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Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Symphony No. 6 in A minor, Op. 111 (1866) [42:30]
Don Quixote - Humoresque for Orchestra, Op. 87 (1870) [21:09]
Philharmonia Hungarica/Gilbert Varga (symphony)
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Halász
rec. Reduta, Bratislava, 1985; Stadthalle Orr-Erkeuschwick, Germany, 1986 (symphony)
NAXOS 8.555394 [63:39]

These two recordings originally appeared on separate full-priced Marco Polo discs - remember Marco Polo? - which explains their diverse venues, not to mention their venerable recording dates. Joined here, they comprise a logical program.

Anton Rubinstein holds his footnote in music history as Tchaikovsky's composition teacher; a symphony like the A minor, however, sets you wondering what exactly he might have taught the younger composer, or how. The first movement is practically a concatenation of Rubinstein's compositional shortcomings. The exposition offers a turbulent but aimless first theme, and a short-winded transition into a chorale, which builds to an admittedly impressive climax. After that, it's all a jumble, with the composer throwing out unrelated themes, one after the other; the structure becomes unfathomable. Too many portentous musical gestures collapse into melodrama, and Rubinstein doesn't know what to do with rhythmic or melodic motifs except repeat them. When he does come up with a good idea, he sabotages it in short order: the appealing, liquid horn chorale at 6.27 is immediately repeated in double staccatos by the woodwinds, and it sounds clumsy.

The Moderato assai begins promisingly, with string phrases that produce a sense of motion for a time, but it soon hits a lull. A broad, curlicued oboe melody follows, and the movement builds to an assertive climax of nothing in particular. The scampering Scherzo, at least, holds a measure of interest: it's sprightly, punctuated by abrupt, pointillistic tuttis, as if Berlioz had attempted a German scherzo. At 3:22, just as you think the movement has ended, it picks up again and goes off in a new direction.

The final Moderato assai, at its best, has an appealing Russian folk flavor, with varied, colourful orchestrations, but everything repeats too much: the tuneful, shapely opening theme; the dancing folk-like oboe melody at 2.30; and the bounding, extroverted string theme at 5:27, the movement's actual main theme. The oboe melody actually does duck briefly into the minor. The development's whirling energy carries it, but it's a bit too little, too late.

The Philharmonia Hungarica, under Gilbert Varga's ungalvanic leadership, is competent, though the string tone lacks sheer heft: unisons, in particular, are never imposing enough. The players dig into the finale with enthusiasm, and with a few fuzzy tuttis.

In Don Quixote, the musical materials are altogether more interesting, though they tend to devolve in strange ways, as when a too-brief waltz segues into a march. Ultimately, however, this score, like the symphony, throws too many aurally unrelated themes at us, one after the next, like a less structured version of the bigger Liszt tone-poems. Here we get a better orchestra, the solid Slovak Philharmonic, and a conductor, Michael Halász, who invests the numerous dotted and triplet rhythms with a lively spring. But he can't supply a through-line where the composer didn't.

The sound is good in the symphony; it's more vivid in Don Quixote, though the woodwind choir sounds oddly hollow, as if the ambience were dominating the direct sound.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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