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Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Orchestral works
USSR Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. venue not specified, 1961-1990
THE ANTHOLOGY OF RUSSIAN SYMPHONY MUSIC SVET 27-32/18 [6 CDs: 75:58 + 75:12 + 64:14 + 71:43 + 62:56 + 56:31]

Experience Classicsonline

CD 1 [75:58]
Overture no.1 on three Greek themes in G minor, op. 3 (1882) [15:06]
Overture no.2 on Greek themes in D major, op.6 (1883) [16:35]
To the memory of a hero, elegy, op. 8 (1885) [15:57]
Lyrical poem in D flat major, op.12 (1884-1887) [12:10]
Stenka Razin, symphonic poem, op.13 (1885) [16:08]
CD 2 [75:12]
Characteristic suite for large orchestra, op.9 (1884-1887) [33:29]
Serenade no.1, op.7 (1882) [4:11]
Serenade no.2, op.11 (1884) [3:40]
Two pieces for orchestra, op.14 (1886-1887) [20:36]
Mazurka in G major, op.18 (1888) [7:46]
Characteristic dance (?) [2:40]
Volga boatmen's song (1905) [2:46]
CD 3 [64:14]
The Forest, fantasia for large symphony orchestra, op.19 (1887) [21:23]
The Sea, fantasia for large symphony orchestra, op.28 (1889) [17:32]
Oriental rhapsody for large symphony orchestra, op.29 (1889) [24:18]
CD 4 [62:56]
Wedding procession, op.21 (1889) [7:33]
Slavonic Festival, op.26 no.4 (1888) [13:27]
Spring, musical picture for large symphony orchestra, op.34 (1891) [11:14]
Triumphal march, op.40 (1892) [9:07]
Carnival, op.45 (1892) [9:33]
Solemn procession in D major, op.50 (1894) [7:28]
From darkness to light, fantasia in C major, op.53 (18940 [13:18]
CD 5 [56:31]
Chopiniana, suite from Chopin's works, op.46 (1893) [20:47]
Concert waltz no.1 in D major, op.47 (1893) [9:41]
Concert waltz no.2 in F major, op.51 (1894) [9:22]
Waltz from the ballet Raymonda, op.57 (1896-1897) [5:25]
Waltz from Ballet suite, op.52 (1894) [5:49]
Polonaise from Ballet suite, op.52 (1894) [5:38]
Waltz from the ballet Lady Soubrette, op.61 (1898) [6:12]
CD 6 [71:43]
Lady Soubrette - ballet in one act, op.61 (1898) [71:43]

Google together the words composers and subsidies and you'll encounter a widespread theory that increasingly generous government handouts allowed twentieth century composers to write music that no longer needed to appeal to a wide public. That, it is claimed, was in contrast to an earlier era when composers' incomes frequently depended very much on writing pieces with mass appeal: as Beethoven himself observed, 'In order to gain time for a great composition, I must always scribble away a good deal for the sake of money'.

Many of the pieces so neatly collected together on these six discs of miscellaneous orchestral works by Alexander Glazunov fall, in all likelihood, into the category of similarly mercenary 'scribblings'. That is, though, hardly sufficient justification for so many of them to have fallen into relative obscurity and their inclusion in Svetlanov's great project of a complete tour d'horizon of Russian orchestral music gives us a convenient opportunity for re-evaluation. That process is made even more potentially valuable by the fact - no doubt already noticed by more observant readers in the detailed listings above - that the pieces here are ordered pretty much by opus number, so giving us the ability to hear something of the way in which Glazunov's compositional style developed over time.

The first disc in this box opens very promisingly. The sound quality is both rich and quite reverberant in a way that suits these often lush scores, even at the risk of occasionally submerging interesting details of the orchestration. It is also quickly apparent - though who would have thought otherwise? - that Svetlanov is a most idiomatic conductor of this music. While Glazunov may have said that that opening two overtures were on 'Greek' themes, their frequent diversions into that seductive brand of musical orientalism familiar to lovers of Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin suggest that he was only too keen to escape the bounds of Europe as soon as possible. Other influences from the 'Mighty Handful' composers are also clear - not just stylistically, but even as a source of folk melodies: Stenka Razin, for example, features the well known theme from the Song of the Volga boatmen (Yo-oh, Heave, Ho...), one of the traditional Russian songs that had been earlier collected and published by Balakirev. The disc confirms that Glazunov's early work, very skilfully crafted though it undoubtedly is, as yet lacked a distinctive voice, though we can clearly see one developing as we move on through the box set.

The opening Characteristic Suite of the second disc brings to the fore, for example, Glazunov's increasing interest in dance. While two of its six pieces are explicitly labelled as dances (a 'Russian dance' and an 'oriental dance' - the latter distinctly reminiscent of Rimsky's Young prince and princess from Scheherazade), there are plentiful gestures throughout that foreshadow the composer's later stage works. The orchestration, moreover, is clearly becoming more adventurous, an aspect effectively emphasised by Svetlanov whose control of some rhythmically rather tricky passages is also quite superb. Not everything, however, marks Glazunov - who, at the time of writing most of the material on this second disc, was still, after all, only in his early twenties at most - as entirely innovative by this point: the ersatz Spanish-ness of the Serenade no.1, for instance, is straight out of the same stable as Rimsky's Capriccio Espagnol or Glinka's 'Spanish' overtures or Jota Aragonesa.

The composer's well-documented musical conservatism is again apparent in the third disc. Progressive musical trends of the time seem to have held little, if any, appeal to Glazunov and both The Forest and The Sea are straightforward, frequently overblown yet also somewhat under-characterised pieces of late 19th century Russian romanticism. In fact, if confronted with the music 'blind', there would be long stretches of both where one would be hard put to guess what exactly was being depicted at all.

