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Glazunov (1865-1936) - Violin Concerto in A minor

Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov. Now, there's a name to conjure with! How many of his tunes spring immediately to mind? One certainly (The Seasons - Autumn), two at a pinch. Yet here was a key figure in Russian music about a hundred years ago. Balakirev, leader of the “Mighty Handful”, urged him to broaden his musical horizons. He did, with a vengeance. In the 1880s, through his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov he joined the rival “new” Russian Nationalist school. Belyayev, the group's sponsor, introduced the precocious Glazunov to Liszt, who was sufficiently impressed to foster his reputation abroad. Later, Glazunov became Rimsky-Korsakov's close friend and collaborator, joining the staff of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1899. An inspiration to pretty well all his students, Glazunov made a profound and lasting impression on the young Shostakovich. 

All very progressive - so far. During the turmoil of 1905, while Rimsky-Korsakov was getting sacked from the Conservatory for supporting the revolting students, Glazunov kept his head down - and picked up the job of Director once the dust had settled. He regarded Richard Strauss as “an infamous scribbler”, and would often depart disapprovingly during the premiere of a new work. Although it's thought that these ostentations were related to a degree of Dutch courage, it's as well to remember that he behaved rather better towards works of which he approved. At one time, he even inspired an English reporter to describe him as looking like a prosperous retired tea-planter, or even a bank manager. In the heady early years of the Soviet the authorities regarded his music, which had formerly been admired for its “boldness”, as “bourgeois”. 

Glazunov was thus a contradictory character, both of himself and of his circumstances. Justly praised for his promotion of cultural interbreeding between Russia and the West, he nevertheless took a conservative view of “new music”, which he reflected in his own music. But, when the World moved on, his music was, willy-nilly, left in limbo. This is a crying shame: like Mendelssohn's, Glazunov's music lacks rabble-rousing spectacle, but it is always finely-crafted, sensitively orchestrated, often ingeniously structured, and never less than imaginative. The short and sweet Violin Concerto is typical - the structure of the first movement is a brilliant ruse! 

1. Moderato - (2. Andante sostenuto) - Moderato: In keeping with his “bridge-building” reputation, Glazunov gives his first subject a refined “Russian” flavour, lingering then capricious. Starting with a strong descending phrase, the second subject is reminiscent of those violin obliggato numbers in Tchaikovsky's ballets. The expected development starts, but yields unexpectedly to (seemingly) a third subject, which turns out to be an admirably complementary, variational slow movement. By the time that the final “plunks” arrive, we are all thinking “Bruch G minor”. We are, of course, mistaken: violas and 'cellos calmly pick up the first subject, and the first movement development, recapitulation and cadenza follow, linking directly to . . . 

3. Allegro: More surprises are in store, but of a different kind. Festive gestures usher in the trumpets, positively prancing on the distinctive ritornello of a variational rondo cast in the cumulative style of a Russian dance, and festooned with a bewitching array of felicities. The subtle radiance of the earlier movements is upstaged by dazzling disco lights, as Glazunov creates colourful effects for his soloist and matches them, blow for blow, with complementary orchestral effects. I'm forced to wonder, just where has such music been kept hidden for most of my life? More to the point - why?

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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