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Hyperion Records

CDH55223 - Glazunov: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 3
Recording details: October 1995
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Paul Spicer
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: May 2006
Total duration: 59 minutes 47 seconds


'Wonders unfold still further in [this] third disc in the series … Glazunov has not enjoyed such persuasive advocacy in recent years. Stephen Coombs really succeeds, where others have not, in making the listener believe that this is not only music of charm but of quality' (Gramophone)

'When in the past we have written that Glazunov is not at his best in his piano music we obviously did not have the benefit of such persuasive advocacy as this' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 3

This recording, the third in the series of Glazunov's solo piano works, features the six Preludes and Fugues which the composer wrote between 1899 and 1926. Op 62 is the earliest set and is conceived on a grand scale, also existing in an alternative version for symphonic organ. The piano writing is of great complexity and is clearly intended to show off the performer's technical prowess, with the musical lines written sometimes in thirds, sixths and even chords.

The four Op 101 Preludes and Fugues date from 1918 and are a quite remarkable achievement: proof to a sometimes mocking world that Glazunov could still triumph in this most intellectual of genres many years after others had given up trying. Something of the same could be said of the 1926 Prelude and Fugue in E minor: there is a great confidence in the musical material which, like the Idylle, Op 103, written in the same year, is surprising considering Glazunov's poor health and general difficulties at the time.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In common with most Russian composers, piano music holds a significant place in the works of Alexander Glazunov. Virtually every aspect of his talent is exhibited here: his skill as a miniaturist; the elegance of his salon music; his harmonic adventurism 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 his 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.

The Prelude and Fugue, Op 62 is the earliest and also the most overtly dramatic of Glazunov’s six such works. In the key of D minor, it was written in 1899, the year in which Glazunov was appointed a professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory. It is tempting to see it as an attempt to proclaim his academic credentials. However, there is nothing dry or dusty about this work. Conceived on a grand scale, it also exists in an alternative version for symphonic organ. The piano-writing is of great complexity and is clearly intended to show off the performer’s technical prowess, with the musical lines written sometimes in thirds, sixths and even chords. Contrapuntal textures are a common feature of Glazunov’s music and Shostakovich—while a student at the St Petersburg Conservatory—gained some interesting insights into this facet of his work. In his memoirs he tells us:

[Glazunov] liked to remind us that the most important element in composition is polyphony. When Glazunov sat down to demonstrate something on the piano, he always stressed the accompanying voice and chromatics, the ascending and descending progressions, which gave his playing fulness and life.

In 1910 and 1915 Glazunov wrote two more preludes and fugues for organ, but it was not until 1918 that he completed his Four Preludes and Fugues, Op 101, for piano. They are a towering achievement. By 1918 Glazunov’s music must have seemed anachronistic. Stravinsky and Prokofiev were the new voices of Russian music and we can hear Glazunov’s attempts to keep up with the avant-garde in his Two Prelude-Improvisations, also written in 1918. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that at this particular time he should have embarked on a set of preludes and fugues. Whilst young composers quietly laughed behind his back, Glazunov set out to demonstrate his compositional skill in this most intellectually demanding medium. The result is amazing. The first in the set is in A minor and is the longest of the four. Solemn and imposing, it has a breadth and solidity which never becomes long-winded. The second, in C sharp minor, is more chromatic and intricate with a sinuous subject which seems to twist around itself. The third, in C minor, has a prelude of wonderfully delicate beauty, whilst its fugue has a first subject based on alternating fifths and fourths. The last of the four, in C major, is the shortest and has a five-voice fugue of imposing sonority.

Finally we have the Prelude and Fugue in E minor which was written in 1926 and, like the earlier Op 62, was also later arranged for organ. It is dedicated to Leonid Nikolayev, a friend of Glazunov and also Shostakovich’s piano professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory. There is a great confidence in the musical material which, like the Idylle, Op 103, written in the same year, is surprising considering Glazunov’s poor health and general difficulties at the time. Looking back at these years, Shostakovich remembered:

The times were hard and lean. Glazunov, who had once been a substantial and handsome man, had lost a catastrophic amount of weight. His old clothes sagged on him as though he were a clothes hanger. His face was haggard and drawn. We knew that he didn’t even have music paper on which to write down his ideas.

Despite all his problems, Glazunov was greatly respected and loved by most of his students, and the clue to his survival against all the odds is again provided by Shostakovich:

You must try to work always, under any circumstances. It can sometimes save you. For instance, I can say that work saved Glazunov; he was so busy that he never had time to think of himself. After the Revolution, everything around Glazunov changed and he lived in a terrible world that he didn’t understand. But he thought that if he died, important work would perish. He felt responsible for the lives of hundreds of musicians, so he didn’t die himself.

Stephen Coombs © 1996

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