If you have heard Stephen Wade do his monologue on Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein in the Old Vat Room, you have to regret that there was no way of recording the piano adequately during Rubinstein's lifetime (1829-1894). He was second only to Liszt among the pianists of his time -- not meticulous about such things as wrong notes, but intent on making his instrument roar with intense passion and sing with the most sensuous tone. Lovers of formal perfection found much to criticize in his playing. But he gave great satisfaction to those who wanted music to take them by storm -- a large group in the 19th century as, indeed, today.

"He plays like a god," wrote the formidable critic Eduard Hanslick, "and we are not offended if, like Jupiter, he sometimes changes into a bull." Wade's monologue (devised over a century ago by one George Bagby in memory of Rubinstein's epic American tour) is even more graphic: "he lifted himself bodily into the air, and he came down with his knees, fingers, toes, elbows and his nose, striking every single solitary key on the pianner{note:cq} at the same time."

As a composer, Rubinstein is widely known and beloved for one work that lasts only a minute or two: the Melody in F, familiar to elementary students on a variety of instruments and still favored by many violinists as an encore piece. But he was highly prolific, producing six symphonies, five piano concertos and several for other instruments, more than a dozen operas, oratorios and ballets, tone poems and a lot of solo piano compositions and chamber music. (In his spare time, he founded the Imperial Conservatory in St. Petersburg and served as its first director.)

His music was conservative in style and, though very popular with audiences during his lifetime, had trouble with critics. It dropped out of use not long after his death, presumably never to return. But a century or more after their composition, some of his works are beginning to find a new audience, perhaps as part of the renewed interest in romanticism. One of the most vigorous promoters of Rubinstein is the Marco Polo label, owned by Hong Kong Records and interested, as its name indicates, in exploring unfamiliar musical territory.

A few hours spent with Marco Polo's compact discs of Rubinstein's music will give one clue to why he had so much trouble with critics, and particularly with other Russian composers. He soounds like a German (listeners might think of Brahms or Mendelssohn), though there is an occasional faint foretaste of the kind of music that would be composed by Rubinstein's student, Tchaikovsky.

Russian music, when it began to seek its identity, tended to find its affinities in French orchestration and Oriental subjects. Rubinstein lived in an age of intense nationalism in Russian music, and his German training and tastes were not appreciated by the members of "The Mighty Five," who became the standard-bearers of that nationalism. In his own words, Rubinstein was "considered a Russian in Germany and a German in Russia." The fact that he was Jewish did not help. And such gentlemanly amateur composers as Borodin, Cui and Glinka tended to look down on his professionalism.

The two works that make the strongest impression on a first hearing are his "Ocean" Symphony (No. 2) and his Violin Concerto in G, Op. 46, both of which are performed for Marco Polo by the Slovak Philharmonic. The "Ocean" Symphony, which began with the standard four movements in 1851, grew to a seven-movement epic (evoking the "Seven Seas") by 1880. On Marco Polo compact disc 8.220449, American conductor Stephen Gunzenhauser leads a vivid, well-recorded performance of that final, seven-movement version. The music is expertly crafted and often colorfully descriptive; it might benefit from a bit of structural tightening here and there, but its appeal grows with repeated hearings.

The same is true of the Violin Concerto, which is conducted by Michael Halasz with Takako Nishizaki playing a brilliant solo. It is well-made music of no great originality but considerable charm, and it could find an affectionate audience if it became better-known. On the same disc (8.220359) is a "Humoresque" for orchestra, a comic tone poem titled "Don Quixote" that shows a fine knowledge of orchestration and a knack for musical description. It was eclipsed, of course, by the "Don Quixote" of Richard Strauss, one of the pinnacles of Romantic orchestral music, which was composed a few years after Rubinstein's death.

The Symphony No. 6 in A minor has a splendidly dramatic first movement that is almost matched by the lyric second and energetic, playful third movements. The music loses some of its impetus in the finale, but the rest is so appealing that many listeners will welcome it anyway. On Marco Polo 8.220489, this symphony's attractions are eloquently presented by the Philharmonia Hungarica and conductor Gilbert Varga.

