itself in a plethora of virtuoso effects that want to rival Liszt’s contribution to the bravura tradition. The two elongated works presented here (rec.  12-14 November 2010) by Greek virtuoso Grigorios Zamparas – an Ivan Davis pupil – combine these attributes with flair but sometimes without the melodic substance to maintain their developmental bulk. The 1878 Caprice Russe opens rather well, with a folk theme worthy of Boris Gudonov or Glinka’s Kamarinskaya;  but it often later bogs down in rippling arpeggios and linked scales, like a Hollywood version of what a Russian fantasy is supposed to sound like to a public impatient for Douglas Sirk to continue the romance with Jane Wyman. Despite the slick integration of the music’s three themes and the cascades of fioritura that try to make the piano imitate, alternately: cimbalom, harp, percussion, and flute, the sheer acrobatics prove self-serving, and we feel that Rubinstein wants to be the Russian version of Saint-Saens.
The relatively brief Overture to The Tower of Babel (1869) introduces Rubinstein’s idea of a “sacred opera” in one act.  Conductor Mitchell paces his ensemble to capture what the composer called the “edifying” nature of his somber subject. The operatic work itself employs declamation and selective discordances to realize the subject of the “curse of many tongues” imposed on Man for his pride and hubris.  The Overture, however, remains subdued, amorphously melodious, and delicately-scored.
The Fifth Piano Concerto (1874) shares the same key of Beethoven’s own Fifth Concerto, and the length of Rubinstein’s exceeds that of the Brahms B-flat Concerto. Reviewing the work in Boston 1908, Philip Hale pronounced the piece “long and . . .longer in performance. As a whole, it is dull and futile music.” Pianist Grigoriois Zamparas considers the concerto “a thing of beauty,” and he does his best to impart stylish pearly play and a sense of grand opulence into its broad canvas.  Occasionally, the orchestral tuttis in the opening Allegro moderato promise a drama they too often fail to deliver. The pentatonic theme possesses a sinewy, catlike dexterity, and it does evolve into a flimsy waltz. The sheer eclecticism of styles likely answers Runbinstein’s purpose to dedicate this sprawling piece to French pianist-composer Charles Valentin Alkan, whose own propensity for the large, flamboyant, and the grotesque warrants recognition in kind. The cadenza as such serves as a brilliant (staccato) etude, with the orchestra’s declaiming in bold strokes into a rather bloated coda.
The C Minor Andante proceeds, 4/8, as a somber march. The ensuing minor thirds in cellos and basses has the quality of a Liszt tone-poem that elicits a lyrical tune from the keyboard. Rubinstein shows off parallel octaves and roulades, working his way to martial variants of the original figure over suspended harmonies. The last two minutes of music, had they been appropriated by Bruckner, might have had a more stirring effect. The last movement, Allegro, opens with a hunt figure that Schumann may have inspired in Waldszenen. If Rubinstein had limited his rondo in scope, the movement would have benefitted; but, typical of his “expansive” nature, he develops a sonata-rondo that combines Beethoven ambition and counterpoint with Weber’s flair for national dances: here, a Tarantella Napolitaine Populaire. Brilliant and gaudy at once, the music finds a willing acolyte in Zamparas, who executes its demands for fingers and stamina in no mediocre terms. Whether your own patience can absorb this hodgepodge at one sitting remains something your aesthetic jury must decide.
—Gary Lemco

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