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8.223153 - GLAZUNOV: Piano Music, Vol. 3

Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865–1936)
Piano Music • 3


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 making his home in Paris, where he died in 1936. 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, he cut a respectable figure. 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.

Glazunov’s two piano sonatas were written in 1901. The First, dedicated to Nadezhda Rimsky-Korsakov, the pianist wife of his friend and teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, was given its first performance on 6th October of the same year and shabbily reviewed by an anonymous critic in the Russian Musical Gazette, who found it devoid of artistic unity and poorly suited to the piano, a judgement that was the subject of comment in the Rimsky-Korsakov household. Others were more favourably impressed by both sonatas, describing them as real piano music, brilliant and serious in intention. There is no doubt of the essentially pianistic idiom of the writing, redolent of the musical idiom of young Rachmaninov, testimony also to the composer’s own command of the instrument as a performer, since he had played the first two movements through to the Rimsky-Korsakovs in March 1901, six months before the first public performance by Alexander Ziloti, Tchaikovsky’s former pupil, a disciple of Liszt and teacher himself of Rachmaninov. The slow movement is initially less florid and in the key of F-sharp major. The last movement, marked Allegro scherzando, opens in B-flat major, and follows a course of the greatest brilliance, with only momentary relaxation as other melodic material appears through the elaborate accompanying figuration.

The second of the two sonatas, dedicated to Glazunov’s piano teacher N.N. Yelenkovsky, opens with a relatively simple E minor texture which soon leads to music of much greater technical and harmonic complexity, relaxing tension later to lead into the second movement Scherzo, in C major, which threads its way through key after key as it makes its way back to its original tonality and mood in conclusion. The Finale opens with solemn E minor chords and fulfils this early promise by leading into an impressive fugue, a splendidly idiomatic use of the form and texture. A brief hymn-like passage, interrupted by the dotted rhythm characteristic of the movement, leads by sequence to a dramatic conclusion.

The E minor Prelude and Fugue was written in 1926 and arranged three years later for organ. It was dedicated to the composer’s friend, the pianist and teacher Leonid Nikolayev. The Prelude opens with chords of ambiguous tonality, before shifting into the key of C minor. A similar series of four chords introduces a more agitated G-sharp minor, after which the series of chords appears again, leading to a section in the more expected key of E minor. There follows a four-voice fugue, its subject already foreshadowed by the opening chords of the Prelude. The work ends with a quasi-chorale treatment of the subject and a dramatic return through the chromatically descending chords of the subject to a final E minor.

Keith Anderson

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