Notes and Editorial Reviews
"Perhaps no one has ever conducted Glazunov's music with more color and verve..." -
The New Yorker
Symphonies: No. 3 in D; No. 9 in D
No. 2 in f?; No. 1 in E
José Serebrier, cond; Royal Scottish Natl O
WARNER 68904 (2 CDs: 136:36)
The impact Glazunov’s Symphony
No. 1 had on a distinguished audience at its St. Petersburg premiere on March 17, 1882, is difficult for us to comprehend without some context. Few native Russian symphonies of worth existed before 1882: Tchaikovsky’s first four were available, as well as the completed pair of Borodin, and on a lower level, the first five by Anton Rubinstein. That’s all. Nor were performances of this small group more than an occasional feature of Russian concert life, thanks to an absence of ongoing professional orchestras, and a critical establishment that was equivocal at best to its native-grown classical music. Glazunov’s accomplishment was thus all the more startling in its folk-based inspiration and self-assuredness. Having the 16-year-old composer accept the audience’s thunderous applause in his college uniform, emphasizing his age, certainly helped heighten the drama of the occasion, but it also led to gossip that Glazunov’s wealthy parents had ordered the work premade from one of several other composers.
That rumor died under repeated assaults of the truth as Glazunov’s career began its ascent. While the First Symphony was expansive, luxuriant, and brilliant, the Second, composed in 1886 and premiered three years later in Paris, placed far more attention on thematic linkage and developmental complexity. It also displayed a characteristic of Glazunov’s more ambitious compositions that would come to the fore over the next few years: an earnest desire to incorporate new structural and expressive elements into a nationalist framework. The results were to become increasingly uneven in the Third Symphony, completed in 1890, and the Fourth, in 1893. The Symphony No. 5 of 1895 represented a temporary resolution at a more ambitious compositional level, but by the Eighth Symphony of 1906, Glazunov was attempting a second synthesis between the conventional Russian symphony, and his increasingly wayward harmonic language.
His Ninth Symphony was to prove a victim of the intense creative energy placed into directing the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he took a personal interest in all classes and each student. Only the first movement was completed (1910), and that, in piano score. He left it in 1928 to his friend and fellow Rimsky-Korsakov student Maximilian Steinberg, shortly before moving to France. Conductor Gavriil Yudin orchestrated it in 1947–48. It offers up a fascinating landscape of emotionally shifting and tension-laden contours, with a preference for contrapuntal procedures that had always been present in his music, but seldom to this extent. A shame the Ninth was never completed, given how far Glazunov had traveled in his own very personal direction, and along his road to mastery of unconventional form.
The composer’s symphonies fell into phonographic disregard following the collapse of the Soviet Union. (At one point there was even a U.S. LP series release on Columbia of several Soviet-era Glazunov symphonic recordings, with extensive liner notes by a critic who personally disliked nearly all the works.) Matters have improved of late, but the style of conducting required to make the most of this music has been sadly lacking. Anissimov/Moscow SO is crude and sketchy; Polyansky/Russian State SO is interested in nothing but a rich, undifferentiated string sound. Svetlanov/U.S.S.R. SO lacks discipline and inspiration. Järvi/Bamberg SO is sometimes unfocused, and features a second-rate orchestra. Otaka/BBC Natl O of Wales offers a fine ensemble and eloquent slow movements, but moves through everything else with a somnambulant, even tread.
Serebrier has provided a consistently bright spot amidst all this. His handling of color is notable—as his use of flutes and clarinets in the First Symphony’s finale demonstrates, or the carefully limned tripartite of textures at the entry of the trio in the Second Symphony’s Scherzo. The RSNO has drawn applause from me in the past for its warmth and technical polish, but under Serebrier, the various solo and sectional entries acquire distinctive character. One bonus to this approach is that the occasional inconsistency in compositional quality stands out less. Thus the First Symphony’s overlong Andante convinces far better because of the beauty Serebrier clearly relishes in its immediate detail.
The most impressive thing about these performances, however, is the conductor’s understanding of Romantic musical theatricality. He doesn’t simply perform the notes, as some do who think a score is literally the entire work. Instead, he brings into play the full panoply of rhetorical devices available to the modern orchestra—phrasing, balance, flow, etc.—to create a convincing performance. As this is Russian music on a grand scale, Serebrier scales his interpretations accordingly, and such flourishes as the repeated changes in tempo during the first thematic statement of the Second Symphony’s Andante make eminent sense.
I only very occasionally question some tempo choices, especially that set for the Third Symphony’s finale; Khaikin/Moscow RSO (long deleted) was less stolid. Overall, however, these performances set standards that beat my old favorites, including Yevgeny Akulov/Moscow RSO in the First, Khaikin in the Second and Third, and Yudin, the orchestrator, in the Ninth. As the Akulov and Yudin in particular suffered from atrocious sound, the transparent, close miking Phil Rowlands provides for all four works is all the more appreciated.
Top marks, in other words, and a must for fans of the composer. Let’s look forward to the rest of the cycle; and then, who knows? Perhaps Balakirev, Kalinnikov, or Glière’s
? The first version of Rachmaninoff’s Third? Glazunov’s concertos? There are no conductors as well suited to this music nowadays as Serebrier.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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