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Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
The Complete Symphonies [343:08]
CD 1 [72:53]
Symphony No.1 in E major, Op.5 (1881) [34:48]
Symphony No.6 in C minor, Op.58 (1896) [37:27]
CD 2 [64:20]
Symphony No.2 in F sharp minor, Op.16 (1886) [43:10]
Mazurka in G major, Op.18 (1888) [9:44]
Ot mraka ka svetu (From Darkness to Light), Op.53 (1894) [10:14]
CD 3 [60:23]
Ballade in F major, Op.78 (1902) [9:35]
Symphony No.3 in D major, Op.33 (1890-92) [50:15]
CD 4 [75:11]
Symphony No.4 in E flat major, Op.48 (1893) [34:35]
Symphony No.8 in E flat major, Op.83 (1905) [40:05]
CD 5 [70:21]
Symphony No.5 in B flat major, Op.55 (1895) [35:28]
Symphony No.7 in F major, Op.77 (1902) [34:12]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Dec 1997 (1); March 1992 (2, Mazurka, Darkness, Ballade); May 1998 (3); April 1997 (4); April 1995 (5); January 1998 (6, 8); February 1998 (7). DDD
5 discs for the price of 2
BIS-CD-1663/64 [5 CDs: 72:53 + 64:20 + 60:23 + 75:11 + 70:21] 


Glazunov’s symphonies have had their proponents over the years but they suffered the fate of most late-romantica during the period 1936-1980. Regarded as bloated nineteenth century excesses they became as unfashionable as the symphonies of Bax who often played them privately in piano duet versions during the period 1900-1935. Their impact on his music can be heard in Bax’s Gopak and In a Vodka Shop as well as in the ballet King Kojata and The Truth About Russian Dancers. 

The tide began to turn with various Soviet recordings which in the UK appeared under licence on EMI-Melodiya LPs in the 1960-s and 1970s. The BBC also stood by them including them occasionally in studio broadcasts by the BBC regional orchestras often with Bryden Thomson, Maurice Handford or Stanford Robinson. I first heard No. 5 in a relay by the BBC Northern in the early 1970s and was immediately won round. Later I heard broadcasts of those often virile and remarkable ASD LPs: 2, 3 (Khaikin), 4 (Rakhlin); 5, 7 (Fedoseyev), 8 (Svetlanov). There are earlier still recordings by Akulov (1) and Golovanov (6). Fedoseyev obliged with a complete cycle in a Eurodisc LP box. With the CD has come various other cycles either complete or in train: Polyansky on Chandos, a Naxos cycle with various conductors and very early on a fine Olympia cycle from Rozhdestvenky. Svetlanov recorded all eight symphonies and I suspect that they will be well worth having. The Naxos cycle has proved variable in quality but often underpowered. Polyansky is superbly recorded in the virile and highly-coloured Decca tradition but he too is sometimes drawn too much to poetic reflection. It’s a pity that the energising power evinced in his recordings often Taneyev symphonies did not take hold more securely in the Glazunov symphony sessions. Surely it will not be long before Polyansky’s Glazunov will also be issued in a Chandos box. 

In the First Symphony – the work of a sixteen year old - we get a gracious rather than an excitable Allegro and a very Rimskian second movement. In fact the work was dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov his teacher and premiered under Balakirev. The wheezy-creaky finale is suitably flighty and eager. 

The Sixth Symphony is from Glazunov’s maturity and was given its first performance in St Petersburg in February 1897 just a month before he was to conduct the premiere of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. It is a more darkly dramatic work than many of the other symphonies. Otaka catches the undulating turbulence of this music in the first movement and the drama ignites strongly for him in the finale parts of which resemble the tramping finale of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. 

The Second Symphony has that Borodin-oriental style and Otaka spins it in silk and gold leaf and also captures elements of the stomping excitement of Borodin’s own Second Symphony in the last two movements. The brilliant saw-toothed edge of the BBC Welsh deep brass is well caught especially in the finale. 

