Han Chen delivers pristine performances of Anton Rubinstein sonatas

Anton Rubinstein, both as a pianist and a composer, was wildly popular with the general public. His colleagues, though, had a different opinion. Russian musicians considered him too German (and Germans too Russian). Although he had tremendous technical ability, Franz Liszt remained unimpressed, calling him ‘a Pseudo-musician of the Future’.

Shortly after his death, Rubinstein’s music lapsed into obscurity. It’s now enjoying something of a renaissance.

This release features two of Rubinstein’s piano sonatas, plus Three Serenades.

The first sonata, written in 1848 is a sprawling, thunderous work. Stylistically, I thought it a blend of Beethoven piano effects with Schubert melodic form. These two elements blend quite well, creating a sonata that’s substantial musically, and challenging technically.

Ditto the second sonata finished two years later. Liszt seems to be the inspiration here. The music is more complex and decidedly more difficult.

Pianist Han Chen may be young, but he has the technique to do Rubinstein’s music justice. No matter how complicated or rapid the passage, Chen plays cleanly and expressively.

And Chen’s performances never let the pyrotechnics distract the listener. Chen integrates all the flourishes, chordal runs, and contrapuntal passages into the overall flow of the music.

The Three Serenades are positioned between the two sonatas. These are simple, tuneful compositions that provide welcome relief between the powerhouse sonatas.

Does this release “prove” that Rubinstine was Liszt’s equal? Perhaps not. But Han Chen does show that Rubinstein’s solo piano music is worthy of our attention. I’d say Liszt’s assessment was a little off the mark.

Anton Rubinstein: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2; Three Serenades
Han Chen, piano|
Naxos 8-573989

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