Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 9
Jose Serebrier, Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Warner Classics & Jazz

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936), like Jean Sibelius, was a figure whose creative juices dried up some years before the end of his life. In 1910 he left the piano score of the single movement of his unfinished Ninth Symphony with his friend Maximilian Steinberg when he emigrated from Russia and never returned to it, or any other symphonic score, in the years remaining to him. One may argue that in the case of Sibelius, the loss to the world of music was the greater, but, as Jose Sebrier and the RSNO demonstrate in the present 2-CD slimline, the last installment in their cycle of the Glazunov symphonies, the Russian had something to say, too.

The trouble with Glazunov was perhaps that he was too slick for his own good. All his symphonies are lushly orchestrated, particularly in his string scoring, and he was one of the first composers to consider the saxophone a serious member of the orchestra (witness his choice writing for the instrument in the Andante of Symphony No. 2 in F Minor, a work that was popular in its day, having made a hit at the 1899 Paris Exposition). He was great when it came to contrasting themes and heroic gestures, and he knew how to use the resources of the orchestra.

But, it’s a funny thing: Glazunov’s symphonies don’t make a lasting impression on the listener. Like a holiday filled with excitement and colorful incidents that you can’t recall very distinctly afterwards, I found that a short time after auditioning any of the four symphonies on this disc, I was unable to recall any of the details.

A major problem with Glazunov is a failure to develop his themes. This was a weakness of The Mighty Five and the school of Russian composers who followed in their wake. They consciously rejected the principles of the classical symphony in favor of increased color and nationalistic concerns, and Glazunov followed suite. He was a great melodies and was quite adept at thematic transformation, but that is not the same as developing themes. And the strange thing about themes is, if you don’t develop them, you lose them.

An example of Glazunov at his best is the Andante of Symphony No. 3, with its Tristan-esque chromaticism and the intriguing way the composer re-starts the movement after what has apparently been a consoling ending, working his way instead to a somewhat darker conclusion. But, rather than follow up on the possibilities this slow movement has opened, Glazunov opts instead for an unrelated tour-de-force of thematic transformations in his finale.

Serebrier, taking his cue from indications of flexibility in Glazunov’s own performance scores that are not in the printed editions, has striven for a vibrant interpretation of these forgotten symphonies, rather than taking this music metronomically as too many others have done. As a result, these recordings present the candid listener with a fair, objective impression of the composer’s intentions.

One Response to “Alexander Glazunov”
  1. john mclaughlin williams says:

    The first three symphonies of Glazunov are essentially youth works, and are far from being characteristic of his greatest works. (His first symphony was written when he was but 16.) No. 3 is actually a transitional work in which he confronted the problems of being a nationalistic composer along the lines of The Five as opposed to following a more cosmopolitan road. His five later, complete symphonies all bear witness to an extraordinary ability in development and variation, a singular lyric gift and a deepening of expression. In exploiting developmental and contrapuntal resources, Glazunov was arguably second only to Taneyev. (Quick examples are the finales of Symphonies 4 & 7, String Quartets 5 & 6.) By the 8th symphony every aspect of a theme is gist for development or variation; there is an integration there that equals contemporaneous works written on the continent, and that sets Glazunov apart from his Russia peers.

    It pains me to see at this late date Glazunov remains one of the more misunderstood composers of the Romantic era. We certainly all appreciate the review, but this does show the necessity of taking into account an entire life of composition lest a misleading snapshot of a composer becomes received knowledge.

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