Finally, on Marco Polo 8.220451, Michael Halasz conducts the Slovak Philharmonic expertly in ballet music from three of Rubinstein's operas: "Feramors," "The Demon" and "Nero." Some of the music suffers from the pointlessness that marks so much 19th-century ballet music before Tchaikovsky, but there are some flashes of color and even (notably in the Lesginka from "The Demon") hints of the Russian nationalism in which Rubinstein's colleagues found him wanting. Philip Jones Brass Ensemble The latest recording of London's Philip Jones Brass Ensemble carries on an ancient tradition with a new brilliance. On a bright-sounding CD (London 417354-2), this highly skilled brass band plays its own arrangements of highlights from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" and Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera," providing significant additions to the brass ensemble repertoire and a special delight to those fairly numerous people who love the tunes but can do without the words.

Both composers made orchestral arrangements from their shows, Bernstein with his Symphonic Dance Suite from "West Side Story" and Weill with his "Little Threepenny Music." But the special bite of brass sound with nothing else but percussion is well-suited to the gritty flavor of both scores, and the performance on this disc is brilliant. The "West Side Story" arrangement uses the same large group (including five trumpets, four horns and three percussionists) that was used for the Jones Ensemble's "Pictures at an Exhibition." The Weill transcription uses a smaller ensemble, reflecting the leaner sound of his original orchestration.

This sort of spinoff has been going on for at least two centuries -- a lot longer if we include instrumental transcriptions of madrigals that were popular in the Renaissance. In the dinner scene of "Don Giovanni," Mozart makes a wry allusion to the instrumental pirating of his operatic melodies. A small woodwind group, serenading the Don as he dines, plays tunes from a number of then-popular operas, including Mozart's own "Marriage of Figaro."

Many such arrangements were current in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a few are now finding their way to records. Julius Rudel, a well-known operatic conductor, has recorded two on Musicmasters compact discs with the Amadeus Ensemble, a first-class group of eight woodwind players and a string bass, mostly from New York orchestras. The 1791 arrangements from "The Marriage of Figaro" (MMD 6017Y) take some of the greatest operatic melodies ever written and wrap them in the gentle, distinctively colored sound of woodwinds. The texture is somewhat richer and the sense of dramatic action more vivid in the 1814 arrangements from Beethoven's "Fidelio" (MMD 60110F). Both programs are well-performed and recorded and can be recommended to those who love woodwind sound as well as opera fans.

Russian Rhapsody Glasnost has never sounded better than it does on two new compact discs of Russian music, played by Russian orchestras, produced and distributed by Mobile Fidelity Records. The Russian Melodiya label has been in and out of American record catalogues, under such Western auspices as EMI and CBS, since the 1950s as various companies made contracts with MK (Mezhdunarodny Kniga or "International Book"), the government-owned Soviet monopoly that deals in phonograph records as well as books.

In the 1950s and '60s, the sound of Melodiya Records tended to be awful. Whatever its achievements in outer space, Soviet technology had trouble with the down-to-earth problems of frequency response, balancing of sound and suppression of extraneous noise. The records often sold well because of legendary performers or repertoire that was otherwise unavailable, but never because of the sound.

The Soviet engineers began to catch up in the '70s, and the newest Melodiya items meet the high technical standards of Mobile Fidelity. The discs are labeled "original master recordings," but the absence of the word "digital" seems to indicate that the master tapes (brought out to West Germany for processing) were analog.

In any case, the USSR TV and Radio Large Symphony Orchestra sounds excellent in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances (MFCD 858) and Tchaikovsky's tone poems "Romeo and Juliet" and "Francesca da Rimini" (MFCD 864). Neither of the conductors, Vladimir Fedoseyev for the Rachmaninoff and Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov {both names cq. jm} for the Tchaikovsky, is well-known in the West, but both sound like experts.

Program notes for both these discs are given in Russian as well as English, making one wonder whether they are intended for import into the USSR (where CD production capacity is presumably zero) as well as distribution in the West. In any case, one thing Melodiya should learn quickly about CDs is that they cost more but they are also supposed to play longer. The Tchaikovsky disc runs 43 minutes and 25 seconds, the Rachmaninoff just under 35 minutes. This is skimpy timing by traditional LP standards and far too little for CDs, which can hold up to 75 minutes of music. If the orchestra had played a little faster, both records could have been included on one CD.