Withstanding the test of time

On the road to modernity. © Charles Thibo

His critics were quick to put a label on his music: academic, formal. “Like all St. Petersburg composers”, some would say. His critics were also quick to point out that he did not follow a coherent stylistic line, that he failed to give his compositions a distinct signature. Eclecticism – another label. Finally, the fact that he sympathized with the ideas of the “Mighty Five”* discredited him per se in the eyes of his detractors.

“You can criticize my compositions, but you can’t deny that I am a good conductor and a remarkable conservatory director”, Alexander Glazunov himself used to joke. He was a student of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the long time director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. And whatever his critics said, he was one of the best known and most acclaimed Russian composers of his time.

Between Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev

As a matter of fact, Glazunov was a late Romantic composer, and the spirit of his music is embodied in his popular his Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82. It is a richly melodic work, in which the violin can show its full potential. Glazunov wrote it in 1904 and dedicated it to violinist Leopold Auer, who gave the first performance at Russian Musical Society on February 15, 1905. The French musicologist André Lischke positions the concert halfway between Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergey Prokofiev.

I do hear  echos of Tchaikovsky’s lyricism in his violin concert, but from a formal and harmonic point of view, I find Glazunov a little more daring than Tchaikovsky or any other composer of the previous Russian generation. Some elements of the violin concerto seem to announce techniques adopted later by to Russia’s innovators like Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, two composers with an ambiguous if not outright hostile attitude against Glazunov’s aesthetic ideas. If you listen to, let’s say the recording by the Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi and the violinist Oscar Shumsky, you will quickly find out that Glazunov doesn’t quite fit into any category, much to the dismay of his critics.

A buoyant, energetic concert

The piece is written as a single continuous movement, however it may be divided into three sections as on the above mentioned recording. The first section is very gentle and pleasing, introduced by a solo part – Glazunov’s critics would say it’s all veneer, but it has no depth. May be that is so, but is it of any relevance? Bach wrote many pieces of technical perfection, nice to hear, but not a bit moving. And he would get away with it. Why not Glazunov? The second section follows the same melodic lines as the first section with contributions of the horns and the harp, while the finals section draws to a close with a solo trumpet leaving the overall impression of an energetic and high-spirited piece of music.

The violinist Rachel Barton Pine recorded the violin concerto with the Russian National Orchestra under José Serebrier and remarked: “It took me a while to figure out the secret to the formal structure which had previously seemed rather amorphous, like a tone poem […] One of the distinguishing characteristics of Glazunov’s music is his detailed instructions regarding dynamics and tempo changes. […] At first, some of his ideas seem almost upside down or inside out, but once you get used to them, a very individual and compelling musical personality emerges. If a violinist considers a concerto some 100 years after its composition an intriguing challenge, I believe, it has withstood the test of time!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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