Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Summermusic #3: A String Quintet by a Russian Romantic

Glazunov at 21
This evening, the Strings of Summermusic 2013 will perform three works - a duo by Maurice Ravel, a trio by Antonin Dvořák and a quintet by Alexander Glazunov - at the Civic Club on Front Street in Harrisburg. The concert time is earlier than usual - 6:00 - so be aware of that.

(You can read about Maurice Ravel's Sonata for Violin & Cello, here.)

For those unfamiliar with the Civic House, it's a new venue for Market Square Concerts and the room has a great view over the Susquehanna River toward the West Shore. It's the only building on the river-side of Front Street, by the way, and it's between the Harvey Taylor Bridge and State Street (don't forget, you can't make a left turn onto Front Street from Forester!!! You'll need to turn up 2nd Street and then take the first available left to reach Front Street). As for parking, it's minimal at the building itself though people do park on the grass in the park just south of the Civic Club's brownstone walls, but you can also park on State Street which is just around the corner on the right.

Here's a short video of the ensemble rehearsing the Glazunov Quintet with violinists Peter Sirotin and Nicole Sharlow, violist Michael Stepniak and cellists Fiona Thompson and Nadine Trudel.

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Alexander Glazunov may not be a very well known or highly respected composer today, not like his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov or his student Dmitri Shostakovich. Unfortunately, he is more remembered as the alcoholic conductor who ruined the premiere of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony and as an old-fashioned past-his-prime relic who ran the St. Petersburg Conservatory in the years around the Bolshevik Revolution before falling out of favor with the new Soviet ethic.

Glazunov & Rimsky-Korsakov
Yet in Russia in his youth, he was regarded as a major composer, a prodigy who'd written his first symphony when he was 16, the darling of the nationalists until he became too much a cosmopolitan academic. Today, his ballet “The Seasons” survives in a dance world starved for works from the Golden Age of the Russian Imperial Ballet, his Violin Concerto (once very popular) is still occasionally heard in the concert hall, and saxophonists play his concerto simply because there's not much else to play, is there? In this country, few if any of his symphonies and little of his chamber music ever get dusted off.

Again with the usual caveat of finding reasonably good performances with decent recordings and half-way acceptable sound on You-Tube, here's the String Quintet in A Major, Op. 39 by Alexander Glazunov: recorded on August 20th, 2011 in Chandler Hall. Randolph, Vermont, as part of the Central Vermont Chamber Music Festival – with violinists Arturo Delmoni and Cyrus Beroukhim; violist Michael Roth; and cellists Peter Sanders and Allistair MacRae.

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1st Movement

2nd Movement

3rd Movement

4th Movement

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Glazunov's style is usually regarded as a mix of his mentors' folk-song-inspired nationalism with a dash of the romantic aura of Orientalism (most famous in Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherezade) combined with the cosmopolitan absorption of Western European elements also heard in Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky that in itself was a kind of mash-up of Liszt on the one hand and Mendelssohn on the other.

In one of those impossible comparisons everyone likes to make about something you may not know in terms of something you might, he's often referred to as “The Russian Mendelssohn” which is partly true in his coming from a well-to-do family and also in being precocious and that his style is a mixture of various, often conflicting influences – the stylistic dialectic of Nationalist Romanticism on the one hand combined with a sense of the European Classical Past on the other, hoping to find some common ground. Otherwise, it's basically like saying Glazunov “tastes like chicken,” but it's not a bad place to start.

And if this piece might compare to anything, it might be to much of the chamber music Mendelssohn composed (always excepting the Octet which is incomparable). It might never stand up to the Schubert Quintet as a masterpiece - but then, what can?

When Glazunov wrote his String Quintet, he was in his mid-20s and in between writing the 3rd and 4th of his eight symphonies as well as the 3rd and 4th of his seven string quartets.

Glazunov in 1895
1892 was a productive year: in addition to the String Quintet, he composed his Carnaval Overture for large orchestra and organ, a brass quartet called In modo religioso, a number of waltzes and salon pieces as well as the bombastic Triumphal March composed for the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (its use of The Battle Hymn of the Republic especially at the end should please lovers of the 1812 Overture who might be looking for suitable American-inspired fireworks music for the 4th of July). One critic thought this Triumphal March sounded a bit more British than American (I hear lots of Wagner, myself), yet in 1892, who in the United States even knew what American music sounded like?

