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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
CD 1
Symphony no.1 in E major, op.5 (1881-1884) [36:20]
Symphony no.5 in B flat major, op 55 (1895) [33:25]
CD 2
Symphony no.2 in F sharp minor, op. 16 (1886) [47:58]
CD 3
Symphony no.3 in D major, op.33 (1890) [51:54]
CD 4
Symphony no.4 in E flat major, op.48 (1893) [34:29]
Symphony no.6 in C minor, op.58 (1896) [38:24]
CD 5
Symphony no.7 in F major, op.77 (1902-1903) [38:41]
The Kremlin, symphonic picture, op.30 (1890) [29:29]
CD 6
Symphony no.8 in E flat major, op. 83 (1905-1906) [45:30]
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. venue not specified, 1989-1990
THE ANTHOLOGY OF RUSSIAN SYMPHONY MUSIC SVET 21-26/18 [6 CDs: 69:45 + 47:58 + 51:54 + 72:53 + 68:10 + 45:30]
Experience Classicsonline

 

It was widely observed at the time that people were shocked to hear of Alexander Glazunov’s death in 1936 – but only, it seemed, because they had assumed that such an “old-fashioned” composer must have died many years before.

True enough, it must have appeared that Glazunov was something of a relic of the past. Protégé of Balakirev and pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, his early musical style – demonstrated here in the first three symphonies – was very much influenced by that of the members of the so-called “Mighty Handful” (Cui, Mussorgsky and Borodin, in addition to Balakirev and Rimsky). As such, Stravinsky, for one, was later to dismiss Glazunov as a sort of “Carl Philipp Emanuel Rimsky-Korsakov”. The older composer was, however, equally sharp-tongued, assessing Fireworks as a demonstration of “no talent, only dissonance.”

But all that overlooks a fact well demonstrated when considering Glazunov’s complete symphonic oeuvre - that he moved on quite quickly and decisively from the Mighty Handful’s nationalist orbit towards a new, more musically cosmopolitan stance that was significantly closer to less inward-looking and more progressive composers such as Tchaikovsky and Taneyev.

Here Evgeny Svetlanov offers a traversal of eight symphonies written over a span of a quarter of a century; a projected ninth got no further than an incomplete first movement before being set aside and ignored for the last twenty five years or so of the composer’s life. Its value lies not, though, in the fact that it fills any gaps in the repertoire: collectors have, in fact, been rather spoiled for choice in recent years with complete cycles from the likes of Neeme Järvi (Orfeo) and Tadaaki Otaka (Bis) as well as worthwhile recordings of individual symphonies from Valery Polyansky (Chandos and Brilliant), José Serebrier (Warner) and Alexander Anissimov (Naxos). No, the value of these recordings lies in the fact that they formed part of Evgeny Svetlanov’s visionary long-term project to record his “anthology of Russian symphony music”. As such, he took great care to place Glazunov’s symphonic oeuvre in what he saw as its proper historical/and musicological context.

Before going any further, however, we need to register a couple of potential reservations, both concerning sound. In the first place, we have to face up to the fact that we have here a typical Soviet-era Russian orchestra with a brass section that, to Western ears at least, often sounds blaring and raucous. If you find that unbearable then there is really little point in reading on: Otaka’s National Orchestra of Wales or Järvi’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Bamberg Symphony Orchestra recordings will be far more to your liking. But if your tastes – in orchestra timbres, I hasten to add - run along much the same lines as Messrs. Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, then do please carry on reading.

The second issue is the nature of the recordings themselves. While the accompanying literature gives us no clue to the venues used, all were made in markedly reverberant acoustic settings that, at their worst, sounds like empty swimming pools. Unfortunately, that has serious implications: orchestral detail can become unpleasantly muddied and, moreover, the emotional impact of passages that would benefit from being played quite simply and sparely can be lost amid the sense of immense surrounding space.

But, putting those two points to one side, it is fair to say that this is an exceptionally well thought-out and performed survey. That blaring brass has frequently coloured past critical assessments of the USSR Symphony Orchestra but, if you can accept that feature as merely the cultural norm in its own time and place rather than seeing it as an objective “fault”, then it’s clear that overall this was an exceptionally fine and responsive band. Their playing throughout this symphonic journey is almost always exemplary and is consistently enjoyable, with the woodwinds in particular regularly making a most positive contribution.

