CD Reviews: 19th century Russian piano music long on charm, short on sustained interest
Naxos recently released two new discs of piano music by 19th century Russian Antons: Rubinstein (1829-1894) and Arensky (1861-1906), both nicely interpreted by American pianists.
The label wants to record as much of Western music as it possibly can. Having begun this project nearly a generation ago, we've reached the stage where there isn't an automatic case for appreciating the compositions being dusted off.
Knowing how tastes change from one age to another, it's possible that, if the planet is still spinning, someone in 2110 might find something of enduring value in these collections of short pieces. If nothing else, this is an easily accessible document of the musical sensibilities of people born before the advent of sound recording, without having to go look for old scores and learn how to play the pieces.
Most of the pieces on the Rubinstein disc, recorded by Joseph Banowetz in 2008, are world-premiere recordings. These pieces are much better suited to long winter nights by the fire than a concert hall. They're charming but, after the first few minutes, manage to sound remarkably similar despite the fact that the disc spans 42 years of Rubinstein's output. The music is full of repetition, which doesn't help.
This is anodyne, beige music, with all of the impact of great-grandma's tea-rose wallpaper and gold-bordered china. Rubinstein's real legacy is the founding of the music conservatory in St. Petersburg, which helped nurture later composers we hold so dear.
(As far as these world-premieres is concerned, there is a huge archive of Melodyia recordings somewhere in a Moscow basement, which, if it doesn't contain some of these pieces, means that even the ultra-conservative Soviets didn't find much of value in this music.) For all the details, including some sound samples, click on the disc image.
The music of Arensky, a product of Rubinstein's pioneering teaching, is more technically complex, more virtuosic and, consequently, better suited to a public piano recital. He was one of Sergei Rachmaninov's teachers -- a legacy that this album makes clear.
Adam Neiman's fleet, elegant interpretations (also recorded in 2008) of these Etudes and Esquisses makes for very pleasant listening. Visually, we have a tasteful, modern stripe instead of tea roses.
If I had to keep one of these two albums, I'd choose this one for its breezy feel. I certainly wouldn't mind hearing some of the 12 Etudes, Op. 74, or the six lovely Op. 52 Esquisses, subtitled "Près de la mer," (Near the Sea) in live performance. For details, click on the disc image.
Here is Richard Alston playing an Etude from the Pièces Charactéristiques, Op. 36, which are not on the disc. This interpretation lacks Neiman's finesse: