Shelest and Järvi make the most of Rubinstein concertos

In the 19th Century Russia, one composer towered over the rest. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky, any member of the Might Five. It was Anton Rubinstein. Rubinstein was prolific, and one of the first to assimilate Western musical tradition into Russian composition.

Rubinstein was a piano virtuoso (among other talents), and his five piano concertos were the bar that other Russian concertos were measured against. This recording presents two of them, the third and fifth concertos.

This is the second of a three-part series of Rubinstein Concertos. Anna Shelest and Neeme Järvi recorded Piano Concerto No. 4 in 2017. The final volume with Concerto No. 2 is slated to appear next year.

This release features the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (ENSO), along with Shelest and Järvi. These are big, brawny concertos, and that’s just the interpretation they get. Shelest sweeps up and down the keyboard with aplomb. Järvi and the ENSO paint the accompaniment in broad strokes.

These are powerful performances. I think they show the appeal of Rubinstein — highly dramatic and highly appealing. But these concertos don’t quite have the staying power of, say, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

In the liner notes, Elena Sorokinam characterizes the works as “a kind of modeling of one whole out of fragments, often resembling a change of pictures to a theatrical effect.” It’s an accurate description, showing both the strengths and weaknesses of Rubinstein’s music.

Nevertheless, Shelest and Järvi make the most of the material. The material may be a little weak, but the performances are first-rate.

Anton Rubinstein: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 5
Anna Shelest, piano
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, conductor
Sorel SC CD 014

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