July 05, 2012

(++++) SYMPHONIES AND MORE


Glazunov: Symphonies Nos. 1-9; The Seasons; La Mer; Introduction and Dance from “Salome”; Raymonda—Suite; Violin Concerto; Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra; Concerto Ballata for Cello and Orchestra; Chant du ménestrel for Cello and Orchestra; Réverie for Horn and Orchestra; Méditation for Violin and Orchestra. Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Alexander Romanovsky, piano; Marc Chisson, alto saxophone; Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Alexey Serov, French horn; Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Russian National Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier. Warner. $44.99 (8 CDs).

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5; The Year 1941. São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $9.99.

Holst: Symphony in F, “The Cotswolds”; Walt Whitman Overture; A Winter Idyll; Japanese Suite; Indra—Symphonic Poem. Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

      Placing Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) in the classical pantheon is by no means easy.  Initially considered to be Tchaikovsky’s successor, Glazunov showed remarkable precocity: his first symphony was performed when he was only 16.  He was quite prolific for a time, then essentially stopped composing about two-thirds of the way through his life, devoting himself to his position as Director of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire – and clinging to Romantic-era ideals so firmly that he was already deemed hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch long before his death.  But Glazunov has fallen into greater obscurity than Sibelius and Ives, who also stopped composing many years before their deaths, or Saint-Saëns, who was also considered hyper-conservative and unworthy of attention in his later years.  And Glazunov’s music is by no means unworthy: it is well-crafted, carefully orchestrated and often quite beautiful.  It somehow lacks a certain “oomph,” even when performed as well and with as much intensity and understanding as it receives from José Serebrier.  Yet, even though it shows little real harmonic or communicative progress from 1881 to 1906 (the years of Symphonies Nos. 1-8 –No. 9, a single movement orchestrated after Glazunov’s death, dates to 1910), it has many individual movements that are striking and effective.  Warner’s eight-CD Glazunov set is a bare-bones re-release of individual CDs devoted to the symphonies (with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and concertos (with the Russian National Orchestra).  The set is well-priced and well-recorded; the performances range from very good to outstanding; and although the set contains no information on the music, the booklet notes about the original releases are available online.  So there is ample opportunity here for listeners unfamiliar with Glazunov – or ones who know him only through his Violin Concerto, probably his most frequently performed work – to form their own opinions of his worth as a creator.

      Glazunov was certainly not forward-looking, nor did emotion run very deeply through his symphonies – only the first movement of No. 6 even approaches the involvement generated by Tchaikovsky.  Glazunov’s works are controlled, formally well-structured, even elegant, reaching into many corners of the 19th century without ever moving beyond late-Romantic style.  Interestingly, the dedications of some of the symphonies show Glazunov’s interests and knowledge: No. 1 is dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov, No. 2 to Liszt (in memoriam), No. 3 to Tchaikovsky, No. 4 to Anton Rubinstein.  The first two symphonies are not only solid but also filled with the techniques that Glazunov would employ in all his later symphonic works: he was not a composer who matured in any meaningful sense – but then, he started out with maturity well beyond his years.  Several symphonies are uneasy mixtures of expressive and straightforward elements: No. 3 has a very emotional Andante mixed with three movements that seem to come from a different world, while No. 6 has intense opening and closing movements bracketing two much slighter middle ones.  No. 4 is particularly interesting: it has three movements, none of them slow, although there are slow sections in the first and third and a tightly knit structure that delivers more emotion than do some of Glazunov’s actual slow movements.  No. 7 picked up the name “Pastoral” because its opening is reminiscent of Beethoven’s Sixth, but in fact it has more of the urban feel of an Elgar work than a sense of the countryside.  Listeners will certainly find many things to admire and enjoy in the symphonies, even if it will likely remain difficult to pick a single one as standing head and shoulders above the others.

      Serebrier’s Royal Scottish performances also include ballet music from Raymonda (1898, deliberately written in successor-to-Tchaikovsky style) and The Seasons (1900, featuring no humans – only abstractions of seasonal elements); La Mer, an 1889 Wagner-influenced tone poem predating Debussy’s by 16 years; and two pieces for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, written in 1900 (five years before Richard Strauss’ notorious opera).  As in the symphonies, the structure of these works is quite solid, even stolid, but they tend to sound as if they are just going through the motions where emotional communication is concerned.