The musical world - I am tempted to say the ocean - of difference between Glazunov's 1889 depiction of the sea and, for instance, Debussy's more famous one of 1905 is significant. Even though the Russian was actually the younger man of the two, he was much the more reactionary, supposedly referring to Debussy as a 'recherché cacophonist' and ruefully wondering, on examining the score of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, whether 'Rimsky and I [had] influenced the orchestration of all these contemporary degenerates". Thus, if Debussy can be seen as a sort of musical equivalent of, say, Claude Monet, then Glazunov's painter counterpart would surely be - as several art designers for LPs and CDs have recognized over the years - the conservative realist Ilya Repin, the real-life dedicatee of the attractive Oriental Rhapsody op.29. The latter is an occasional piece that aspires to a status no higher than a potpourri of those 'exotic' musical themes, rhythms and orchestral colours so beloved by the 'Mighty Handful' and their followers when in full 'steppes of Central Asia' mode. Svetlanov and his orchestra perform it wholeheartedly and with all the sensuality and gusto at their command.

If the Oriental Rhapsody was an individual potpourri, then, taken as a complete entity, the fourth disc of the set can certainly merit the same description. This is really something of a rag-bag of pieces of varying worth. Some are more ambitious than others - the very titles of Spring op.34 and From darkness to light op.53, for example, suggest at least an intention of depicting some sort of thematic and musical development. But the other tracks, often little more than potboilers presumably excused by the necessity of scribbling away for the cash, are still generally enjoyable, if on a more superficial level. The Triumphal March op.40, for instance, will certainly bring a smile to the face of anyone unfamiliar with it as it takes up a very familiar tune that is certainly not usually associated with Imperial Russia.

The fifth disc has more of an obviously unifying theme to it and thus makes a more coherent whole. It plays to one of Glazunov's undoubted strengths - writing music for dance: of its ten tracks, nine have the names of specific dances in the title and no less than five of them are waltzes. The sole exception is the Nocturne in Chopiniana and that, interestingly enough, is the only one of the orchestrations of familiar Chopin works that loses its essential heart in the process of elaboration. The suite's other three pieces are given an entirely new form of life in Glazunov's characteristic - and often quite strikingly Russian - orchestrations. The opening Polonaise, full of echoing brass and given the full Soviet-era treatment in this performance, gets things off to an effectively rousing and foot-tapping start and the quality of music-making never falters thereafter. The two substantial 'concert waltzes' - regular Svetlanov party pieces - come off especially well, and the ballet selections are also quite delightful. The disc certainly offers a most enjoyable survey of this particular aspect of the composer's output.

The ballet extracts lead neatly into the sixth disc, containing just one work, the ballet Lady Soubrette. This is the least known of Glazunov's ballets and, unlike Raymonda and The seasons, does not even justify a separate entry on the usually comprehensive Wikipedia website. You might nevertheless have come across the score under one of its alternative titles - Les ruses d'amour (used for the Hermitage Theatre premiere and the one favoured, as I seem to recall, on old Melodiya LPs) or The trial of Damis (the name given it for a subsequent Mariinsky Theatre production). Lady Soubrette deliberately harks back to the elegant courtly entertainments of 17th and 18th century France, even in its plot where, in order to put her fiancé to the test, an aristocratic young woman masquerades as her own maid - remember Queen Marie-Antoinette playing at being a Versailles milkmaid? As many commentators have pointed out, the ballet's setting is closely linked to the elegant fête champêtre genre paintings by the French rococo painter Antoine Watteau and his school and Glazunov's score was also clearly influenced by the compositional styles of the earlier era. Dismissed by contemporary critics as rather frivolous and lightweight, the ballet is nonetheless choc-full of quite delightful and very danceable melodies and it is a great pleasure to be able to listen to in full. 

A great deal of the enjoyment to be derived from this box set is generated by the commitment of Svetlanov and his orchestra. They pay Glazunov the respect of treating his music not just with evident affection but with respect for his talent as a creator of beautiful melodies, a highly sympathetic composer for dancers and an exceptionally skilled musical craftsman. They also fulfill Svetlanov's stated intention of setting him in the wider context of the development of Russian music - an objective greatly helped by the way that the content has been laid out over the six discs. It is a sad disservice to Svetlanov himself, on the other hand, that no similar effort has been made to put these various performances into the contest of his immensely confusing discography: details of the provenance of performances and even of the orchestra(s?) involved is simply non-existent here.

As the second bumper box of three - the first covering Glazunov's symphonies (reviewed here) and the third, which I will be considering in due course, majoring on the remaining stage works and a variety of orchestral works with opus numbers in the 70s, 80s and 90s - this is something of a 'bits and bobs' collection. It will, nevertheless, provide a great deal of interest and enjoyment to listeners prepared to explore some of the neglected byways of Glazunov's output.

Let's also, in passing, give its due to the Naxos label that has issued to date no less than 18 volumes of Glazunov's orchestral music in a continuing series, though one much more randomly ordered than Svetlanov's. Conducted variously by Alexander Anissimov, Konstantin Krimets, Igor Golovschin, Dimitry Yablonsky and Vladimir Ziva, the discs include all the symphonies - even the unfinished ninth - and are generally very enjoyable. I do think, though, that there is something especially valuable in hearing this wide span of works under a single conductor, as on the discs under consideration in this review.

Rob Maynard

see also review by Johnathan Woolf



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