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Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Five Novelettes for string quartet, Op.15 [31:16]
String Quintet in A major, Op.39 (1891-92) [32:12] A
Fine Arts Quartet
Nathaniel Rosen (cello) A
rec. 2-4 February 2005, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, USA.
NAXOS 8.570256 [63:28]

Founded over sixty years ago in Chicago the Fine Arts Quartet is a highly accomplished ensemble. On the evidence of these superb performances and other recent releases such as the Schumann String Quartets 1-3 they prove themselves to be in the same elevated league as ensembles such as the Emerson, Škampa, Talich, Takács, Hagen, Quatuor Mosaďques, Kodály, Henschel, Belcea and Zehetmair. 

I strongly believe that Glazunov’s substantial output of music is not as well known as it deserves to be. The most frequently heard work is the Violin Concerto (1904). One sometimes hears music from his two major ballets Raymonda (1898) and The Seasons (1900) also the Chant du Ménestrel (1900) in either of its versions for cello and piano or for cello and orchestra. As a frequent attender of chamber music recitals I have yet to hear any performances of Glazunov’s chamber works. Although not known for their progressive or experimental nature his works are generally of high quality and I commend any chamber music lover to hear the two volumes of String Quartets from the Utrecht String Quartet on MDG 603 1236-2 (Quartets 3 and 5) and MDG 603 1237-2 (Quartets 2, 4 and Elegy for Strings) and also the recording of the Quartets 3 and 5 from the Shostakovich Quartet on Regis RRC 1211.

Grove-Online; Wikipedia and virtually every other resource I have consulted give the composition date for Glazunov’s Five Novelettes, Op.15 as 1886. However, the information in the Naxos booklet notes says 1881; which means that Glazunov would have been a mere sixteen year old when he wrote the score. Evidently he originally gave the less descriptive title of ‘Suite’ to this five movement work. Lasting almost as long in performance as the A major String Quintet the amiable and predominantly folk music-inspired Five Novelettes is an outstanding work and a hidden gem of the chamber music repertoire.

Glazunov’s Five Novelettes have all been given exotic titles. They open with an appealing Alla spagnuola (In the Spanish style). Briskly performed with high spirits by the Fine Arts Quartet the piece also contains a contrasting dreamy central section. The dance-like piece entitled Orientale has the character of a Percy Grainger folk dance rather than anything terribly oriental. Again there is a contrasting central core. In the Dorian mode the third movement is a reverential Interludium in modo antico that reminded me of sacred music from the Russian Orthodox Church. There’s considerable warmth and good humour to be heard in the Valse. The buoyantly played final piece, marked All’ungherese (In Hungarian style), convey strong evocations of tradition gypsy and Magyar rhythms.

The four movement String Quintet in A major, Op.39 is scored for a second cello rather than the more usual viola - in the manner of Schubert’s Quintet in C major, D. 956. Here the Fine Arts are augmented by the services of second cellist Nathaniel Rosen. The opening Allegro begins with a glorious melody for the viola. One is struck by the appeal of this highly attractive music infused as it is with lush and brazen Romanticism. Pizzicato strings herald the opening of the engaging Scherzo. The heartrending strains of the Andante could melt even the stoniest of hearts. In the highly-flavoured Russian-sounding themes of the Finale the players successfully conclude proceedings in a robust and vivacious manner.

There are only a small number of alternative versions of Glazunov’s String Quintet and Five Novelettes and none that I consider an improvement over this superb Naxos release. I am reasonably familiar with what is probably the best known version of the String Quintet from the ASMF Chamber Ensemble on Chandos (c/w Tchaikovsky String Sextet in D minor, Op 70). In the Five Novelettes the versions most likely to be encountered are those from the St. Petersburg String Quartet on Delos and also from the Lyric Quartet on Meridian; both recordings having the String Quartet No. 5, Op. 70 as their coupling.

I gained significant enjoyment from this desirable release. The sonics are to demonstration standard. The delightful and substantial Five Novelettes are a hidden gem worthy of discovery.

Michael Cookson 

See also Review by Jonathan Woolf




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