There’s a grandiloquent Mazurka that ends with a resonant crash. This is a dance in the tradition of Glazunov’s two Concert Waltzes. Then comes his Lisztian tone poem From Darkness to Light at one moment all crashing and thunder and lightning and recalling Tapiola in its tempestuous moments; at the next poetic in the same way that Berlioz finds poetry in Symphonie Fantastique and Tchaikovsky in Manfred. This is all magnificently done by Otaka and the BBC Welsh even if one wonders whether yet more formidable results could have been conjured by a Mravinsky or a Golovanov. The piece ends with typically regal celebratory march flourishes similar to the blazing finale of the Eighth Symphony. No masterwork here, you can feel it creak as a ‘structure’ but it is worth the journey. The swooningly feverish Ballade comes from the same year as the Seventh Symphony and carries the influence of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique without that work’s unbearable intensity before slipping back to Glazunov’s accustomed grand processional mode. 

The Third Symphony, the first of his symphonies to be conducted by the composer at the premiere. The dedication is to Tchaikovsky. In it he sought to distance himself from the Kouchka nationalists but was only partially successful. He did not have the emotionally expressive depth of Tchaikovsky. This performance again majors on the reflective – a slightly sleepy approach which even the flash and flicker of the Scherzo-Vivace does not completely escape. The finale is similarly heavy-lidded this despite some truly charming woodwind writing. 

The fourth disc includes two of Glazunov’s most effective and endearingly exciting symphonies. The composer spoke of the Fourth Symphony as ‘personal, free, subjective impressions of myself.’ In this Otaka articulates the music rather well and the magnificent Borodin-Rimsky style first movement melody is haltingly done to lightly languid effect and it is done extremely well – every hesitation and halting pause perfectly weighted (tr. 1 13:01). The woodwind develop an inherently propulsive counter-idea in the first movement and this bubbles infectiously in the scherzo and after a quiet ‘Intrada’ the exciting tramping celebratory stamping energy returns and dominates the finale. This is as good as Otaka’s Glazunov gets in this set and very good it is too. That said, the emotional play and responsiveness of this wonderful symphony is more volatile still in other hands. Nathan Rakhlin was excellent (never reissued on CD). Polyansky turned in a finely nuanced and subtle yet pliantly and enchantingly engaging version and he is transparently recorded by Chandos. For me however Serebrier (Warner) stands tall in this company; on this evidence he may well be the Glazunov conductor of our time. 

The Glazunov Eighth Symphony is his last completed Symphony although a completion was essayed and the result recorded in Moscow conducted by Gavriil Yudin and issued on Olympia. Number 8 is another work grand in intention and this time in execution as well. Allowing for the whirling Meistersinger reminiscences in the big finale of No. 8 it also works convincingly when punched home as magnificently as here. Try the golden Elgarian blare of the Welsh horns at 6:33 as they surmount the orchestra. In fact if you wanted to stump up full price for a single disc as representative of the best of Otaka’s cycle, CD4 is it (BIS-CD-1378). 

Generally, if you like your Glazunov rather languid then you have your man in Otaka. This is certainly the case with the Fifth Symphony on the last disc of the set. Here Otaka communicates as a Giulini rather than as a young Bernstein; not that either conductor would have touched Glazunov's symphonies - go on surprise me! Even in the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony - amongst the best of the symphonies - Otaka takes his time. The sparkle of the writing is semaphored in slower motion. I rather miss the effervescence of Svetlanov, of Fedoseyev, of Rozhdestvensky and most recently of Serebrier. The rapped out playfulness of the last movement is also softened; more's the pity. That said the recordings are all in splendidly etched sound with gallons of impact.

