CD of the Week – Anton Rubinstein: Persian Love Songs
Solo vocal recital discs flood my desk. Few grip the ear so fast and tight as this delightful discovery from a composer deservedly forgotten. Anton Rubinstein was bigger in his day than Tchaikovsky and far more powerful in Moscow, where he cofounded the conservatory with his brother Nikolai, who vetoed Tchaik’s first concerto.
Anton looked like Beethoven and had a big recital following on both sides of the Atlantic. His compositions faded to dust after his death in 1894; a recent release of the fourth concerto beside Rachmaninov’s third confirms the ruthless verdict of history: he was never a composer of arresting originality.
So when a set of Rubi songs arrived from something called Theartsongproject.com, I did not expect it to detain me for long. Three hearings later, I am still delighted. Soprano Hélène Lindqvist and her partner Philipp Vogler strike a fine balance with these sets of imperialist swagger, never taking it altogether at face value.
Rubinstein’s idea of Persian music was a few chazzanic melismas from his Jewish childhood running up and down the scales amid sentimental avowals of eternal devotion in high middle German. Some of the songs are by Goethe and Heine, who should have known better, but the formula is attractive enough to sustain an hour’s listening and the mind is drawn inexorably to the late-romanticism of Byron and the tricks it performed on the political imagination of the 19th century. Musically, Rubi does nothing ground-breaking. He is a template of his times and the songs have the sultry adhesiveness of 1970s California rock. Try some. You won’t regret it.
More Russian discoveries
There is more to Achron (1886-1943) than a Hebrew Melody made popular by Jascha Heifetz. Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez spin out two and half hours’ worth, too much for one listening but plenty of surprises in the Suite Bizarre, and in another children’s suite that Heifetz adapted from a clarinet/string quartet original. Hagai Shaham has terrific kitsch control, essential in this syrupy music.
11 variations on a Russian folksong by various composers is eight too many for my liking, but Stravinsky’s Concertino and Schnittke’s little-known elegy for Stravinsky are standouts in this very mixed bag.
A Japanese pianist of high promise, Kusunoki gives a vivacious account of the Medtner G-minor sonata, tempering its morbidity with youthful verve. Her approach, less effective in Scriabin’s B-minor fantasy, is fully vindicated in Rachmaninov’s Moments musicaux and snippets of Liapunov. This is the sound of an artist who knows her own mind.
Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.