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Hyperion Records

CDA66833 - Glazunov: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1

Recording details: October 1994
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Paul Spicer
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: January 1996
Total duration: 69 minutes 50 seconds


'Coombs is clearly equipped to face the most prodigious demands . . . This is a most impressive and highly enjoyable release' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A dazzling series of salon and genre pieces full of the easy charm and winning tunefulness that also mark Glazunov's ballet The Seasons. Stephen Coombs proves a most persuasive advocate, consistently conveying sheer joy in keyboard virtuosity … which gives magic to pieces which might otherwise seem trivial. It makes a feast for any lover of piano music' (The Guardian)

'Stephen Coombs se révèle être un défenseur convaincu de ce répertoire qu'il aborde avec des moyens digitaux et une poésie remarquables' (Diapason, France)

The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 1
Scherzo  [3'04]
Nocturne  [5'31]
Valse  [3'19]
Pastorale  [3'10]
Polka  [2'29]
Valse  [3'23]
Allegro moderato  [8'34]
Andante  [7'36]

In common with most Russian composers, piano music holds a significant place in the works of Alexander Glazunov, exhibiting his skill as a miniaturist, the elegance of his salon music, his harmonic adventurism, and his mastery of counterpoint and large-scale forms.

Volume 1 opens, appropriately, with Glazunov's first published piano composition, the Suite on the name 'SASCHA', a remarkably assured work containing many of the devices which were to become features of Glazunov's later piano writing. The programme continues with a selection of waltzes reflecting the cosmopolitan society of nineteenth-century St Petersburg.

Finally we have the first of Glazunov's two piano sonatas. The work bristles with technical difficulties but remains a very controlled work, never allowed to spill over into emotionalism.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In common with most Russian composers, piano music holds a significant place in the works of Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov. Virtually every aspect of his talent is exhibited here: his skill as a miniaturist, the elegance of his salon music, his harmonic adventurousness and his mastery of counterpoint and large-scale forms.

Glazunov also holds a particular place in the development of Russian music as a whole. He stands as the heir of both Glinka’s quest for a Russian nationalistic expression and Anton Rubinstein’s desire to integrate Russian art into mainstream European culture. He was championed by the nationalistic composer Balakirev and taught by the latter’s student Rimsky-Korsakov. He was influenced by his friend Tchaikovsky and yet inherited the mantle of Anton Rubinstein – most notably as Director of the St Petersburg Conservatory. Although his legacy has been largely ignored in the West, his influence as Russia’s great musical conciliator has lived on in successive generations of post-Revolutionary composers and particularly in the music of his greatest student, Shostakovich.

Glazunov was Russia’s greatest symphonist after Tchaikovsky (with eight completed symphonies) and personally handed down this legacy to Shostakovich. Similarly, his ballets (second only to Tchaikovsky’s in their appeal) kept alive Russia’s contribution in this field and provided future opportunities for later composers such as Stravinsky. It is unlikely that Rachmaninov would have been able to give the premiere of his own first symphony so early in his career had not Glazunov had such an unusual success with his; and his championing of the string quartet medium influenced succeeding generations of Russian composers.

Glazunov was born in St Petersburg on 10 August 1865. His father Konstantin Ilyich was a prosperous publisher and a keen amateur violinist. His mother Elena Pavlovna was an accomplished pianist of almost professional standard, so it is not surprising that Alexander’s musical training started early. From the age of six he studied piano and, presumably to allow the family to play chamber music together, was also encouraged to play the viola and cello.

At the age of twelve, Alexander began serious studies with Nikolai Elenkovsky, his mother’s own piano teacher. However, barely a year later, Elenkovsky left St Petersburg and, in order to find a replacement teacher for herself and Alexander, Elena Pavlovna turned for advice to Mili Balakirev. This was to prove the most decisive event in Glazunov’s career. Balakirev, impressed by Alexander’s early compositional efforts, suggested that he should study with his own protégé, Rimsky-Korsakov. Glazunov began his studies with Rimsky-Korsakov at the beginning of 1880. His progress was phenomenal. By 1881 he was sketching his first symphony and in March 1882 it was given its acclaimed premiere under Balakirev at a Free Music School concert. Glazunov was only sixteen years old.

The success of his first symphony turned the spotlight on the young composer. Though there were some who doubted whether it was all his own work (there was a rumour that his parents had paid for the symphony to be written for him), there were others who began to pay special attention to this newly rising star. The most important of these, both for Glazunov and for the future of Russian music publishing, was Mitrofan Petrovich Belaieff.

Belaieff was a millionaire landowner. He had a passion for music and, at the age of forty-six, Glazunov’s symphony caught his imagination. He approached the composer with a view to publishing the work. His plan was to set up his publishing house in Leipzig and not, as had been the custom until then, in Russia (where there was little copyright protection). The symphony became the first work accepted by M P Belaieff, the publishing firm which was to dominate Russian music-publishing until the Revolution.

