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8.223152 - GLAZUNOV: Piano Music, Vol. 2

Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865–1936)
Piano Music • 2


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 in the aftermath of the political disturbances of that year, and retained 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 one of the most eminent of writers in the West on Russian music, Gerald Abraham, considered that it had fallen to Glazunov to lead what he described as the comfortable decline of Russian music into ignominious mediocrity. Recent critics have occasionally 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 that 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 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 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. 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 institution after student demonstrations, he became Director, a position he held, nominally at least, 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 reporter compared his appearance to that of a prosperous retired tea-planter, with his gold watch-chain spread across his starched white waistcoat, resembling, for all the world, a well-to-do bank-manager. His views on modern music were often severe. He found the Heldenleben of Richard Strauss disgusting and referred to the composer as “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 very distinguished musicians. While Prokofiev did little to endear himself to Glazunov, 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.

Glazunov wrote his finely crafted Valse de salon, Opus 43, in 1893, publishing it with a dedication to Elena Glazunov, his adopted daughter, a pianist. The work is an extended waltz sequence, its brief introduction suggesting the theme of the opening waltz that follows, to re-appear in conclusion, after excursions into other contrasting themes and keys.

The Three Pieces, Opus 49, were written in 1894 and dedicated to the pianist Anna Esipova, divorced two years before from Leschetizky, her former teacher, and a source of Viennese anecdote for the musicians of St. Petersburg. A D-flat major Prelude is followed by a chromatic A major Caprice-impromptu and a solidly constructed D major Gavotte, in passable neo-classical style.

The Two Impromptus, Opus 54, were composed in 1896, the first a delicate D-flat major piece and the second a rather more extended work in A-flat major. To these the Prelude and Fugue, Opus 62, written in 1899, provide a marked contrast. The D minor Prelude opens for all the world like a latter-day Bach organ Prelude, leading to a fugue with two subjects, the first announced at once and the second, a descending chromatic scale, appearing later. Every traditional contrapuntal device is used in a texture that increases in complexity and tension until the final pedal-points and the return of figuration from the Prelude as the coda takes its course.

The Theme and Variations, Opus 72, was completed in August 1900. The F-sharp minor theme is a very Russian affair, followed by fifteen variations. The first of these retains the melody in the top part, as in the second variation, with its running triplet accompaniment. A slower Andante leads to a more elaborately pianistic fourth variation and a fifth marked Andante sostenuto. The sixth variation, marked Largo, has a double-dotted left-hand rhythm against semiquaver figuration and leads to a contrapuntal Allegro and a lively compound-rhythm version, starting in A major. The ninth variation, in A major, is marked Adagio tranquillo, with the additional instruction Quasi-campanelli, its central section shifting into the key of F major. Scales, descending and ascending, accompany the melody in a tenth Allegro assai in the original key, followed by a gentle F-sharp major Allegretto. The arpeggiated chords of the twelfth variation centre on the key of D major, followed by an impassioned F-sharp minor octave version and a cross-rhythm G-flat major Andante tranquillo, the theme in an inner part, while the choice of key is the enharmonic equivalent of the tonic major. The last variation has considerable variety of mood in itself, opening with heavy chords, answered playfully, a contrast continued.

The two Poèmes-improvisations were written in December 1917 and July 1918 respectively, at a time of increasing privation, war-time having been followed by Revolution and Civil War. The first of the pair opens wistfully, growing in chromatic intensity but ending in tranquillity after adventurous excursions into stranger harmonies and registers. In the second improvisation Glazunov further explores the harmonic world of Scriabin, displaying a poetic imagination now far removed from the salon.

Keith Anderson

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