Anton Rubinstein, Cello Concerto No. 2

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Russia’s Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born November 28, 1829, in Vikhvatinets, Ukraine
Died November 20, 1894, in Peterhof, Russia
Composed in 1874
Performance Time: Approximately 29 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, and cello soloist

Anton Rubinstein, one of the most celebrated pianist-composers of the 19th century and founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, composed two cello concertos for his colleague Karl Davydov, whom Tchaikovsky described as the ‟tsar of all cellists.” The first major composer in Russia to write concertos for any instrument, Rubinstein had important European models to draw on, but he strove to ‟Russianize” those models—something his more radically nationalist contemporaries from the ‟Mighty Handful” gave him little credit for. Yet several of the themes in the present work are undeniably Russian in their melodic style, and the concerto consistently eschews the methods of thematic development that German composers from Beethoven to Brahms were so fond of using.

The concerto is an eminently melodic work, in three movements played without pause. The first movement is serious and expressive; the second, which begins with a chorale-like introduction scored for woodwinds, delicate and lyrical. Between the second and third movements, the soloist plays a cadenza, punctuated by orchestral interjections; this is followed by the finale, a rondo based on a melody clearly inspired by Russian folksong. After a second cadenza, the meter changes from duple and triple for a varied recapitulation of the main theme.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.