GRECHANINOV: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
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Alexandr Tikhonovich Grechaninov (1864 - 1956)
Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op. 6
Symphony No. 2 in A major, Op. 27, \Pastorale"
Alexandr Tikhonovich Grechaninov was born in Moscow in 1864, the son of a barely literate tradesman. At school he sang as a soloist in the chapel choir and at the age of fourteen began piano lessons, encouraged by his sister-in-law. In 1881, in spite of his father's opposition, he entered the piano class of Tchaikovsky's friend Nikolay Kashkin at the Conservatory in Moscow. In 1885 he became a pupil of Vasily Safonov, taking lessons in composition from Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev and lessons in fugue from Arensky. His active career as a composer began with a setting of a poem by Lermontov in 1889.
In 1890 Grechaninov left Moscow Conservatory and moved to St Petersburg, where a scholarship enabled him to study under Rimsky-Korsakov at the Conservatory. He married in 1891 and had his first significant success the following year, when his Concert Overture was performed. In 1894 his first string quartet won a prize in the Belyayev Chamber Music Competition, and taught the piano in St Petersburg and subsequently in Moscow. In the latter city he interested himself in the music of ethnic minority populations, working in the music section of the ethnographical society of Moscow University and in this connection wrote a considerable amount of children's music. At the same time he received an annual stipend in recognition of his services to church music, although his later use of instruments in liturgical compositions made its church use impossible. The Revolution of 1917 put an end to his church pension and the uncertainty of the times led him to seek a future abroad, at first in London and in Prague. In 1925 he moved to Paris, where he remained until the threatening situation of 1939 persuaded him to seek safety in the United States of America, a country he had already visited on a number of occasions for a series of concert tours. In 1946 he became an American citizen and died in New York ten years later.
While recent critics have found much to admire in Grechaninov's children's music, in his arrangements of songs from the minority peoples of the Soviet Union and in his liturgical music, little serious attention has been accorded his more substantial orchestral compositions. Immediate posterity tended to follow Rimsky-Korsakov in rejecting the very technical competence that marked the work of Anton Rubinstein and that of many of the younger composers trained at the newly established Conservatories in St Petersburg and Moscow. Such proficiency was tainted for some with the cosmopolitan or German, and for a later generation marred by allegedly bourgeois tendencies. In his First Symphony, which displays this very competence in structure and orchestration, there is a winning use of Russian thematic material. Nevertheless the work lacks the fashionable primitive crudity of the dilettante Nationalists. There is a fine Russian first subject, heard at the start from the lower strings, and a gently contrasting second theme. The cellos and double basses introduce the principal theme of the slow movement, while the G major Scherzo allows the violas to suggest the vigorous rhythm of the movement, before the entry of the violins with the main theme, to which there are later contrasts of mood and key. The finale asserts a triumphant B major, its emphatic and brief introduction followed by a lighter theme offered tentatively by the strings, but growing in intensity, in a movement that offers an appealing conclusion to a symphony of obvious charm.
Grechaninovs Second Symphony was completed in 1909. It was to be followed by three more symphonies, the fourth introduced to America by Barbirolli in 1942 and the fifth given at the Philadelphia Youth Concert in 1946. The Second Symphony is of more substantial length than its predecessor and one may detect something of contemporary Western European influence in its harmonies. The first movement carries the title Pastorale and opens in the key of A minor with an ominous enough figure, which gradually begins to assume a gentler, more lyrical significance, until it is replaced by the French horn's second theme, a melody thoroughly Russian in contour. The material introduced forms the basis of what follows, constituting a very Russian kind of Pastorale. The slow movement moves to the key of C sharp minor, the clarinet presenting the lyrical first theme, to a syncopated accompaniment from second violins and violas, while the French horn offers a romantic subsidiary element. This proceeds in a manner worthy of Rachmaninov to a major second melody from the violas. The Scherzo breaks the mood with its opening bar, shifting in key to D major. The first Trio offers a contrasting oboe melody in B major, while the second Trio moves to G minor in a violin theme, accompanied at first by the strings, both providing an opportunity for an excursion into the Russian countryside. The finale seems about to move further away from the original tonality, in a movement of rich enough variety. Here, as throughout the symphony, Grechaninov handles the orchestra with assurance, making characteristic Russian use of the wind instruments, as he had learned from Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg. The symphony makes an interesting and attractive addition to the orchestral repertoire.