Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Anton Rubinstein's "perfunctory" Piano Concerto #4 is still a masterpiece


Let me discuss a minor potboiler and old warhorse, the Piano Concerto #4 in D Minor, Op. 70, composed in 1864 by Anton Rubinstein (note spelling).

In this performance, Raymond Lewenthal plays the work with the London Symphony conducted by Eleazar de Carvalho.

The work is notable because of its brute-force effectiveness with rather perfunctory, declamatory thematic and harmonic elements. Rachmaninoff used to play this, and it probably influences Rachmaninoff’s own writing (especially for the late Third Concerto).  But the work is a generic mixture of mid-Romantic styles, acknowledging Liszt, late Chopin, and late Brahms.  The folksy ground-bass theme that sets up the Finale is said to be a Russian dance, but the overall flavor of the work tends toward German romanticism.

The harmonic style has a habit of hanging on the dominant A Major, with the opening theme before it resolves into a march, and again as the folk-dance Finale opens.  The most original melodic writing occurs in the ¾ slow movement, which has the effect of an advanced Chopin-like nocturne (maybe with a hint of early Scriabin).


The 2/4 finale is largely monothematic (almost -- there is a tetrachord second theme that isn't used as much as it could be), and substitutes an impressive arrays of arpeggios and scales on top of the underlying bass instead of supply a “big tune” at the end.  The arpeggios may have inspired a similar effect toward the end of “Flirtation Avenue”, the ninth piece in the huge two-piano suite “Shy and Mighty” by Timo Andres (May 20, 2010).

As with the opening, the music tends to hang on the dominant (A), even secondarily to E, which could sound trite.  Nevertheless, the finale works because of its singlemindedness, like a perpetual motion machine, finally coming to a climax at the very end. There is a lot of harmonic posturing for the D Major triumph at the end, but because of the monothemism, there is no separate big theme; just a virtuoso elaboration of scales and trills on top of the “Snowpiercer” engine.

My own D Minor Sonata (1960), if orchestrated, might sound a bit like a Rubinstein concerto. I have similar harmonic nuances (that sound a but juvenile) but I do migrate to a big tune in the Finale, which is more like a traditional Rondo (and I bring back a cadenza-like development from the first movement before introducing the big tune, just like in Rach 3).

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