     The final two CDs of this set include Glazunov’s concertos, plus a few short soloist-and-orchestra pieces.  The concertos, featuring fine soloists and exemplary playing by the Russian National Orchestra, are all interesting in their own ways.  Actually, “their own way,” singular, is closer to the truth, because every concerto except Piano Concerto No. 1 follows the same basic model: Liszt’s.  That is, they are single-movement, thematically interconnected works that nevertheless sound as if they contain multiple movements because of their tempo changes and overall structure.  Glazunov, however, was no Liszt, and the pieces sometimes feel and sound like second or third drafts rather than finished products.  Nevertheless, all have significant points of interest, such as the two-movement structure of the first piano concerto (the second movement being an extended theme-and-variations in which each variation has a very distinct character).  The concerto for alto saxophone – Glazunov’s last work – is especially interesting, just because there is so little concerto repertoire for this instrument.  And the short pieces interspersed among the concertos are fine miniatures, warm and well-orchestrated and sometimes more affecting (as in the case of the Réverie for horn and orchestra) than some of the longer works.  All the soloists offer high levels of skill and virtuosity, and Serebrier has clearly studied this music and plumbed what modest depths it has, just as he has paid close attention to the symphonies and ballets.  Listeners who enjoy late-Romantic works and would like to experience some well-made but rarely heard ones will find this eight-CD a pleasure in many ways.  But not all: the online notes are often self-contradictory and irritating, for example saying at one point that Glazunov was 16 at the debut of his Symphony No. 1 and at another stating incorrectly that he was 17, and sometimes spelling the name of his patron, Mitrofan Belyayev, as Belaieff (either is an adequate transliteration from the Cyrillic, but some consistency would be nice).  Also, the arrangement of the music on the CDs is simply bizarre: Symphony No. 3 with No. 9, Nos. 1 and 2 together but in reverse order, No. 4 paired with No. 7, and no apparent rhyme or reason at all for the sequence of the concertos.  There are many pleasures to be found in Glazunov’s music, but there was no reason to make it this irritating to find them.

      Prokofiev was one of the post-Glazunov Russian composers who did bring symphonic music to new and more creative regions, and the first disc of a planned Prokofiev cycle conducted by Marin Alsop is quite a good one.  Prokofiev’s World War II symphonies, Nos. 5 and 6, are his best, and Alsop displays a sure hand and considerable attentiveness to inner voices and instrumental balance in her work with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, of which she recently became principal conductor.  This is a strong, nicely balanced orchestra, all its sections playing well, its strings particularly adept with Prokofiev’s often-biting rhythms, its brass perhaps a touch strident in sound but precise in attack.  Alsop’s interpretation of the symphony is generally first-rate and even incisive, the only significant flaw being a much-too-slow approach to the trio of the second movement – this section is supposed to pull the music back from its headlong rush, but not bring it to a virtual standstill.  Still, this is a fine start to Alsop’s Prokofiev cycle – and the other work here, The Year 1941, makes for an intriguing contrast with the symphony.  Written after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the work has patriotic fervor and  aims for an uplifting conclusion (its final section is called “For the Brotherhood of Man”), but comes across as clangorous and clattery rather than solemn or celebratory.  Here the orchestra’s brass sound fits the music’s theme quite well, and if the work is scarcely major Prokofiev, it is interesting for showing another side of a composer generally thought of as a symphonist.

      Gustav Holst, in contrast, is not thought of as writing symphonies.  Indeed, except for The Planets, he is not a particularly well-known composer, and those who do know his music tend to think mostly of its Indian and folk-music influences – although in fact Holst wrote a considerable amount of vocal music, including eight operas.  Holst did write one symphony, “The Cotswolds,” in 1899-1900, and it gets a solid and attractive performance from the Ulster Orchestra under its principal conductor, JoAnn Falletta.  The first, second and fourth movements of the symphony are fairly straightforward and display the influence of Wagner as well as some hints of folk music, but the second movement – written in memory of utopian socialist William Morris – is considerably more heartfelt and comes across quite effectively.  Wagner’s influence also shows in Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture (1899), which – like “The Cotswolds” – was influenced by Holst’s sociopolitical interests.  A Winter Idyll is an even earlier work, dating to 1897, when Holst was 23.  The orchestral writing here is mature, but the piece is rather bland.  The other two offerings on this CD are later: Indra, a tone poem based on an Indian legend about a demon and the god of the heavens, was written in 1903, and the Japanese Suite, written for a Japanese dancer and choreographer, dates to 1915.  Both works show Holst’s mature style more clearly, incorporating as they do the harmonies and rhythms of the musical traditions of other nations within a Western orchestral framework that is handled with delicacy and grace.  Falletta, a strong advocate of less-known music, gets fine sound from the orchestra in all these works and makes a good case for all of them, and indeed for Holst’s music in general.

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