Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 6
Gilbert Varga, cond;
Michael Halász, cond;
NAXOS 8.555394 (63:39)
With this release of Anton Rubinstein’s Sixth Symphony, Naxos completes its transfer of the composer’s symphonies from their original 1980s Marco Polo discs, which, by the way, are now available as MP3 downloads. It should be noted, however, that in the case of this final transfer, Naxos has sweetened the pot, so to speak, by adding Rubinstein’s
to the disc to compensate for the paltry 43-minute playing time of the Marco Polo CD, which was reviewed by John Bauman in 11:2. In the label’s original Rubinstein survey,
was paired with the composer’s G-Major Violin Concerto, op. 46, on 8.220359.
Only as recently as 37:3, I reviewed Naxos’s transfer of Rubinstein’s Fifth Symphony, mentioning in passing that I was not familiar with the composer’s last two symphonies because I’d never gotten beyond collecting the first four when they came out on Marco Polo. Now, with the arrival of No. 6, I finally have them all.
I’m not sure there’s a great deal more to say about Rubinstein’s Sixth Symphony than I have not already said about his Fifth. In another one of those all-too-common and comical discrepancies in the “them’s the facts” department, the Symphony, according to imslp.org, was published in1885, a year before Wikipedia claims it was written, 1886. Sounds like a neat trick, if you can pull it off. But better yet is Keith Anderson’s liner note to the present disc, which gives the composition date as 1866, 20 years earlier, which I’m sure had to be a typo, since it would mean that Rubinstein composed his Sixth Symphony 14 years before his Fifth.
Although Tchaikovsky benefitted from the formal training he received under Rubinstein and others at the St. Petersburg Conservatory between 1862 and 1865, by the time Rubinstein came to compose his last two symphonies, it was clearly the elder man who was being influenced by the younger. There are no direct quotations of Tchaikovsky’s works I’m aware of in Rubinstein’s Sixth Symphony, but there are craftily concealed clues one hears in the contours of the melodies, the harmonic sequences, the orchestration, and the character of the dramatic flare-ups that tell us Rubinstein was more than passingly familiar with Tchaikovsky’s first four symphonies and other of his pre-1880 orchestral works. And so, as I said in my earlier review of Rubinstein’s Fifth Symphony, the Sixth is likewise a generously appointed work in the grand Romantic tradition, abundantly endowed with big ideas and the musical wherewithal necessary to achieve them. This time, however, both the recording and the performance, with a different orchestra and conductor, are a considerable improvement over the previously no-more-than-passable Fifth.
If relations between Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky were strained, the two men, grudgingly perhaps, had a good deal of respect for each other, for in 1871, just one year after Rubinstein completed his
, Tchaikovsky made an arrangement of the piece for solo piano. I’m not sure where the “Humoresque,” subtitle, which I reproduced from the album jacket and notes in the headnote, comes from, for other sources I checked refer to the piece as “a musical picture after Cervantes.”
Nonetheless, whatever extra-musical descriptive title one wishes to give it, the work falls formally into the category of tone poem, and a very effective one it is indeed. It may be Rubinstein’s finest compositional achievement. Though there’s humor in the piece depicting the Don’s run-in with a flock of sheep, and passages of nobility depicting knightly deeds of gallantry and valor, Rubinstein’s psychological profile of the Don paints a portrait rather darker and more tragic than does the treatment of the same subject by Strauss. Strauss, I think, tended to identify with the heroes and anti-heroes of his tone poems—
Don Juan, Macbeth, Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote
, the composer in
, and the happily housetrained husband and father in
—seeing a bit of himself in each of them. Rubinstein, on the other hand, seems to have viewed the Don as an immoral reprobate fully deserving of his ignominious fate. The music dwells largely in the minor mode and rises to some intensely dramatic climaxes. In the end, though, Rubinstein does allow the Don the dignity to die in the arms of a comforting chorale.
As well-performed as the Symphony is by Gilbert Varga and the Philharmonia Hungarica, they are trumped by Michael Halász and the Slovak Philharmonic in
. Together on the same CD, they make a compelling case for this reissue, one of the best, I’d say, in this series. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Don Quixote, Op. 87 by Anton Rubinstein
Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1870; Russia
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