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CONFIDENT Alexander Glazunov, Symphony No. 1

The MHS Review 402, VOL. 12, NO.6 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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Between 1881 and 1910 Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov turned out nine symphonies--the required number since Beethoven, it seems. Though the Ninth was written a quarter of a century before the com­poser died, it was left unfinished, and the single movement that we have was or­chestrated by someone else.

The latest Britannica designates him as "the major Russian symphonic composer of the generation that followed Tchaikovsky," and Boris Schwarz sums him up in Grove thus: "He remains a composer of imposing stature." Yet, at least in the West, his sym­phonies have, up until recently, been oddly neglected. According to WERM, in 1950, on the cusp of the LP age, only the Fourth Sym­phony had been recorded (by Rome's St. Cecilia Academy Orchestra under Jacques Rachmilovich, the Russian-born founder of the Santa Monica Symphony, who died on a 1956 ocean voyage and was buried at sea, in case you were wondering whatever became of him).

Later in the same decade the same work, played by Hans Schwieger and the Kansas City Philharmonic, and the Seventh, by Felix Lederer and the Radio Berlin Symphony, ap­peared on the now-long-extinct Urania label. I find no indication that there were pre-LP Soviet recordings, though from the early 1950s the Russians made all deliberate haste to rectify the omission with a complete series, mostly directed by Boris Khaikin and Nikolai Golovanov.

Some of these may have circulated briefly here on Colosseum, a miserably made American record (has nothing to do with the like-named German product) that convinced us that Soviet sound technology would never catch up. As far as I can determine, no more were forthcoming here, however, until a decade ago when, in a brief romance with the Russians, CBS issued part of a new series con­ducted by Vladimir Fedosyev (which, I seem to recall, was later brought out in toto by a smaller company, though I find no confirma­tion of this notion). Recently Varese­-Sarabande returned the old Schwieger recor­ding to the catalog. and Neeme Jarvi embarked on what may become an integrale.

Glazunov's rise was truly meteoric. The son of a publisher. he evidenced musical talent early, took up piano at the age of nine, and began writing music two years later. At 14 he began serious study with Rimsky-Korsakov, who found him more an equal than a student. He wrote his first symphony (the one on this record) when he was 16, and heard it premiered by Mily Balakirev. He attracted the notice of the philanthropist Mitrofan Belayev who, three years later, took him to Germany, where the symphony was played at Weimar in the presence of old Liszt.

When Borodin dropped dead in 1887, Glazunov and his sometime teacher took it on themselves to make practicable his un­finished opera Prince Igor. Glazunov reconstructed the overture from memory and built the third act from scraps. From 1899 he advanced from a professorship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory to the headship, which he maintained more than a decade in­to the Soviet regime. But in the heady days following the Revolution he was increasing­ly attacked as out of touch by the Young Turks of Russian music, and finally, in 1928, he went West and never returned. He con­ducted as guest for a brief time, during which he recorded his ballet The Seasons, and then retired, owing to failing health.

It has been said that Glazunov represents a synthesis of the chief currents in Russian music of the 19th century, encompassing Tchaikovskian melody, Balakirevian na­tionalism, and Korsakovian orchestral brilliance. The First Symphony, whose in­strumentation Glazunov twice revised (1885 and 1929), strikes this listener as confident and brassy. Its lyricism is undeniable, and yet, like that of most of Glazunov for me, it fails to stick in the memory. (But perhaps it's my memory that's at fault.)

Glazunov wrote very little of consequence during his last 35 years. I have heretofore been taken to task for invoking what seems to have been a drinking problem. (Rachmaninoff blamed the disastrous premiere of his own First Symphony on Glazunov's condition on the podium, and it is said that when the going got tough at the Conservatory he retired to his office with a case of champagne and locked the door.) Perhaps my correspondent, know better, though I suspect some of them don't like to hear unpleasant things about their heroes.

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