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8.223151 - GLAZUNOV: Piano Music, Vol. 1

Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865–1936)
Piano Music, Vol. 1


Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov has not fared well at the hands of later critics. He enjoyed a remarkably successful career in music, becoming Director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1905, and retaining the position, latterly in absentia, for the next twenty-five years. His earlier compositions were well received, but the very facility that had attracted the attention and friendship of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov was to be held against him. A Russian critic could praise him for the reconciliation he had apparently effected between the Russian music of his time and the music of Western Europe, but for a considerable time the Soviet authorities regarded his music as bourgeois, while the most eminent of writers on Russian music in the West, Gerald Abraham, considered that it had fallen to Glazunov to lead what he described as the comfortable decline of Russian music into ignominious mediocrity. Recently some have taken a more balanced view of Glazunov’s achievement. Due respect is paid to his success in bringing about a synthesis of Russian and Western European music, the tradition of the Five and of Rubinstein. Boris Schwarz has summarised the composer’s career neatly, allowing him to have been a composer of imposing stature and a stabilising influence in a time of transition and turmoil.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1865, the son of a publisher and bookseller, as a child Glazunov showed considerable ability in music and in 1879 met Balakirev, who encouraged the boy to broaden his general musical education, while taking lessons in composition from Rimsky-Korsakov. By the age of sixteen he had completed the first of his nine symphonies, a work that was performed in 1882 under the direction of Balakirev, and further compositions were welcomed equally by both factions in Russian musical life, the nationalist and the so-called German.

Glazunov continued his association with Rimsky-Korsakov until the latter’s death in 1909. It was in his company that he became a regular member of the circle of musicians under the patronage of Belyayev, perceived by Balakirev as a rival to his own influence. Belyayev introduced Glazunov to Liszt, whose support led to the spread of the young composer’s reputation abroad. The First Symphony was performed in Weimar in 1884, the Second directed by Glazunov at the 1889 Paris Exhibition and the Fourth and Fifth were introduced to the London public in 1897. In 1899 Glazunov joined the staff of the Conservatory in St. Petersburg and in 1905, when peace was restored to the Conservatory after student demonstrations, he became Director, a position he held until 1930.

In 1928 Glazunov left Russia to fulfil concert engagements abroad, finally, in 1932, making his home in Paris, where he died four years later. These last years took him to a number of countries, where he conducted concerts of his own works. In England a Daily Express critic described his appearance at a concert in 1929: “When I went to watch him conduct he drew his baton from a pigskin sheaf with his monogram in gold upon the cover. The general impression was that of a wealthy retired tea-planter. His skin is parchment-coloured, his glasses square-shaped and rimless, and a lot of gold watch-chain apparatus is spread about his starched white waistcoat”.

In short, Glazunov cut a respectable figure, compared by other foreign critics to that of a prosperous bank manager. His views on contemporary music were often severe. He found the Heldenleben of Richard Strauss disgusting and the composer “cet infâme scribouilleur”. Of Stravinsky he remarked that he had irrefutable proof of the inadequacy of his ear. Nevertheless it was under his direction that the Conservatory produced a number of musicians of great distinction. While Prokofiev did little to win approval, Shostakovich received considerable encouragement and was unstinting in his admiration of the older composer as a marked influence on all the students with whom he had contact, to whom Glazunov was a living legend.

The Suite on the Name “Sacha” was written in 1882 and 1883 and dedicated to his mother and first piano teacher Yelena Glazunova. A brief introduction is prefaced by the abrupt statement of the musical letters S A S C H A, the German notation equivalent to E-flat, A, E-flat, C, B, A, diminutive of the composer’s own name. The Prelude follows, its motto theme now in long notes in the bass. Like Schumann’s dancing letters some half a century earlier, the motto skips into a Scherzo, giving way to an E-flat minor Nocturne, with the theme hidden in an inner part. A delicate waltz, the name Sasha now forming a melodic opening, ends the Suite.

The Two Pieces of 1889, a Barcarolle and Novelette, both firmly perpetuating romantic traditions of piano music, in the keys of D-flat and D major respectively, pose similar technical challenges, followed here by the 1890 sequence of Waltzes on the Name “Sabela”, dedicated to Nadezhda Zabela, the coloratura soprano, a distinguished performer in the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov. The letters of the chosen name form the outline of a theme, E-flat, A, B-flat, E and A, or “la” in French notation. The name appears again and again over the appropriate notes, a tribute to the dedicatee.

Glazunov’s Prelude and Two Mazurkas, Op. 25, were completed in 1888, on 24th January, 6th August and 5th August respectively. The three pieces are dedicated to different members of the family of Felix Blumenfeld, a former composition pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and a piano teacher at St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1885 until the revolution, and thereafter in Kiev and Moscow. The second Mazurka was specifically for Felix Blumenfeld himself and makes technical demands that he could well have met. The third of the Three Studies, Night, dated 27th March 1889, is dedicated to Maria Blumenfeld, a member of the Anastasyev family whom Rimsky-Korsakov had met at the same time as his future pupil Blumenfeld during the course of a summer visit to Yalta in 1881. The brilliant first Study of the set bears the date 14th May 1896, and the second 14th August 1891.

1889 is the date of the gentle Nocturne in D-flat major, a piece that mounts in intensity, to end in a mood of mystery and dynamic contrast. The Grande Valse de Concert, Op. 41, was written in 1893, dedicated to Nikolay Brill, a salon piece of immediate appeal, demanding considerable panache in performance. To this the Three Miniatures of the same year form an initial contrast, with an opening Pastorale leading to a livelier Polka and a final Waltz of simpler texture than the ostentatious exhibitionism of the Grande Valse de Concert.

Keith Anderson

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