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Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, Op. 48 (1893)
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major, Op. 83 (1906)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka
Rec. 27 April 1997 (No. 4), 15 January 1998 (No. 8)
BIS CD 1378 [75.11]

Glazunovís talents were recognised early by famous and influential men. Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov arranged for his First Symphony to be performed in 1881, when Glazunov was a mere sixteen-year-old, and Franz Liszt presented the piece in Weimar later that same year.

Given such a start, it is hardly surprising that Glazunov developed into a leading figure in Russian musical life, especially in the years before the Revolution. In 1899 he was appointed Professor of Composition at the St Petersburg Conservatory, and six years later he was elevated to the position of Director.

Glazunov composed the Symphony No. 4 during 1893. The style is clearly Russian in character, with a special fusion that allows the folksong idiom of Russian nationalism to be blended with the epic proportions of the post-Beethoven romantic symphony. The structure is rather unusual, since there are three movements which are closely unified, though they contain a wide degree of contrast along with a fluent musical development.

Glazunov determined to bring a new dimension to his symphonic writing with this work: 'The orchestration should not be noticeable in itself but should still be sonorous, as in the case of an ideal piano under the hands of an ideal pianist, which should clearly display the intentions of its composition.' In other words, musical argument should be more important than local colour or virtuoso technique. Tadaaki Otaka takes Glazunov at his word, and with skilful playing and nicely ambient sound the music does have that purposeful symphonic line that the composer sought.

In Symphony No. 4 the strong sense of focus extends also to the quality of the orchestral sound. For this all credit to both the orchestra and the producer, Mike George. There are also some strongly characterized and distinctively Russian themes in the work, and these are beautifully moulded by Tadaaki Otaka and sensitively played whenever solo roles are taken. The woodwinds, in particular, show what a fine orchestra this is. There could be no better introduction to Glazunovís symphonic world than this.

The Symphony No. 8, written over a four year period to 1906, is somewhat less characterful, though it is still a strong example of a well written Russian romantic symphony. The fact that its composition engaged Glazunov for so long reflects upon the nature of the work, since it is a large and complex construction which confirms the nature and the manner of his symphonic priorities. Those who admire, say, the Second Symphony of Rachmaninov, will find much to enjoy here.

Otaka and his orchestra undoubtedly have the measure of the opening Allegro moderato, in which the music ranges from lyricism to heroism, but with a well argued symphonic logic. Next, the slow movement is given the unequivocal description, Mesto (Sad). This is music of tragedy and pathos, and in this carefully moulded performance the forebodings brought by the repetitions of the fate motif release a funereal procession. The music moves to an intense climax, Tchaikovskian in both style and delivery. While there is a magnificent breadth of symphonic development, this music might benefit most from the rich textures of an old-style Russian orchestral performance (though Russian orchestras sound less ĎRussianí today than used to be the case).

The Allegro third movement rushes like the wind, with short, dramatic and dance-like phrases which lead into a mysterious, atmospheric response. The tensions thus created in this virtuoso movement are resolved in the finale, which makes use of material from across all the earlier movements. But there are new ideas also, and this potent mix builds to a peroration, perhaps not entirely convincing in terms of symphonic power, but certainly grandiose.

Terry Barfoot



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