Steinberg: Symphony No. 1 in D; Prélude symphonique, Op. 7; Fantaisie dramatique, Op. 9

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COMPOSERS: Steinberg
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in D; Prélude symphonique, Op. 7; Fantaisie dramatique, Op. 9
PERFORMER: Gothenburg SO/Neeme Järvi
CATALOGUE NO: 457 607-2
History knows Maximilian Steinberg (1883-1946) principally as Shostakovich’s teacher at the Leningrad Conservatory and the dedicatee of Stravinsky’s Fireworks. Recently Richard Taruskin has revealed the young Steinberg’s and Stravinsky’s bitter rivalry (at least, Stravinsky was bitter about it) for recognition as Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘favourite musical son’. Steinberg won the contest (he even married Rimsky’s daughter), but little good it did him in the long run, while Stravinsky split off from the St.Petersburg School to become a master in his own right.

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These three works illustrate that early period. Steinberg’s First Symphony (1905-6), displaying much the same epigonic blend of Glazunov and Tchaikovsky as Stravinsky’s Symphony in E flat (1905), is better scored and more sophisticatedly put together; it avoids Stravinsky’s blatant plagiarisms, yet lacks the few gleams of vagrant originality that redeem his work. It’s an identikit late-Nationalist Russian symphony, given a highly enjoyable performance here but ultimately forgettable. However Steinberg’s brooding Prelude Symphonique in memory of Rimsky-Korsakov, making use of his father-in-law’s last sketches, is a much more distinctive piece of powerful atmospheric and harmonic invention, with striking use of the piano as an orchestral instrument. The 1910 Fantaisie Dramatique after Ibsen’s Brand also carries conviction in a feverish, Scriabinesque vein. All in all, worth hearing, even if there’s little reason to rewrite history. Calum MacDonald