'Stephen Coombs is on scintillating form throughout, turning even the most standardised of virtuoso gestures into remarkable utterances' (Piano International)
'As in his four-disc set of Glazunov's complete solo piano music, Stephen Coombs is poetic and powerful. The rare Goedicke concertante makes a charming filler' (The Guardian)
'Sparkling performances … his playing is by turns gloriously extrovert and affectionately intimate … superbly recorded orchestral colours' (BBC Music Magazine)
Movement 1: Allegro moderato [13'15]
The disc is the thirteenth volume in the famous Hyperion 'Romantic Piano Concerto' series; it also follows on from Stephen Coombs's four-volume set of, meaning that Coombs has now recorded all of Glazunov's music for piano soloist.
The two piano concertos date from relatively late in the composer's career and are lyrical works, betraying the characteristically lush orchestral textures familiar from Glazunov's symphonies and ballets.
Alexander Goedicke (Medtner's cousin!) wrote his Concertstück earlier than Glazunov's two concertos despite being the younger man. The work was published in 1900 and won the composer the Rubinstein Prize for Composition, bringing him early fame hardly matched by any subsequent successes. The Concertstück is rhapsodic, with much brilliant piano writing and a distinctly Russian flavour to its themes.
Other recommended albums
Do you know the line from Chukovsky’s children’s story about how hard it is to pull a hippo from a swamp? Well, I’m pulling a hippo from the swamp of my memory, and the hippo’s name is Glazunov. He is a good, kind and helpful hippo … As I reminisce about this major Russian musician and great Russian man I become agitated. I knew him, and I knew him well. And today’s generation virtually doesn’t know him at all. For today’s young musicians, Glazunov is like some Slavic wardrobe from Grandfather’s collection of furniture.
In these curious utterances, and in a wealth of connected anecdotes, we encounter one composer through the eyes of another. The quotations are from Testimony, the memoirs which Solomon Volkov reportedly took down in shorthand during endless conversations with the ailing Dmitri Shostakovich during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The object of suspicion in some quarters, this book nonetheless appears highly convincing, both in its oblique portrayal of Shostakovich himself and in its sharply etched vignettes of many contemporaneous musicians, artists and political protagonists. At Shostakovich’s request, the memoirs were published after his death [the above translation copyright of Harper and Row, Inc., New York, 1979]. In the case of Glazunov the recollections of Shostakovich appear unimpeachably genuine, and their vivid picture, expressed in terms of unaffected admiration and gratitude, is also a poignant one. The bizarre imagery quoted above is acute in more than one sense. Glazunov was of imposing build (at least until the privations of his later years), ponderous of movement and often somnolent of disposition. A native kindness was concealed from the less observant by a mournful air and by a heavily jowled physiognomy with the faintest suggestion in it of Tartarish antecedence. So much for the hippo. The ‘Slavic wardrobe’, meanwhile, conjures impressions both of quaintly stolid reliability and again of awkward bulk, but also of an unglimpsed past of obscure fascination, the Slavic epithet suggesting the faint lure of a fairy-tale exoticism. Such, as Shostakovich knew, was indeed central to Glazunov’s creative imagination as a composer.
Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov was born in St Petersburg on 10 August 1865, the year which saw the births also of Nielsen and Sibelius. In 1879 Balakirev met him and assisted in the establishment of composition lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov, who proclaimed that his pupil progressed ‘not from day to day, but from hour to hour’. Glazunov’s Symphony No 1 received its first performance under Balakirev in March 1882, astonishing listeners with its mature fluency and assurance. As a result the sixteen-year-old composer came under the influential wing of Mitrofan Belaieff who set about publishing and promoting his work and introduced him to what became known as the ‘Belaieff Circle’ of composers. In 1887, after Borodin’s sudden death while hosting a party in his own home, that composer’s unfinished or unorchestrated works became the responsibility of Rimsky-Korsakov: ‘Glazunov and I sorted all the manuscripts. We decided to finish, orchestrate and set in order all that had been left behind … as well as prepare it for publication, on which … Belaieff had resolved’. (Rimsky-Korsakov: My Musical Life, translated by Judah A Joffe; Faber & Faber, 1989.)