Glazunov quickly built on this early success and in 1884 made his first journey abroad. In Weimar he met Liszt, who honoured the young composer by arranging the first performance outside Russia of his first symphony. This meeting became a turning point in Glazunov’s career. Within a few years he would become one of the most influential composers in Russia. In order to understand his extraordinary success it is important to review the situation in musical Russia at that time.

In 1865, the year of Glazunov’s birth (and also that of the composers Carl Nielsen, Paul Dukas and Jean Sibelius), the Russian musical establishment was dominated by the opposing figures of Balakirev and Anton Rubinstein. Though both paid homage to the earlier nationalistic composer Glinka, they differed in their views about the direction which Russian music should take. Rubinstein looked to the west for inspiration; Balakirev, on the other hand, looked towards the east and Russia’s own heritage of folk song and ethnic diversity. Eventually Balakirev’s views came to influence a whole generation of composers in St Petersburg. An influential and powerful group, comprising Balakirev together with Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui, became known as ‘The Mighty Handful’. Their dominance, however, proved to be short-lived for, in 1887, with Mussorgsky already dead, ‘The Mighty Handful’ effectively passed into history with the unexpected death of Borodin. The group had now lost its two most original, if hardly prolific, composers. César Cui had become distanced from his former friends largely because of his vitriolic, if entertaining, music reviews (his description of Rachmaninov’s first symphony as a ‘programme symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt’ is a good example of the sort of remark that lost him the goodwill of his fellow composers). Balakirev, meanwhile, had become increasingly estranged from his colleagues because of his continuing obsession with nationalism and his difficult temperament. Within this vacuum, Glazunov’s reputation grew. Three years after Borodin’s death, Glazunov, still only twenty-five years old, took over the post of conductor at the Russian Symphony Concerts from Rimsky-Korsakov who was now turning increasingly to opera. With the death of Tchaikovsky in 1893, and that of Anton Rubinstein in the following year, Glazunov took centre stage and became the leader of the new musical establishment.

Glazunov had already proved himself to be a prolific composer. In the four years between 1888 and 1892 he published twenty-seven works, perhaps in response to Belaieff’s pressure to fill up his still embryonic catalogue, though also to keep up the tradition of performing a new Glazunov work in each new Russian Symphony Concert (usually six a year). By the end of the century Glazunov had completed five string quartets, six symphonies, his three ballets (Raymonda, Les Ruses d’Amour and The Seasons), together with the majority of his piano works, several other chamber works, four sets of songs and various overtures, serenades and symphonic poems for orchestra. The end of the century was significant in another respect, for in 1899 Glazunov began his thirty-year tenure at the St Petersburg Conservatory with his appointment as Professor of Instrumentation.

Despite the increasing demands of teaching, the period from 1899 to 1906 represents a creative peak in Glazunov’s career. Although he no longer wrote as prolifically, the quality of his output remained high. His last two symphonies, the violin concerto, the fifth string quartet and his two piano sonatas all belong to this period and deserve a place among the finest examples of Russian music. From 1907 onwards his time was increasingly taken up with the Conservatory, especially after being appointed its Director in November 1905. The active composer, prolific and energetic, had become, within a decade, a revered pedagogue. The meteoric rise was now to be followed by as sudden a decline.

By 1912 the Russian avant-garde had attracted the attention of the world. Stravinsky had already given the premieres of his ballets The Firebird and Petrushka and was now at work on The Rite of Spring, whilst back at the St Petersburg Conservatory Liadov’s brilliant pupil Serge Prokofiev had won the Rubinstein Prize with his first piano concerto.

Increasingly isolated and confused (by now all his closest friends and colleagues were dead), Glazunov watched as the new music moved in to take over the sound-world he inhabited. Although still revered by his students he now found himself removed from his position as the great new hope of Russian music to the stuffy old guard – all within two decades. With the 1917 Revolution his world and his creative expression of it had virtually ended. Although he lived until 1936, his creative output became a mere trickle.

In 1922, by now chronically dependant on alcohol, Glazunov was named ‘People’s Artist of the Republic’ to mark forty years as a composer. At the celebratory concert it was announced that in recognition of his services his living conditions would be improved (he was then living in one room, having repeatedly refused the Soviet Government’s requests to write music for the Revolution which would have immediately placed him in relative luxury). His only response was to say that he personally needed nothing, but that if the Government really wanted to help they could provide fuel for the freezing Conservatory.

On 15 June 1928 Glazunov left Leningrad to represent Russia at the Schubert Centenary celebrations in Vienna. He never returned. Settled in Paris, the Soviet authorities named him an ambassador for Soviet music and a living example of continuity. Glazunov, however, torn between his loyalty to the Conservatory and the possibility that Paris could offer a return to his pre-Revolutionary lifestyle, hung on. Finally, in 1930, he resigned from the Conservatory after more than a quarter of a century at his post. Over the next few years he travelled extensively across Europe and North America conducting and performing with his newly adopted daughter Elena who performed his piano concertos all over Europe under his direction.