When it comes to the Seventh Symphony, occasionally known as The Pastoral, the overarching tempo is slow anyway. Otaka's clear-eyed and carefully controlled view works much better in this context. The music sings along in contemplation of rural scenes. Time and again the pastoral image shared with Beethoven's Sixth comes home with strength. The BBC Welsh are an extraordinary orchestra but I thought their wind section less than brilliant at the start of the scherzo. 

This is for those who like their Glazunov considered and languorous. Otaka's Glazunov mind-set does not, on this evidence, extend to the sort of excitable exuberance we get with Serebrier, Svetlanov, Fedoseyev and Rozhdestvensky. I am looking forward to the completion of Serebrier’s Glazunov project with Warners, to reviewing a complete Chandos set from Polyansky and to Svetlanov’s Glazunov cycle appearing from the Svetlanov Foundation in Moscow. Svetlanov is usually good in this repertoire as a recently-heard CDR of a Russian concert performance of The Sea proves. However he is not infallible as his rather flaccid version of Miaskovsky Symphony No. 5 on Olympia goes to show. I also hope that people will not close their minds to Rozhdestvensky’s early digital cycle from circa 1983-5. 

Glazunov is a composer well able to delight but the spirit, rather like that in the symphonies of Bax and Miaskovsky, can be elusive. It is captured only intermittently by Otaka although his versions are strong on reflective poetry. They are sturdily and honestly recorded and this set is very well documented courtesy of Andrew Huth.

Other reviewers do not agree with me about the merits of this cycle so do also have a look at the reviews by John Quinn, Terry Barfoot and Chris Fifield of the individual discs.

Rob Barnett

Glazunov Symphonies – Bis-Otaka – reviewed on MusicWeb International
Symphonies 4, 8 (TB)
Symphonies 1, 6 [JQ]
Symphonies 5, 7 [RB]
Symphony 3 [CF]
[Symphony 2 was not reviewed by MWI]

Detailed track-listing
CD 1:
Symphony No.1 in E major, Op.5 (1881)
1. I. Allegro 10:48
2. II. Scherzo. Allegro 5:02
3. III. Adagio 8:55
4. IV. Finale. Allegro 9:41
Symphony No.6 in C minor, Op.58 (1896)
5. I. Adagio - Allegro passionato 10:25
6. II. Tema con variazioni 11:25
7. III. Intermezzo. Allegretto 5:18
8. IV. Finale. Andante maestoso - Moderato maestoso 9:55
CD 2:
Symphony No.2 in F sharp minor, Op.16 (1886)
1. I. Andante maestoso - Allegro 13:07
2. II. Andante 9:45
3. III. Allegro vivace 7:42
4. IV. Intrada - Finale. Allegro 12:10
5. Mazurka in G major, Op.18 9:44
6. Ot mraka ka svetu, Op.53 10:14
CD 3:
1. Ballade in F major, Op.78 9:35
Symphony No.3 in D major, Op.33 (1890-92)
2. I. Allegro 13:42
3. II. Scherzo. Vivace 9:26
4. III. Andante 13:07
5. IV. Finale. Allegro moderato 13:35
CD 4:
Symphony No.4 in E flat major, Op.48 (1893)
1. I. Andante - Allegro moderato - Andante 15:23
2. II. Scherzo. Allegro vivace 5:39
3. III. Andante - Allegro 13:14
Symphony No.8 in E flat major, Op.83 (1905)
4. I. Allegro moderato 10:15
5. II. Mesto 10:33
6. III. Allegro 6:56
7. IV. Finale. Moderato sostenuto - Allegro moderato 11:59
CD 5:
Symphony No.5 in B flat major, Op.55 (1895)
1. I. Moderato maestoso - Allegro 12:39
2. II. Scherzo. Moderato 4:59
3. III. Andante 9:52
4. IV. Allegro maestoso 7:34
Symphony No.7 in F major, Op.77 (1902)
5. I. Allegro moderato 8:31
6. II. Andante 9:17
7. III. Scherzo 5:48
8. IV. Finale. Allegro maestoso 10:09



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