In 1899 Glazunov acceded to the professorship of composition and orchestration at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, becoming Director in 1905. He was destined to leave the Soviet Union in 1928, somehow managing to retain titular office at St Petersburg for a further two years. By this time the pressures of an onerous position and the privations of both world and civil war had taken their toll; hence the tragicomic dimension in the memoirs of Shostakovich, who could remember him late on in the older man’s career. A bachelor for much of his life, Glazunov had lived for many years with his mother, whose protective instincts were so powerful that Rimsky-Korsakov was able to recall her admonishing a maid over ‘the child’s linen’; the Director of the St Petersburg Conservatoire was seemingly past forty at the time. In view of the difficulties of such a ménage, and of material hardships which caused the Glazunovs to inhabit only two rooms of their large apartment, it is perhaps not surprising that alcohol played a significant part in the composer’s life. Having discovered that Shostakovich senior could procure neat alcohol for him from state reserves, Glazunov is recalled by his student protégé exercising all his powers of persuasion at a time when vodka was not to be had.
The above is arguably relevant to an appraisal of Glazunov’s compositional productivity in that it would seem to throw no less light than administrative distractions upon an extreme decline in output after 1906. It is a curious fact that the composer’s symphonic output was by then complete, with the solitary exception of a slow movement (1910; orchestrated by Yudin) which is all that exists, in any definitive form, of a planned ninth symphony. All the eight complete symphonies therefore predate the celebrated Symphony No 2 of Rachmaninov and may thus be seen the more clearly as an extension of an earlier chapter in the growth of the Russian symphony as a whole. The reasons for such an identification require closer scrutiny and also some qualification.
As has been indicated, Glazunov’s early career brought him into amicable proximity with at least three of the proponents of Russian nationalism via the Belaieff Circle. By that time, however, the so-called Kuchka or ‘Mighty Handful’ (also known simply as ‘The Five’, and consisting of Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) had largely had its day: ‘But who were we in the eighties? In the sixties and seventies we were Balakirev’s circle, at first under his absolute leadership, later little by little casting off the yoke of his absolutism and gaining greater independence … Our circle of the eighties, especially … the latter half of that decade, was no longer Balakirev’s, but Belaieff’s’ [Rimsky Korsakov: ibid.]. A native streak of paranoia in Balakirev’s make-up ensured mutual alienation thereafter. Mussorgsky had died in 1881, Borodin six years later. Cui’s significance as a true member of The Five had always been open to question on grounds of both style and achievement, and he is often remembered now mainly for his notoriously destructive review of the first performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 1 in St Petersburg in 1897 (conducted, ironically, by Glazunov in a questionable state of sobriety). Thus it was that Balakirev ostracized himself from what had been largely his own brainchild, and that Belaieff’s stewardship of the nationalist coterie in its next incarnation began to reconcile its aims with calm consolidation and a willingness to watch developments in Western Europe with interest. Glazunov had been taken by Belaieff to Weimar to meet Liszt in 1884, an encounter resulting in a performance there of the First Symphony which did more than anything to put the young composer ‘on the map’. He was to be described as an admirer of Liszt by Shostakovich decades later, preferring Liszt’s playing to that of Anton Rubinstein, even though he had by then dedicated his Symphony No 4 to the latter.
To these observations we should add that Glazunov’s symphonic ancestry extends to Tchaikovsky, a composer whom it is easy to misinterpret as archetypally Russian simply on account of his importance in his lifetime and his durable reputation. As Leslie Howard wrote in a perceptive essay on Glazunov [EMI Records Ltd, 1977], there is ‘a fairly narrow and generally balletic emotional frame of reference’ in his symphonies. Glazunov himself produced a number of actual ballet scores whose quality and vivid orchestral colouring place them very close to Tchaikovsky’s, and these find a natural extension in the intermezzo, scherzo or variation movements of his concert works. If the emotional climate of the more ambitious outer movements remains balletic, however, the rhetorical aims and effortless instinct for climactic pacing do strongly suggest Tchaikovsky the symphonist, not merely the ballet composer. A persuasive example is the first movement of Glazunov’s Symphony No 6 (1896), arguably his masterpiece and a work whose finale offers an exhilarating parallel to that of Symphony No 3 by Saint-Saëns (though without recourse to the organ). As Howard further notes, however, Glazunov’s date of birth both precluded too close an identification with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic output and also militated against association with the relatively progressive tendency represented by the mature Rachmaninov or the iconoclastic Scriabin. His compositional make-up was further compounded by interest in Wagner, to whom Liszt had introduced him. Moreover, Howard detects in Glazunov’s Symphony No 8 signs of Sibelian influence. In the face of all this he becomes a far harder man to pigeon-hole than might be anticipated—a fact which surely increases rather than diminishes him as a source of interest. While it would clearly be mistaken to distance him too emphatically from the nationalism of the Kuchka, its influence is only an ingredient in an idiom which offers more than the sum of its parts. A substantial body of melodious and distinctive chamber music bears further witness to this.
Glazunov turned to the concerto only when his espousal of the symphony seemed almost to have run its course. It is wholly typical of his outlook that he learned the violin in preparation for the writing of his only Violin Concerto (Opus 82; 1904). In 1911 and 1916, some years after the intervening Eighth Symphony, came the two concertos for piano and orchestra, these being followed much later by a Concerto-Ballata for cello and orchestra and a Saxophone Concerto dating from his final year.
In matters pianistic Glazunov differs from contemporaneous figures with whom he otherwise had much in common. Unlike Liapunov, Medtner and Rachmaninov, all among the finest pianists of their age, or Scriabin, an idiosyncratic virtuoso in defiance of an early hand injury, Glazunov was the kind of player whose ability, though limited and largely unrehearsed, is sufficiently facile and expressive to gain an unquantifiable stature through its direct communication of a towering musical intelligence. ‘He didn’t have a real piano technique and he often played without removing the famous cigar from … between his third and fourth fingers … And yet he managed to play every note, absolutely everything, including the most difficult passages … Glazunov could also sight-read the most complicated score and make it sound as though an excellent orchestra were playing’ [Shostakovich: ibid.]. This is significant in its contribution to his writing for the piano. He had stressed to Shostakovich the desirable virtue in pianists of a capacity for polyphonic voicing and projection. Therefore, while his concertante writing may nod in the direction of Tchaikovsky, it is in many instances and general respects more subtly conceived for the instrument by a mind connecting more intimately with the instrument’s range of possibilities. Less formidably knowing in its intricacy than Medtner and Rachmaninov, less Lisztian than Liapunov, and eschewing the Chopinesque improvisatory freedom of Scriabin’s quite early Concerto, it is sui generis amongst Russian counterparts, perhaps owing something even to Brahms in its bringing together of the orchestral and the pianistic instincts but without the uncompromising sheer awkwardness which is sometimes that composer’s keyboard inheritance from Beethoven. As the great pianist and teacher Heinrich Neuhaus wrote, ‘[Glazunov’s] music I term “three handed”, since it is full of sustained tenuto basses in octaves while both hands are busy in the upper registers … This is in no way an implied criticism … but its very writing immediately reveals a composer who thinks mainly orchestrally’ [The Art of Piano Playing, translated by K A Leibovich; Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1973].
Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No 1, Opus 92, is cast in only two outward movements, the second being an amalgam in variation form of slow movement, scherzando elements and finale (coda). The work’s opening, quite characteristically, is deceptively sombre. A cadenza-like statement from the pianist leads into a broad declamation of the main theme, ‘pathetic’ in the Tchaikovskian sense and immediately presaging the magnificent climactic restatement which it will eventually receive from the orchestra against broken octaves from the soloist. The second subject, in the unexpected key of E major, is notable particularly for its extremely close relationship to the famous slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 (heard first in St Petersburg a mere three years earlier), of which it offers an almost exact paraphrase in its harmonic rhythm and melodic contour. Development is resourcefully achieved by rhythmic diminution and progressive combination of the themes. The recapitulatory climax serves also to fuel a rhetorically stormy conclusion in comparable textural terms.
The sequence of variations which follows presents a slow theme in triple time and in the key of D flat major (whose subsidence to the overall dominant pedal note C in the concluding pages mirrors the semitonal relationship of the first movement’s themes). After prolonged examination of the variation theme from many cunningly deceptive rhythmic angles the seventh variation presents a mazurka in A major, thus paving the way for a complete descending tonal cycle from F back to F via keys a major third from one another. The ninth and last variation ingeniously resurrects all the prime subject-matter of the first movement and combines it with the variation theme in a succinct but eventful peroration. Throughout the variations the balletic propensity is very much in evidence, as is unobtrusive mastery of all the purely academic problems which Glazunov set himself. The concerto is dedicated to Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938), whom Glazunov had heard on tour in St Petersburg during 1905.
Piano Concerto No 2, Opus 100, is written in the unlikely key of B major but ends in E major. Abandoning convention further than its predecessor, it begins in a mellow and autumnal frame of mind before burgeoning into an unhurriedly expansive discourse between soloist and orchestra. The opening theme, presented without preamble by the lower strings, is to serve as a motto or reference point throughout the work. A secondary subject is presented in G major, laying the ground for combination with the first subject by actually evolving out of its opening notes. Soon an Allegro is reached in which the soloist is able to move between lyrical freedom and a greater rhythmic muscularity. This in turn leads to an idyllic slow ‘movement’ in which the second subject is given free rein. Here it reveals fully its rhythmic, lyrical and pianistic relationship to the slow movement in Glazunov’s Piano Sonata No 1, Opus 74, published in 1900, a work containing one of the composer’s most memorable broad melodies in its finale (recorded on Hyperion CDA66833). After the concerto’s slow section, development continues, now employing the secondary theme as well and evolving a further, partially sequential theme from it. Another balletic scherzo leads eventually to a finale whose purpose is, broadly speaking, that of its counterpart in the earlier concerto. The themes explored thus far transmute constantly into new forms, crowned by a chorale-like variant of the motto theme from the beginning of the work. The peroration generates far greater energy and excitement than might have been anticipated at the outset of this genial and attractive piece, even if a final unison statement of the motto by implacable brass may strike some listeners as belonging to an altogether more formidable and less personable genre. Some have seen in it an excuse to question the inspiration of the work as a whole, whereas it is at worst a brief misapplication of symphonic convention in music which might have ended a couple of bars sooner.
The model for the Second Concerto is as difficult to categorize as Glazunov’s style in general. The outward format suggests the synthesis of movements adopted by Liszt and copied assiduously by pianist-composers of his own ‘stable’ such as d’Albert. The mood and feeling, however, are more in keeping with the ‘narrative’ intentions of Medtner in his Third Concerto—and it was to Medtner that Glazunov paid his heartfelt tribute by declaring him the ‘true defender of the sacred laws of art’.
After his extended leave of absence from St Petersburg, Glazunov eventually settled in Paris, destination before him of Liapunov and, temporarily, Medtner. He was accompanied by his wife Olga Gavrilova, and adopted daughter Elena Gavrilova, a pianist who as Elena Glazunov appeared frequently in the two concertos. By this time the composer’s health had broken down and he died on 21 March 1936. A Glazunov archive exists in Paris. The composer’s remains were re-interred in 1972 in what had become Leningrad. Still belittled today by many as a composer, he was revered by his contemporaries for his astounding musicianship and legendary memory, his erudition, and his generosity and integrity. Asked officially at the time of pogroms in St Petersburg how many Jews attended the Conservatoire, he is reported to have replied, “We don’t keep count”, and to have got away with it where others almost certainly would not have done. The anecdotes of Shostakovich and others pull from the swamp a hippo of mournfully mischievous humour but also of moral courage; the music, meanwhile, amply fills the ‘Slavic wardrobe’ with the most beguiling of contents.
If Glazunov’s œuvre only partially embraces nationalism, the more modest and much more recondite output of Alexander Goedicke (or Gedike) rejects it altogether. Born in Moscow on 4 March 1877, he must be pitied a little in that his main claim to posthumous attention has been the vicarious one that he was the first cousin, on the distaff side, of a much more significant composer, Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951). From Nicolas Medtner: His Life and Music, the definitive Medtner biography by Barrie Martin [Scolar Press, 1995], we learn that the Goedicke family were Russian immigrants from Pomerania but had possibly originated in Sweden, whereas Medtner’s own ancestry might have extended ultimately to Denmark. There was a time-honoured tradition of illustrious organ playing in the Goedicke family, and Alexander, the most distinguished musician among them, later became Russia’s foremost exponent, performing the complete organ works of Bach and recording one or two. As a student, however, he shone as a virtuoso pianist under Galli, Pabst (a German-born Liszt pupil) and Safonov at the Moscow Conservatoire, concurrently taking composition lessons with Arensky, Konyus and Ladhukin. As a member of a close-knit and intellectually enlightened extended family, he had already participated in chamber groups with his younger cousin, and preceded him at the Conservatoire. At this stage it would seem that he yielded little if anything to Medtner as a pianist. Despite Medtner’s status later as one of the century’s great virtuosi the honours might have remained fairly equal but for Goedicke’s espousal of the organ.
Arensky’s teaching in composition appears to have constituted a relatively general alternative to ‘core’ studies. Although, like Medtner after him, Goedicke undertook Arensky’s course, and also received informal guidance from Taneyev, he must be considered very largely a self-taught composer. It is therefore the more to his credit that the work heard here, the Concertstück, was awarded a prize at the Anton Rubinstein International Competition in Vienna in 1900, along with his violin sonata from the previous year. From 1909 he served as a professor of piano at the Moscow Conservatoire. His output includes three symphonies (1902/3, 1905 and 1922), three piano sonatas (two of which predate the Concertstück), a piano quintet, a piano trio, two string quartets, a sonata for cello and piano, and four operas to his own libretti. He died in Moscow on 9 July 1957.
By the time of his Conservatoire appointment Goedicke had already ceded compositional honours in the family to Medtner—amicably, one may assume. His early works show the same awareness of Germanic heritage as Medtner’s, and in general they may be said to possess a similar quality of slight understatement without, however, evincing the distinctive personality with which Medtner so richly compensates upon closer acquaintance. The early D major/minor Piano Sonata, Opus 18, for example, essays a densely textured two-movement form probably indebted to the Chopinesque Second Sonata of Scriabin, while demonstrating also a willingness to follow Scriabin’s subsequent harmonic radicalism only so far. We may thus be faced here with a composer who partially lost his progressive nerve, or else merely one who found other creative outlets more rewarding. Either way, it is Goedicke’s early works that most clearly repay attention.
The Concertstück in D major opens with a motto theme which is promptly elaborated by the solo pianist. From modest beginnings emerge a brief, potentially chorale-like orchestral statement and a freely ornamental piano solo. An acceleration leads to an ‘Allegro molto sostenuto e maestoso’ which, in authentic Glazunov fashion, both extends earlier thematic content and subjects it to rhythmic transformation in rapid triple time. The pianist’s role remains decorative. A secondary theme, still in the tonic key and marked ‘Moderato quasi andante’, reverts to a basic four-in-the-bar, introducing a characteristic melodic contour of a rising major second and perfect fifth. The pianist launches into a broad left-hand declamation of the theme beneath a triplet accompaniment. With further orchestral involvement this reaches an expansive climax. Here, at least, we can find easy parallels with the outward means of a Glazunov; there are also similarities to the all-in-one design of Liapunov’s beautiful Second Concerto, where Balakirev’s overpowering influence sometimes slips and the ineluctably Lisztian origin of the keyboard writing reveals that composer’s shade as well (in any case, as has been said, the structural prototype is his).
Expectations are confirmed by a scherzo section, Allegro agitato, based on one of the orchestra’s phrases from the first section. However, the edges of the sectional layout now become blurred by reminiscence of earlier textures and tempos, as well as by what seems premature reappearance of the original motto theme. A prolonged recapitulation in B major of the secondary theme follows, along with a subdued and delicate cadenza. The finale ‘proper’ then gets under way, not before a suggestion has been made of an over-arching sonata integration of themes very much along the lines of Liszt. The key of B major is now established for good and is celebrated by the pianist in pages of fearsome virtuosity. Here the sobriety of a Medtner is conspicuous by its absence and the listener is left in no doubt as to the formidable virtuoso competition offered in youth by his gifted relative. Had their paths crossed, it seems certain that Goedicke would have enjoyed the approval also of Glazunov.
Francis Pott © 1996
Other albums in this series
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 24 – Vianna da Motta
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67163
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 37 – Nápravník & Blumenfeld
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67511
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 38 – Rubinstein & Scharwenka
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67508
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Żeleński
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads availableCDA67958