Glazunov: Symphonies Nos.1, 2, 3 & 9
José Serebrier/Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Warner)
Glazunov’s symphonies are still relatively unknown, but there is little excuse for not becoming better acquainted with them as there are now four (or nearly four) recently recorded cycles available. Chandos strangely opted out of completing their cycle with Valeri Polyansky with just the Seventh Symphony to go; these recordings have since been licensed to Brilliant Classics, which completes the cycle with Otaka’s BIS recording. This two-disc release marks the completion of José Serebrier’s survey with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
In a booklet note, Serebrier expresses his surprise at being asked to record some Glazunov symphonies; ‘I was both flattered and puzzled’, suggesting an entire cycle was not planned at the time, but goes on to explain how his enthusiasm for the project grew, not least due to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s response. I am delighted that he has gone on to complete it, not least because this is a complete cycle, including the unfinished, one movement Ninth. This set offers the opportunity to hear the progression in the early symphonies as Glazunov began to find his own compositional ‘voice’. I shall deal with the works chronologically, whereas Warner does not, rather oddly putting the Symphony No.3 on the first disc with the one movement Ninth, with Nos.2 and 1 (in that order) on the second.
The First was premièred when the composer was still a student, the audience being astonished to discover the composer taking his bow was a 16-year-old in school uniform. The RSNO sounds completely at home in this repertoire, with warm playing from the strings in the lilting counter-subject in the first movement. There are reminiscences of Balakirev here, who advised him on the score, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov, his teacher. Strangely, the rustic Scherzo seems to be a pre-echo of that in Balakirev’s Second Symphony. Serebrier sets a lively pace here, with flutes, pizzicato strings and triangle in the Polish folk melody in the Trio, painting a landscape not unworthy of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival.
The Adagio begins with an elegiac theme, although the subsidiary idea is less inspired, before another Polish tune, a jaunty ‘thème polonais’, dominates the finale, Serebrier handling the many tempo fluctuations expertly.
Symphony No.2, written four years later, shows Glazunov paying debt to The Mighty Handful, Borodin in particular, after whose death, the following year, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov collaborated to complete his opera Prince Igor. The work most brought to mind here is Borodin’s Second Symphony, especially the glowering brass opening fanfare to which the woodwind chorale response conjures up a trace of incense. A bardic clarinet solo of great fluidity begins the Andante, which also pays debt to Borodin’s Second, before a cor anglais solo lends a dark reminder of the theme from the first movement. The RSNO’s woodwind team outshines the competition from both Wales and Russia, Serebrier allowing them to mould their phrases rhapsodically. The third movement, with agitated strings punctuated by chattering woodwind, followed by angry brass interjections make for a more dramatic Scherzo than usual, leading to the finale, in which Glazunov combines three Russian themes.
The Third Symphony is dedicated to Tchaikovsky and it’s certainly possible to detect his influence, especially in the lyrical Allegro. Glazunov had recently toured Europe, visiting Bayrueth; the spirit of Wagner infuses the Andante with its Tristanesque chromatic woodwind phrases, Serebrier drawing tenderly expressive playing, taking a more leisurely approach than Otaka or Polyansky. The delightful Scherzo, however, is pure Glazunov that those familiar with his later works, particularly the Fifth Symphony and his ballet The Seasons, will recognize. The Allegro moderato finale takes the form of a Russian dance that builds to a series of climaxes, with noble brass chorales giving a strong imperial flavour.
The decision to record the ‘unfinished’ Ninth is to be applauded. Alexander Anissimov also included it in his survey for Naxos, although I have not heard that disc. It can stand as a one-movement work, having a slow introduction which leads to an Allegro moderato, but returning to the introduction. Its orchestration, which lacks the colourful touch of the composer, was done by Gavriil Yudin. It is of interest, albeit a curiosity.
In the other symphonies, I much prefer Serebrier’s accounts; he gives the faster movements greater momentum and the RSNO, recorded in splendid sound, obviously responds to his conducting. Polyansky, although given wonderful Chandos recording which makes the Russian State Symphony Orchestra sound voluptuous, seems rather pedestrian at times in these scores. Otaka’s very fine BIS cycle is eclipsed by Serebrier’s and I would not hesitate to make this the prime recommendation for Glazunov’s symphonies. I hope that this is not the end of Serebrier’s Glazunov adventure and that discs of the concertos and the many symphonic poems may follow.
Glazunov: Symphonies Nos.1, 2, 3 & 9 Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ José Serebrier (Warner Classics 2564 68904-2)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/ Tadaaki Otaka (5 discs, BIS) BIS-CD-1663/64 (1999-2004)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/ Valeri Polyansky (Chandos): Symphony No.1 CHAN 9751 (1999); Symphony No.2 CHAN 9709 (1999); Symphony No.3 CHAN 9658 (2002)
This review originally appeared in IRR.