Alexander Glazunov died on 21 March 1936 in Paris. He was seventy years old. Thirty-six years later, on 13 November 1972, his body was returned to Russia where he was buried among his friends Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov in the Alexander Nevsky cemetery in Leningrad.

The Suite on the name ‘SASCHA’, Op 2, is Glazunov’s first published piano composition and is dedicated to his mother, Elena Glazunova. Written in 1883, it is a remarkably assured work containing many of the pianistic devices which were to become a feature of his later piano-writing. Using the notes which spell the diminutive of his own name, SASCHA (in German notation these letters stand for E flat, A, E flat, C, B, A), it is great bravura writing, offering no concessions to the performer. It contains a wealth of contrapuntal detail and that exuberance which naturally accompanies a young composer exploring a new medium. This work was already known to Liszt in 1884 – an interesting confirmation of the advantages to be gained by publishing with Belaieff in Leipzig rather than the more isolated Russian-based publishing houses. Glazunov relates how, on his visit to Weimar in the same year: ‘[Liszt] … made his pupil Friedheim, a Russian, play my piano suite, but he played the Prelude so badly that Liszt chased him away from the piano and made me continue. He particularly liked the agitato in the Prelude. Meanwhile, more and more people arrived. Various composers came, among them Saint-Saëns. They played their works. Apropos of something, Liszt said that if a work contains something Russian, it is certain to be good. He is very witty. When I seated myself at the piano and apologized for playing badly, he remarked that it should be so. If a composer plays well or a pianist composes well, he said, there is good reason to suspect that each is passing off someone else’s work as his own. Liszt is full of witticisms like this.’

With his Waltzes on the theme ‘SABELA’, Op 23, Glazunov picks up exactly where he left off in his Suite, this time incorporating the name of the work’s dedicatee, Nadezhda Sabela, a distinguished coloratura soprano of the period (the letters forming the sequence E flat, A, B flat, E natural and ‘La’, or the note A). Glazunov shows an affinity with waltzes, and delicious concoctions they are. All of his piano waltzes were written during a particularly prolific period of his life – between 1890 and 1893. Though undoubtedly finished works in their own right, one cannot help thinking that their composition might have served as a preparation for his more famous orchestral Valse de concert, Op 47, and his later ballet waltzes. His Grande valse de concert, Op 41, was completed in 1891 and is in every way a tour de force. His other waltzes, the Petite valse, Op 36, and the Valse de salon, Op 43, were written in 1892 and 1893 respectively and, although not on the same scale as his Grande valse, reflect precisely the glittering cosmopolitan society of nineteenth-century St Petersburg.

The Three Miniatures, Op 42, continue this dance theme, this time a Polka and a Waltz being accompanied by an introductory Pastorale. They were written in 1893, an important year for Glazunov in several respects. With the completion of his Symphony No 4 and the previously mentioned Valse de concert for orchestra, Glazunov had finally shown that he was capable of matching Tchaikovsky in his mastery of orchestration and effortless melodic invention – just as he had previously matched Borodin, Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov. That 1893 should have marked this turning point is especially poignant as it was also the year of Tchaikovsky’s death. For some time Tchaikovsky had found the company of Glazunov especially congenial, meeting him whenever he was in St Petersburg. One evening in November 1893, four days after the premiere of his ‘Pathétique’ symphony, Tchaikovsky left the theatre and spent the evening together with Glazunov, his brother Modest and two nephews. They drank heavily until two o’clock in the morning and it was at lunch later that day that it is claimed Tchaikovsky drank the famous glass of unboiled water that was to precede his death five days later.

The Piano Sonata No 1 in B flat minor, Op 74, was written in 1900. It is one of only two piano sonatas to be written by Glazunov, and both works are colossal achievements. It is dedicated to Nadezhda Rimsky-Korsakov, the wife of his friend and former teacher and herself an accomplished pianist. With his time increasingly taken up with teaching duties at the Conservatory, Glazunov completed only four works in 1900 (interestingly, one of the others being his Theme and variations, Op 72, his only other large-scale work for piano besides the sonatas). The sonata was given its premiere on 6 October 1901 by Alexander Siloti, a disciple of Liszt and Rachmaninov’s teacher, and received a mixed reception from the critics. Bristling with technical difficulties, one cannot be sure whether Siloti himself would have been capable of meeting the demands made on the performer. Despite the brilliant piano-writing it is a very controlled work. Glazunov never allows the music to spill over into emotionalism and here we see the more austere Taneyev’s influence on Glazunov most clearly. Probably because of its huge demands, this sonata is rarely heard in the concert hall – a possible reason for Belaieff later publishing a two-piano arrangement of the work by Blumenfeld.

Stephen Coombs © 1995

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