Rubinstein: Symphony No. 2 "Ocean" (CD review)

Also Ballet Music from Feramors. Igor Golovchin, State Symphony Orchestra of Russia. Delos DRD 2010.

If you're like me, you probably instantly recognize the name Anton Rubinstein and then, after a moment's reflection, say to yourself, "Wait a minute; maybe I'm thinking of Arthur Rubinstein. Or Anton Chekhov. Or Anthony Adverse." And then it occurs to you that you don't really know a lot about this Anton Rubinstein fellow, despite the seeming familiarity of his name.

I had a vague recollection that Anton Rubinstein was a nineteenth-century pianist, no relation to Arthur Rubinstein, the twentieth-century pianist, and that was about all. Yet Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was more than a piano whiz on the order of a Franz Liszt or Frederic Chopin; he was also a conductor and a composer, and on this reissued Delos disc we get what some critics consider the best of his six symphonies, the Symphony No. 2 "Ocean," with Maestro Igor Golovchin leading the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia.

Rubinstein wrote his Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 42, in 1851, and like most of the rest of his overtly Romantic compositions, it went out of favor with the public not long after his death. Rubinstein appears not only to have been a dyed-in-the-wool Romanticist, but a rather conservative one at that. Apparently, a later revision of the symphony went on for seven movements and nearly seventy-five minutes. What we get here is the original version with four movements at about forty-seven minutes.

The opening Allegro maestoso starts with a cheery, chirpy little seascape motif, which skips along in a kind of Mendelssohnian manner, reaching a big crescendo early on. Then it settles into some light lyrical passages, making the first movement alone thematically all over the map. Supposedly, Rubinstein intended the symphony to be programmatic, expressing Man's struggles with the elemental forces of Nature, or some such thing. As generic as that appears, the music is equally vague, moving as it does from one thing to another rather quickly. I suppose Golovchin does what he can with it, but the music seems more than a little bombastic and unfocused to me.

The Adagio that follows is quite poetic and better concentrated. The composer described it being deep as the sea and deep as the human soul, again seeming more high-minded in his ambitions than necessary. It might be best just to let the notes float over one like gentle waves or sea breezes, which seems Golovchin's major goal.

The zippy little Allegro-Scherzo represents the gaiety of a sailor's dance, and it makes a welcome change of pace.

In the concluding Adagio, we're back to intimations of Mendelssohn. While Rubinstein's Second Symphony may have been one of the first of its kind in Russia, it's obvious why it never lasted long in the popular mind. Rubinstein seems to have owed too much to too many.

Still, one cannot fault Maestro Golovchin or his players. They conjure up good spirits when necessary, nobility, tranquility, and grandeur in abundance, and they do so firmly and precisely yet with much spirit and enthusiasm.

The coupling is Rubinstein's ballet music from his opera Feramors, written in 1862. It is breezy, airy, melodic, elegant, vital, and fun. Frankly, I enjoyed these diverse dances more than I did the symphony, and Golovchin seems no less enthralled by them himself.

Delos recorded the music in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1993 and reissued it in 2012. In the symphony, the sound displays good inner detail and clarity, with more than adequate orchestral depth. However, it is also a tad bright in the upper midrange and miked a little distantly, creating a relatively narrow stereo spread. Moreover, the bass isn't quite prominent enough to balance the forward higher end, so the result, while sounding fairly transparent, is also a trifle thin. The ballet music, though, sounds better in all regards, with an especially good dynamic range and impact.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa