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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in G major, Op. 45 [29:46]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 94 [42:22]
Anna Shelest (Piano)
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. 2018 at Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn

Russian-born Anton Rubinstein wrote music in an unabashedly Romantic vein and achieved great fame in his lifetime as a keyboard virtuoso in about the same league as Franz Liszt. He also became a highly respected composer in his day, with eighteen operas, six symphonies and five piano concertos in his oeuvre, among a vast array of other works. Despite prejudice because of his Jewish parentage, he accomplished much else in his career, founding and guiding the St. Petersburg Conservatoire. As a composer, he is largely ignored today. Part of the reason for his faded reputation relates to his flawed grasp of musical structures in his concert music. If you compare the style of these two concertos to those of the three greatest Russian composers of piano concertos—Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev—you can immediately notice Rubinstein’s weaknesses. And, mind you, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov were not always themselves great models of formal tidiness and invention, but they, along with Prokofiev, were masters of form compared to Rubinstein.

In this pair of three-movement concertos, Rubinstein does use the sonata form in the opening movements, though in the Third it is more loosely employed. Yet, he tends to alternate passages played by the orchestra and the piano. The Third begins with a brief orchestral introduction, followed by a cadenza for the soloist, then continues in alternating fashion until each entity has played separately three different times. This same kind of alternating pattern is also in evidence in the Fifth, most notably in the Finale. When the piano and orchestra play together in the concertos, often the piano’s part consists of florid runs or other glitter; when the orchestra is deferential to the piano, it is sometimes just humming along in the background. Even after the two get together for a time, they often go their separate ways again, almost as if they are incompatible. On the plus side, Rubinstein could write beautiful and dynamic tunes, if not always memorable ones, and he created a recognisable and reasonably distinct style, even if it showed the influence of Liszt and Beethoven. Further, listeners who love piano music from the Romantic era, particularly those who have followed Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series, will likely find these concertos much to their taste.

They will find them especially so in this package from Sorel Classics since the performances are so outstanding. The Estonian National Orchestra plays brilliantly under the leadership of the venerable Neeme Järvi, but soloist Anna Shelest really steals the show with powerhouse accounts of the highest level. In this second issue (in her series to record all the works for piano and orchestra by Rubinstein), she plays with utter confidence and all-encompassing technique, which is no mean feat here. Joseph Banowetz, who has recorded all five of the Rubinstein concertos for Marco Polo, has spoken of the titanic difficulty of the Fifth. I haven’t seen the score or a live performance but the music does indeed sound possibly as difficult as the Prokofiev Second or the Rachmaninov Third and Ms. Shelest negotiates every virtuosic hurdle, every thorny passage with seeming ease.

Moreover, her interpretations make about the best possible case for these two concertos, as she overlooks no aspect of their rich Romantic nature. Melodies sing warmly: Listen to her sensitive phrasing of the main themes in the middle movements of both concertos, with the Third’s sounding appropriately more intimate and the Fifth’s sinewy and full-blooded, but still sensitive and beautiful. I’ve already spoken of her technical skills but I must say that rarely does a pianist dazzle the ear so consistently with such rippling passage work and blazing chords. All else is in place too, as rhythms have a spirited bounce (try the Finale of the Fifth), and dynamics are always well judged and subtly employed. Ms. Shelest has made several previous recordings for Sorel Classics, including two widely acclaimed discs, one featuring the Prokofiev First and Second Piano Concertos and the other Rubinstein’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Caprice Russe.

Among the rather slim competition, the aforementioned Banowetz is also quite convincing, especially in the Third, but his slower tempos, most notably in the middle movement of the Fifth, simply don’t work as well. Moreover, Shelest imparts a fierier character to the outer movements of the Fifth. For example, compare their finales: Shelest is spirited and vital, where Banowetz is somewhat earthbound. In addition, Järvi draws quite energetic playing from the Estonian musicians, eclipsing the solid effort of the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra Bratislava in the Fifth. Sorel Classics provides clear and well balanced sound reproduction and the album notes, by Anna Sorokina, are very informative. Actually, despite the reservations I expressed at the outset regarding Rubinstein’s form weaknesses, I found the concertos to be stronger works the more I listened to Shelest’s accounts of them. If this kind of repertory appeals to you by all means get it, as you will not be let down by these impressive performances.

Robert Cummings

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