The First Symphony, clearly influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov, suffers as much as - if not more than - any of the others from the impression that it must have been recorded in the Moscow Municipal Baths. The sound in the opening allegro is really quite confused, an effect even more noticeable in the succeeding scherzo where we ideally need more clarity to appreciate the virtuosity of Glazunov’s skittish writing for the strings. One of Svetlanov’s very rare musical misjudgements comes in the adagio third movement which, at 11:23, lacks pulse and direction and is stretched out too long. By comparison, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky clipped nearly three minutes off that time (8:27) in his recording with the old USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra - from their set of the complete symphonies on Olympia OCD 5001 - and successfully avoided the longueurs that afflict Svetlanov’s account. The latter returns to form in the finale, however, demonstrating at times a surprising degree of delicacy.

The opening movement of the Second Symphony is most impressive. Svetlanov’s tempi are beautifully judged and he demonstrates firm control of dynamics, while the orchestra plays with very clean articulation; the sound is a trifle less reverberant this time. Although the slow movement is actually almost two minutes longer than its predecessor, it seems far more concise. Played here with fervour and an appropriately rapt intensity, its luscious themes will appeal to anyone with a sweet musical tooth - think of the slow movements of Balakirev’s First Symphony, Borodin’s Second, Rimsky’s First and Gliere’s too little known First. The USSR Symphony Orchestra shines too in the sprightly, beautifully orchestrated allegro vivace and Svetlanov ensures that, in the vigorous finale, that the brass are kept well under control so that the strong, effective contributions of strings and woodwinds are showcased effectively and not overwhelmed.

The sound improves again - or am I just getting accustomed to it? – in the Third Symphony. Strings and brass are again balanced well in the opening movement and Svetlanov builds and maintains dramatic tension and lyricism. The woodwinds come effectively to the fore in another showpiece skittering scherzo before the conductor makes the best possible case for the rather impressionistic and atmospheric andante. At 16:10 this is the longest slow movement in the cycle and it is, to be honest, a case where material that was rather thin in the first place is being overstretched. The orchestra, nevertheless, plays with intelligence and delicacy and carry over those qualities into a finale that Svetlanov shapes and paces with great skill.

The writer of the booklet notes, Rob Barnett, argues that the three-movement Fourth Symphony (“extraordinary, exhilarating, exuberantly inspired and often ecstatic”) marks something of a watershed – and not just an alliterative one. He raises it, the fifth and sixth symphonies, the violin concerto and the ballet The Seasons - all written in the highly productive period 1893-1904 - to the status of Glazunov’s masterpieces and Svetlanov and his orchestra certainly treat the op.48 symphony as musically significant. We have now left Rimsky-Korsakov’s shadow as Glazunov explores entirely new (for him) symphonic models. A superbly played and very lyrical opening movement is beautifully crafted, both in individual phrases and overall, whereupon yet another skittishly playful scherzo is succeeded by a vigorous, purposeful finale.

The USSR Symphony Orchestra’s flexibility is well demonstrated in the opening movement of the rather better known Fifth Symphony where it plays, as required, with both virility and sensitivity. The woodwinds shine in the following scherzo which is beautifully balanced - and brings a brief return of Glazunov’s Rimsky-isms with more than a hint of Tsar Saltan. The following andante is very atmospheric, with attractive strings and particularly effective interjections by the brass, but is unmemorable and never quite reaches the melodic heights to which it appears to aspire. The symphony’s finale, the cycle’s briefest at just 6:24 but still full of vigour and power, gives the conductor full rein to demonstrate yet again his players’ impressive rhythmic precision and discipline.

