The Naxos label's recordings of music by Anton Rubinstein fit in with its more general effort to revive late Romantic music that fell out of favor thanks to people who believed dogmatically in progress, or in nationalism, for Rubinstein was the most Western-oriented of Russian composers of the period, and some musicians have never forgiven him for it. Hard as it may seem to believe for a composer once so well loved, both the pieces included receive their premiere recordings here. The major one is the Theme and Variations, Op. 88, composed in 1871. Both Liszt and Busoni (who may indeed have been influenced by it) admired this work, and it is hard to understand how pianists could have let it fall into disuse. Although most of the variations are of a fairly conventional sort, the structure of the work is innovative. There are two large variations, the eighth (track 9) and the concluding twelfth (track 13), where the virtuosity that has been bubbling under the surface of the more straightforward variations blasts through. The finale is a tour de force in which a chorale-like statement of the theme is filled in with increasingly dense counterpoint over more than 10 minutes of music. American pianist Joseph Banowetz, who has recorded piano music by various Russian composers of the 19th century, captures the combination of virtuosity with a certain formality in Rubinstein's music, and he delivers evocative readings of the Akrostichon No. 2, Op. 114, which despite its vaguely occult name consists merely of a set of character pieces (the name refers to labels for the individual movements that spell out the name of the work's dedicatee, a female student of Rubinstein's). Some may wish for more sheer power in the climaxes of the Theme and Variations, but the sound, from Marin County's Skywalker Studios, is a strong point. Booklet notes, introducing Rubinstein's life as well as these specific works, are in English only.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Theme and Variations, Op. 88|
|Akrostichon No. 2, Op. 114|