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Matty J. Hiffi
Classical Rough and Ready, January 2010

GLAZUNOV, A.K.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 - The Kremlin / From the Middle Ages / Poeme Lyrique / Poeme Epique (Moscow Symphony, Krimets) 8.553537
GLAZUNOV, A.K.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 3 - The King of the Jews (Moscow Symphony, Golovschin) 8.553575
GLAZUNOV, A.K.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 11 - Concerto Ballata / Chant du menestrel (Rudin, Moscow Symphony, Golovschin) 8.553932

Revered by his own generation, maligned by the next. It’s the story of too many composers. Just think for a moment and you can probably come up with a half a dozen examples. No? Well, I can. But there is one in particular whose downgraded reputation cannot be known by anyone with ears to be anything other than the glaring error which it is. I shouldn’t even characterize it as “an error.” That makes it sound as if someone just accidentally goofed, or overlooked The Truth. No, this man’s reputation was systematically scuttled by some critics determined to vilify anything less than avant garde and others anything less than politically correct. And I’m referring to the brand of political correctness which was born under Lenin and flourished under Stalin. The composer in question? Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov.

Now, you might say, good old Glazunov has been restored by the current generation of critics to his rightful throne of mediocrity. But I would challenge this. Yes, contemporary critics may praise him for embodying the synthesis of Russian and European music, they may admire his adroit traversal of tumultuous times, and they may applaud his role in the education of the next generation of Russian composers. But in the same breath they will accuse him of sounding too much like Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and even Tanayev, all at the expense of sounding like himself. As if any artist would not seek to emmulate what has been successful in the past. As if it were some sort of crime to be influenced by others. As if any artist can exist in a vacuum. What fools these critics be. All anyone has to do is actually listen to the music. I wonder if that ever occured to any of them.

So even the Glazunov of the revisionists is only grudgingly positive, suggesting that all the hard work the man did cannot make up for an ultimate lack of inspiration. Inspiration? Inspiration! It’s there in every note! Why does no one listen to anything but the violin concerto? I mean, it’s a charming concerto and everything. I love it. But there’s so much more!

Now I don’t presume to be a Glazunov specialist. In fact, just the opposite. I’ve come to him late, and only in fits and starts. (Mostly because he’s so hard to find on account of the musical world choosing to pass him by). But I’m astounded by every note I hear, and I cannot figure out why such a prolific composer has only 313 cds currently in print. It’s a scandal.

So let me put a few of his exemplary compositions on the table for you. Try them if you feel adventurous. I might be wrong, but I bet you’ll be surprised. Pleasantly.

Huge praise to Naxos, for a start. Everything under discussion here is from them. I will also give some small credit to Chandos for making a token effort with Glazunov (and with Gretchaninov, another unjustly forgotten Russian), but their efforts pale beside those of Naxos. In fact, Naxos accounts for 11% of all Glazunov in print, with 34 discs. I call your attention to volumes 2, 3 and 11 in their series of Glazunov’s Orchestral Works.

Amongst the treasures of volume two you will find a little gem called The Kremlin. First movement, guts. Second movement, quiet introspection. Third movement, glory. It has it all. It may not be quite as extroverted as, say, Capriccio Espagnol, but it definitely has backbone and bottom, as Chief Whip Francis Urquhart would say. And that’s more than a lot of music has. Certainly more than you’d think Glazunov to have, if you listen to the “conventional wisdom.” Conventional nonsense, more like. (People say Ravel was a master of orchestral color—well, just listen to the tolling-bell effect in the second movement and tell me Glazunov wasn’t a genius of orchestration!) This is perhaps the last of the great 19th century Russian musical postcards and a very fitting end to the tradition. Out with a bang, not with a whimper. Accessible, well-developed, some hefty brass writing, rousing, charming, very Russian, and very, very good. (At the 7:28 mark of the last movement one of the Moscow Symphony’s trumpeters hits a clunker, but apart from that it’s all good.)

Volume three is incidental music from a play called The King of the Jews…I have only the Golovschin on Naxos. But it’s brilliant. This is atmospheric, at times quite engaging, and an excellent example of the art of incidental music—all the more impressive considering the scarcity of models, Russian or otherwise. The introduction is a very nicely crafted exercise in subtle variation of scale, rather than of theme. It is, like much of the work, introspective, often stately, and a little mournful—how could it not be given the subject matter? But the piece as a whole is punctuated with occasional outbursts of grandeur—The Trumpets of the Levites, Entr’acte to Act III, Scene 2 and the Syrian Dance are all dramatic and/or lively enough to engage even the most humorless listener. The final section, Psalm of the Believers, is a quietly glorious variation of the original statement from the introduction, and a beautiful homage to traditional Russian liturgical music.

And finally, on volume eleven, you will find works for cello and orchestra, and in particular I would draw your attention to the Concerto Ballata. Sweet, very Russian, and just the right amounts of melancholy and drama. Recorded only three times. I could understand a conductor choosing to ignore Glazunov’s orchestral works in favor of…whatever else happened to catch his fancy. But the Concerto Ballata seems like a no-brainer for any cellist. Usually when a concertante work fails to find champions it’s because it isn’t virtuosic enough. Now, as you may recall, I’m no cellist, but quite apart from being a genuinely appealing piece of music, the concerto seems enough of a technical challenge to attract at least a little more attention than it gets. Why isn’t it a staple of the repertoire? Any cellists out there feel free to chime in. And, just to rub it in the faces of the idiots who claim that Glazunov looked too much to the past and not enough to the future, there are some genuinely forward-looking moments in this work. Maybe not a lot of them, but there are some rather brilliantly edgy (for Glazunov) moments toward the end, as well as a soloist’s dream of a finale. You’ll hear a definite debt to Elgar’s Enigma but more importantly you’ll hear little twinges of the more chromatic Rachmaninoff. Not enough to make you think he’s copying his compatriot, but enough just to show you that he can do it, and do it with style. The cadenza which starts around the thirteen minute mark is achingly sweet. I especially appreciate that Glazunov’s idea of virtuosity goes beyond merely having the soloist leap about on the A string. There is so much more to any instrument than the hairy edge of its range, and Glazunov understands this. Also, the finale is utterly brilliant.

Try them all, or just try any one of them. You’ll see what I mean. And you’ll begin to realize just what is (or isn’t) the worth of “conventional” music criticism.

Gramophone, October 1996

The Moscow Symphony players show real feeling for the orthodox choruses and bellsongs of The Kremlin’s middle movement…

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