If you're not familiar with Glazunov's music, take a few minutes at least to sample these more representative pieces:
- his 1st Symphony (1881)
- the Violin Concerto (1904)
- his 2nd Piano Concerto (1917)
- the Saxophone Concerto (1934) 

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Glazunov composed with legendary facility and his music was generally greeted without much concern or controversy (beyond the initial debut when people refused to believe a 16-year-old could write a symphony like that and accused his well-to-do parents of paying someone to write it for him).

But around the time he turned 40, this ease came to a grinding halt. Part of this may have been the responsibilities of taking over the St. Petersburg Conservatory from his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov in 1905 after he ran afoul of government during the political upheaval that almost became a revolution. His alcoholism worsened – though it had already played a very likely part in the disaster of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony in 1897: it was enough that he didn't care for the piece and made comments about not understanding it. He was finding himself a man-out-of-touch with what was going around him, musically.

Lyadov, Glazunov & Rimsky-Korsakov in 1904
In the 25 years from his first published works to the 1905-1906 Season when he completed his last symphony, there are 85 opus numbers in his catalog. In the remaining 30 years of his creative life, there are only 24 works, mostly inconsequential by comparison even though they include both his piano concertos (the 2nd, in B Major, is one I've always liked and wondered why no one plays), the last two string quartets (the last one, subtitled “Hommage au passé”) and the Saxophone Concerto which one occasionally hears as much because there aren't many Romantic-style concertos for the instrument (despite its being composed in 1934) as it's the last major work he composed.

If his teaching responsibilities didn't have a serious enough impact on him – whether or not the alcoholism was a symptom or a contributor to his creative decline – the political and social climate of the new 20th Century certainly undermined everything he as a conservative held dear, both socially and musically. Though he stayed after the Communists took control of the government and lived through the privations of the 1st World War, the two 1917 Revolutions and the ensuing Civil War, he never really regained the status he had enjoyed as a young man in the Imperial Age.

When he left the Soviet Union for the West, he did so “for reasons of health” rather than as a political refugee like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev or Stravinsky: if nothing else, this allowed his music to still be performed “back home.” But he spent the last eight years of his life as an exile in Paris, a man without a country (or even a culture) and, ironically for a man as “cosmopolitan” as he was, musically, little musical inspiration.

He was deeply suspect of New Music at the time. He told a colleague that Stravinsky's Petrushka was not music though skillfully orchestrated. Looking at Debussy's “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” he thought it was “orchestrated with great taste,” then wondered “Could it be that Rimsky and I influenced the orchestration of all these contemporary degenerates?”

Dmitri Shostakovich, the leading symphonist of the Soviet era, owed a great deal to Glazunov the teacher and administrator. His recollections in Semyon Volkov's highly questionable memoir, “Testimony,” include stories of Glazunov's legendary memory.

We owe the Overture to Borodin's Prince Igor to that memory since Borodin, a busy chemist and professor as well as composer, did not live to complete the opera or jot down anything for the overture. He'd played through it at the piano for his friends: Glazunov had heard one of these performances and was able to write it down later.

Another story was how the composer Taneyev had come to Belyayev to play his new symphony at the piano for him: meanwhile, the teen-aged Glazunov had been hidden in an adjacent room, listening to the performance. When it was over, Belyayev called Glazunov into the room as if he'd just arrived and said, as it happened, this young man was going to play through his new symphony as well. And he sat down and played Taneyev's symphony back to him, note for note.

Shostakovich, Student
While there is also the famous story of Glazunov keeping a bottle of vodka in his desk drawer, a rubber hose hidden in his coat connecting to the bottle so he could sip on it during his lessons, it's perhaps kinder to end with the fact – whatever he thought of “new music” – Glazunov arranged the premiere of his student Shostakovich's 1st Symphony with the Leningrad Philharmonic in the same hall where his own 1st Symphony had been premiered 44 years earlier and had created just as much of a stir when the teenaged composer walked out on-stage to accept the cheers of the audience.

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