The Sixth Symphony offers Svetlanov the opportunity to impress with his ability to integrate a strong sense of momentum alongside episodes of emotional indulgence (in the opening movement). The following Tema con variazioni is very reminiscent at times of The Seasons and notable for some fine, delicate phrasing by the woodwinds and for the way that the brass is kept under firm restraint. An attractively delicate and refined intermezzo provides conclusive evidence that the orchestra’s widely-held reputation for crudity is utterly undeserved, while the finale that follows offers a winning combination of authoritative and idiomatic playing. Svetlanov almost manages to convince one that the score’s drama and powerful drive are enough to outweigh its somewhat disjointed structure.

Moving on, the Seventh Symphony, Glazunov’s Pastoral, is another successful performance. Appropriately enough, the first movement brims over with gentle “country dance” bonhomie and, quite significantly, these are not the Russian peasants who would doubtless have been depicted by one of the Mighty Handful. Once again, some rather impressionistic passages open the succeeding andante before it succumbs to the indulgence of a rather lusciously played Romantic “big tune”. More virtuosic playing characterises yet another characteristically light and playful scherzo, with more of those familiar interjections by the brass well balanced and carried off with élan. Svetlanov’s decision not to take the composer’s direction molto pesante (“very heavily”) too literally also benefits the allegro maestoso finale by integrating it effectively with the rest of his generally “Glazunov-lite” approach to this genial work.

But if the seventh was “Glazunov-lite”, then the Eighth Symphony is, I’m afraid, distinctly “Glazunov-thin”, although Svetlanov and the orchestra nevertheless do their characteristic best for it. The ensemble is particularly well balanced throughout the opening movement - shades of Raymonda here - but the musicians have their work cut out to make much of an atmospheric but essentially rather nondescript slow movement that certainly outstays its welcome. Rob Barnett’s booklet notes warn of the danger of over-inflating music that needs to sound simple and intimate to be effective: unfortunately, the reverberant sound here prevents any possibility of that so that the movement ends up sounding rather hollow and vacuous. In this generally uninspired symphony even the scherzo is far less characterful than usual, while the finale is oddly anticlimactic. It is interesting to see that the direction given by Glazunov to that slow movement was mesto (“sad”) and, as an overall verdict on the symphony as a whole, that is not an inappropriate word. Did Glazunov feel that his symphonic inspiration had finally run dry? After all, as already noted, he could never subsequently motivate himself to complete even the opening movement of a Symphony No.9.

This set has one filler, the “symphonic picture” The Kremlin. Unfortunately, the quality of Glazunov’s musical invention wasn’t especially high for this one and he seems to be merely going through the motions – and doing even that in a relatively restrained way. Of the three episodes, Popular Festival sounds as if the participants needed a rather more generous allocation of vodka to get things going with more of a swing, while To the cloister proves to be an excessively long and tedious journey. The final Entrance and coronation of the prince is appropriately regal, pompous and triumphalist, with appropriate intimations of Orthodox chant. Rather oddly, although this set’s booklet notes translate its title with those words – as does the writer of the notes on Konstantin Krimets’s performance on Naxos 8.553537 – the booklet track-listings give it as merely Meeting and entrance of the Prince, which rather gives the impression that the whole thing might be altogether crown-less and taking place in an office or at the Wal-Mart delicatessen counter. Thankfully, Glazunov’s orchestration and Svetlanov’s performance effectively torpedo that rather bizarre thought.

My overall verdict on this box is inevitably, then, coloured considerably by my reaction to the music itself. Much of it is undeniably very attractive, but there are also increasingly frequent passages that are characterised by thin inspiration and where the composer appears to be working on auto-pilot. It does appear that by 1906 Glazunov was coming to realise that he had said all that he had to say in symphonic form.

It is inevitable, too, that, in any completist project like this one, there will be some - or perhaps even many - less interesting instalments. Even the complete Mozart edition, for goodness sake, showed Wolfgang Amadeus capable of a few less than usually effective days. In the circumstances, therefore, one has to admire Evgeny Svetlanov’s dedication to the whole project. One must also acknowledge the consistency of his and his orchestra’s almost invariably idiomatic, stylish and accomplished performances – as well as their admirable determination to pay due regard to a composer who today, just as in 1936, appears to be too easily overlooked.
 
Rob Maynard
 
Invariably idiomatic, stylish and accomplished ... see Full Review

 


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