Rubinstein: Symphony No. 2 "Ocean" (CD review)

Also Ballet Music from Feramors. Igor Golovchin, State Symphony Orchestra of Russia. Delos DRD 2010.

If you're like me, you probably instantly recognize the name Anton Rubinstein and then, after a moment's reflection, say to yourself, "Wait a minute; maybe I'm thinking of Arthur Rubinstein. Or Anton Chekhov. Or Anthony Adverse." And then it occurs to you that you don't really know a lot about this Anton Rubinstein fellow, despite the seeming familiarity of his name.

I had a vague recollection that Anton Rubinstein was a nineteenth-century pianist, no relation to Arthur Rubinstein, the twentieth-century pianist, and that was about all. Yet Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was more than a piano whiz on the order of a Franz Liszt or Frederic Chopin; he was also a conductor and a composer, and on this reissued Delos disc we get what some critics consider the best of his six symphonies, the Symphony No. 2 "Ocean," with Maestro Igor Golovchin leading the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia.

Rubinstein wrote his Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 42, in 1851, and like most of the rest of his overtly Romantic compositions, it went out of favor with the public not long after his death. Rubinstein appears not only to have been a dyed-in-the-wool Romanticist, but a rather conservative one at that. Apparently, a later revision of the symphony went on for seven movements and nearly seventy-five minutes. What we get here is the original version with four movements at about forty-seven minutes.

The opening Allegro maestoso starts with a cheery, chirpy little seascape motif, which skips along in a kind of Mendelssohnian manner, reaching a big crescendo early on. Then it settles into some light lyrical passages, making the first movement alone thematically all over the map. Supposedly, Rubinstein intended the symphony to be programmatic, expressing Man's struggles with the elemental forces of Nature, or some such thing. As generic as that appears, the music is equally vague, moving as it does from one thing to another rather quickly. I suppose Golovchin does what he can with it, but the music seems more than a little bombastic and unfocused to me.

The Adagio that follows is quite poetic and better concentrated. The composer described it being deep as the sea and deep as the human soul, again seeming more high-minded in his ambitions than necessary. It might be best just to let the notes float over one like gentle waves or sea breezes, which seems Golovchin's major goal.

The zippy little Allegro-Scherzo represents the gaiety of a sailor's dance, and it makes a welcome change of pace.

In the concluding Adagio, we're back to intimations of Mendelssohn. While Rubinstein's Second Symphony may have been one of the first of its kind in Russia, it's obvious why it never lasted long in the popular mind. Rubinstein seems to have owed too much to too many.

Still, one cannot fault Maestro Golovchin or his players. They conjure up good spirits when necessary, nobility, tranquility, and grandeur in abundance, and they do so firmly and precisely yet with much spirit and enthusiasm.

The coupling is Rubinstein's ballet music from his opera Feramors, written in 1862. It is breezy, airy, melodic, elegant, vital, and fun. Frankly, I enjoyed these diverse dances more than I did the symphony, and Golovchin seems no less enthralled by them himself.

Delos recorded the music in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1993 and reissued it in 2012. In the symphony, the sound displays good inner detail and clarity, with more than adequate orchestral depth. However, it is also a tad bright in the upper midrange and miked a little distantly, creating a relatively narrow stereo spread. Moreover, the bass isn't quite prominent enough to balance the forward higher end, so the result, while sounding fairly transparent, is also a trifle thin. The ballet music, though, sounds better in all regards, with an especially good dynamic range and impact.


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