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Alexander Konstantinovich GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Complete Orchestral Works - Volume 18

Masquerade – Incidental Music [35:33]
Two Pieces Op.14 [15:53]
Pas de caractére Op.68 [2:22]
Romantic Intermezzo Op.69 [11.09]
Gnesin Academy Chorus
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. Studio 5 Russian State TV & Radio Company, Moscow, 10-15 October 2006
NAXOS 8.570211 [66:57]


Experience Classicsonline

The Naxos mission to record all of Glazunov’s orchestral legacy has reached volume 18. Almost by definition that fact alone makes this review redundant. If you are a Glazunov acolyte you will have pre-ordered this disc as soon as it was advertised, but if you are new to his music I cannot imagine this disc being a point of entry of choice. Even though it proves to be a hugely charming disc few would claim that this music is central to one’s appreciation of the composer – there are other places to start for that. As with many of the other discs in the series Naxos make use of their Russian ‘house’ orchestra – The Russian Philharmonic this time under the baton of Dmitry Yablonsky. This is an orchestra whose playing can range from the inspired to the positively pedestrian so I’m pleased to report that on this occasion it is neat and alert with some aptly characterful solos taken when required. The recording too is clear and warm without some of that glassy resonance that occasionally afflicts the engineering from this source. Most interestingly added to the mix is the Gnesin Academy Chorus. More of their role in the music later but enough to say that they sing well and blend into the musical textures effectively.

The main work here is the thirty-six or so minutes of incidental music Glazunov wrote for a 1917 staging of Mikhail Lermontov’s 1835 play Masquerade. Keith Anderson’s detailed liner-note explains that this significant score by Glazunov existed only in manuscript. Confusion is compounded by the fact that the exact musical sequence and how they relate to the play is unclear. Hence we have a detailed synopsis of the play and in parallel a musical sequence that is satisfying in itself but not necessarily one that follows the action of the play. The problem arises from the fact the much of the score provides music for the various balls that constitute many of the scenes. Glazunov has composed a score that is both practical – as in the dance sequences above and emotionally illustrative, seemingly underlining the prevailing mood or emotion of a scene. The score is divided into twenty-six tracks running from a miniature fife and drum march lasting just seventeen seconds to a full blown Valse-Fantasie at five and a half minutes. The latter is authentic Glazunov, very much in the style of the similar movement from Raymonda or the Concert Waltzes. It could be argued that this continuity/similarity is both Glazunov’s strength and his weakness. Really it could date from any point during his compositional career and certainly as a piece dating from 1917 breaks no musical frontiers – although why should it if the requirement is for a romantic waltz. Glazunov’s fabled orchestral mastery is on display throughout – the previously mentioned fife and drum is a perfect example how just two instruments are used to perfect effect (track 14 – Pantomime 8). Elsewhere the greatest musical interest is provided in the movements featuring the chorus. The very opening track is instantly atmospheric and full of foreboding - the synopsis makes it clear that this is a dark and tragic play with echoes of Eugene Onegin and Othello. This is sung to great effect by the Gnesin Academy Chorus with a definite Russian colour to their sound that feels absolutely right although lacking that last ounce of deep implacable resonance. Apart from the cantatas used as fillers on Valery Polyansky’s cycle of the Glazunov Symphonies on Chandos there have not been many opportunities to hear Glazunov’s writing for voices. I particularly like the way he uses them colouristically on occasion. Elsewhere they sing a text in traditional style. Act IV of the play depicts the final descent into madness and death of the Othello-like character Arbenin. The music accompanying Act IV Scene 1 here (track 22) is a marvellous unaccompanied chorus. Sadly there is no text given in the liner notes. It is sung with a beautiful tonal blend and sensitivity – a real highlight of the disc – but I have no idea what they are saying. The tracks have been well sequenced so that the movements flow one to another – very important with many short cues. This is an excellent addition to the Glazunov discography. One interesting and diverting thought; Khachaturian’s suite Masquerade is also incidental music written for a 1941 production of the same play. Given the synopsis outlined by Keith Anderson I am even more at a loss as to how Khachaturian’s riotously good humoured music - at least as far the suite is a sample - fits!

The rest of the disc is filled with judiciously chosen pieces. Naxos has consistently shown considerable care and imagination with the couplings in this series and this disc is no exception. None of the music is revelatory or startling but in style and mood they match well. The two pieces forming Op. 14 are slight and charming and beautifully played here. Likewise the dance fragment that is the Pas de caractére Op.68. The largest single piece on the whole disc is the Romantic Intermezzo Op.69 which in turn is also the most familiar piece. It has appeared as a filler for part of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s symphony cycle on Olympia as well as Evgeny Svetlanov’s similar traversal on Melodiya. The title says it all – a lyrical slow movement in all but name it receives another sympathetic performance here although one that tends to the lugubrious. It runs about a minute longer than either of the other named versions. 

To summarise: an automatic purchase at this price for anyone with an interest in this composer or the byways of theatrical music. The comparison with Khachaturian’s suite is quite fascinating – two such varying responses to literally the same text. It is better engineered than some in this series and is conducted and played with sympathy and insight. 

Appealing yet very rare music performed with great aplomb.

Nick Barnard 




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