Husband and wife Ukrainian-born pianists Anna and Dmitri Shelest performed for Sound Ways at First Church in Boston on Saturday. Their program, “Anton Rubinstein and Outstanding Pianists-Composers of the Era of Romanticism,” looked on paper like a promising evening, (whose title could have used some editing). One eagerly awaited their presentation and their interest in this long-neglected Russian musician.
To begin, there were some peculiarities worth mentioning on the program. The handout listed titles without indicating movements or tempo markings. And those responsible for arranging the orchestral part for second piano also escaped mention. As happens quite often nowadays, the music was introduced by a long lecture (Dmitri) with facts easily be found on Wikipedia or Groves. It went on and on, as we waited impatiently for the music. The concert finally did begin after the appearance of his wife, Anna, the soloist, wearing a Ukrainian national blouse in solidarity with her countrymen. Dmitri then described the movements only as fast, slow, fast. [They are: I. Allegro vivace assai risoluto con fuoco, II. Adagio non troppo, Ill. Moderato.]
The Rubinstein second concerto, which is quite effective in its original scoring, did not make for an auspicious vehicle for Anna. She has the required technique in abundance, but beyond this physical fact, however, she has serious limitations. She tends to play every fast passage as loudly as possible, and plow into chords with the same abandon. To be fair, she does play softly at times, but her work lacked finesse and grace. The concerto itself needs better design and stronger structure, instead we heard lots of arpeggios in all directions. I hope a recording was made of this performance so the two pianists can actually listen to themselves: the sacred duty of all musicians.
Dmitri, who provided support with the orchestral reduction, is a serviceable pianist. Their balance was hard to discern because of the dominance of the soloist. Additionally, acoustics in the church were not piano-friendly. One heard after-vibrations throughout, sacrificing clarity. Organs need churches, pianos need halls.
Since someone in the audience shouted ‘Bravo!’ after the Rubinstein concerto, the duo decided to play an encore before intermission, a little character piece by the composer. And, here we were finally informed that Rubinstein arranged his concerto for two pianos, Clara Schumann was arranged by a name I couldn’t catch, and Chaminade did her own arrangements of the Konzertstucke.
Clara Schumann’s only piano concerto had 3 movements we were told: fast, slow, fast. They were, in fact, Allegro maestoso, Romanze (Andante) and Finale, allegro ma non troppo (more late-night research). Written when she was only 15 years old, this is a charming, mature work. In its original version with orchestra, the Romanze has an especially lovely cello line in counterpoint to the piano. There is lots of fancy finger-work, but it is somehow woven into the musical texture. With Rubinstein, the fingers seem to take precedence over the music. Anna did not make stylistic differentiations between the two composers.
Did the Shelest Duo make its case for Anton Rubinstein? And, what was the ‘era of romanticism? These were ‘unanswered questions.’
Arthur Loesser, in his delightful social history, “Men, Women and Pianos” cites the following: ‘In June of 1872, William Steinway guaranteed a contract made in Vienna and signed also by administrative manager Maurice Grau, …by which Anton Rubinstein, “the most fiery, most fabulous and most hypnotic of living pianists, a true inheritor of Liszt’s crown “- was to make a tour of the United States the following season.” And according to Harold Schonberg, few pianists could display greater lightness, grace and delicacy.
Sergei Rachmaninoff first attended Rubinstein’s historical concerts as a 12-year-old piano student. Forty-four years he famously related:
His playing gripped my whole imagination and had a marked influence on my ambition as a pianist. It was not so much his magnificent technique that held one spellbound as the profound, spiritually refined musicianship, which spoke from every note and every bar he played and singled him out as the most original and unequaled pianist in the world. One listened entranced, …to the beauty of tone… I have never heard the virtuoso piece Islamey by Balakirev, as Rubinstein played it, and his interpretation of Schumann’s little fantasy The Bird as Prophet was inimitable in poetic refinement: to describe the diminuendo of the pianissimo at the end of the fluttering away of the little bird would be hopelessly inadequate. Inimitable, too, was the soul-stirring imagery in the Kreisleriana, the last (G minor) passage of which I have never heard anyone play in the same manner. One of Rubinstein’s greatest secrets was his use of the pedal. He himself very happily expressed his ideas on the subject when he said, ‘The pedal is the soul of the piano. No pianist should ever forget this.’
Up through the 1940s, the BSO played his fourth concerto as often as Tchaikovsky’s first. So, why has Anton Rubinstein’s music been mostly forgotten? Possibly because it was written for his hands and his particular talent. The Concerto in F is structurally weak, and the finger-work is almost stunt-like; one unrelated sound vignette after another, improvisations even, to showcase the composer’s masterful technique.
And yet, his music, when well-played, is tremendously enjoyable. My publisher has a particular fondness for the best of Rubinstein’s songs and chamber music and considers his opera, The Demon a real contender. Once upon a time Rubinstein’s Melody in F was perhaps the worlds most beloved encore.