GLAZUNOV: 5 Novelettes / String Quintet, Op. 39 (Adam Abeshouse/ Fine Arts Quartet/ Nathaniel Rosen) (Naxos: 8.570256)
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Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)
Five Novelettes, Op. 15 String Quintet in A major, Op. 39
It is becoming increasingly unnecessary to defend the reputation of Glazunov. He belonged to a generation of Russian composers that was able to benefit from more professional standards of compositional technique, absorbing and helping to create a synthesis of the national, that might sometimes be expressed crudely enough, and the technique of the conservatories, that might sometimes seem facile. Glazunov worked closely with Rimsky-Korsakov, to whom Balakirev, his mother's teacher, had recommended him, and played an important part in the education of a new generation of Russian composers such as Shostakovich.
Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov was born in St Petersburg in 1865, the son of a publisher and bookseller. As a child he showed considerable musical ability and in 1879 met Balakirev and hence Rimsky-Korsakov. By the age of sixteen he had finished the first of his nine symphonies, which was performed under the direction of Balakirev, whose influence is perceptible in the work. The relationship with Balakirev was not to continue. The rich timber-merchant Mitrofan Petrovich Belyayev had been present at the first performance of the symphony and travelled to Moscow to hear Rimsky-Korsakov conduct a second performance there. He attended the Moscow rehearsals and his meeting with Rimsky-Korsakov was the beginning of a new informal association of Russian composers, perceived by Balakirev as a threat to his own position and influence, as self-appointed mentor of the Russian nationalist composers. Glazunov became part of Belyayev's circle, attending his Friday evenings with Rimsky-Korsakov, rather than Balakirev's Tuesday evening meetings. Belyayev took Glazunov, in 1884, to meet Liszt in Weimar, where the First Symphony was performed.
In 1899 Glazunov joined the staff of the Conservatory in St Petersburg, but by this time his admiration for his teacher seems to have cooled. Rimsky-Korsakov's wife was later to remark on Glazunov's admiration for Tchaikovsky and Brahms, suspecting in this the influence of Taneyev and of the critic Laroche, champion of Tchaikovsky and a strong opponent of the nationalists, a man described by Rimsky-Korsakov as the Russian equivalent of Hanslick in Vienna, a comparison that, from him, was not entirely complimentary.
Glazunov, however, remained a colleague and friend of Rimsky-Korsakov, and demonstrated this after the political disturbance of 1905, when the latter had signed a letter of protest at the suppression of some element of democracy in Russia and had openly sympathized with Conservatory students who had joined liberal protests against official policies. Rimsky-Korsakov was dismissed from the Conservatory, to be reinstated by Glazunov, elected director of an institution that, in the aftermath, had now won a measure of autonomy. Glazunov remained director of the Conservatory until 1930.
In 1928 he left Russia in order to attend the Schubert celebrations in Vienna. Thereafter he remained abroad, with a busy round of engagements as a conductor, finally settling near Paris until his death in 1936.
It says much for the esteem in which Glazunov was held that he was able to steer the Conservatory through years of great hardship, difficulty and political turmoil, fortified in his task, it seems, by the illicit supply of vodka provided for him by the father of Shostakovich, then a student there. Emaciated through the years of privation after the Revolution, he eventually assumed a more substantial appearance again, compared by the English press to a retired tea-planter or a prosperous bank-manager, with his rimless glasses and gold watch-chain. His appearance was in accordance with his musical tastes. He found fault with Stravinsky's ear and could not abide the music of Richard Strauss, while the student Prokofiev seems to have shocked him with the discords of his Scythian Suite. His own music continued the tradition of Tchaikovsky and to this extent seemed an anachronism in an age when composers were indulging in experiments of all kinds.
Glazunov wrote his Five Novelettes, Op. 15, in 1881, originally giving them the less evocative title of 'Suite', to be replaced at the suggestion of Hans von Bülow, distinguished pianist and conductor, former husband of Liszt's daughter Cosima, who took Wagner as her second husband. The first of the pieces, Alla spagnuola (In Spanish style) opens with the plucked notes of the cello, in accompaniment to the first melody, with its characteristic rhythm. A trio section starts with a cello melody, but the dance soon resumes. Orientale again starts with the plucked accompanying notes of the cello, to which the viola adds cross-rhythms, the violins entering with a dancing rhythm over a suggested drone. A lull brings a viola phrase of oriental character, taken up by the other instruments, one after the other, after which the opening material returns. The third movement, Interludium in modo antico, is in fact in the Dorian mode, but has distinct allusions to Russian tradition in its solemnity. Valse offers an immediate contrast, its characteristic accompanying rhythm first established by the cello and viola. Contrast is provided with a change of key and mood in the central section and increasing excitement before the return of the music of the opening. The last of the Novelettes is Alla ungherese (In Hungarian style). Here again the plucked notes of the cello provide the opening accompanying rhythm over which the first violin offers the first Hungarian theme. As before there is a contrasting central section, marked here Andantino sostenuto, Capriccioso, with hints at familiar Hungarian gypsy rhetoric. The original rhythm and melodic material returns, and finally winds down into a conclusion that emphasizes the key in its repetition of the tonic chord, with the open strings of the violins. Glazunov later arranged the work for piano duet.
In the 1890s Belyayev came to rely on Glazunov's compositional facility for a series of new works for his new catalogue of publications and for the entertainment of his guests at his Friday evenings. The String Quintet in A major, Op. 39, was written 1891, and scored, like Schubert's, with two cellos. The viola starts the first movement with a melody from which the first subject section is developed. It is the first cello that initiates the contrasting Poco più tranquillo in C major, the second subject group. Both elements are duly developed and varied before returning transformed in recapitulation, followed by a coda. A sustained viola note accompanies the plucked notes of first and then second violin in the F major Scherzo, before the principal theme is heard pizzicato from the violins and viola. A trio section in D minor follows, leading to a return of the scherzo and a final coda. The cello was an instrument that appealed greatly to Glazunov and it is to the second cello that he entrusts the opening of the D minor Andante sostenuto. The main theme is introduced by the first violin, later to be taken up by the first cello, and there is a contrasting section before the return of the original key and thematic material and the final Agitato ed accelerando in D major. The last movement starts in A minor with a theme of Russian flavour. The viola introduces a fugal subject, followed by a D major passage marked Più tranquillo. The main theme and key return, succeeded by the second subject in Amajor. The fin