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Glazunov, Prokofiev & Tchaikovsky: Music for cello & orchestra

Jamie Walton (cello), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Okko Kamu (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: March 2013
Cadogan Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Andrew Mellor & George Pierson
Release date: July 2015
Total duration: 73 minutes 40 seconds

Star British cellist Jamie Walton returns to Signum with a programme of Russian repertoire by Glazunov, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. Joined by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Okko Kamu, the album includes the original version of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo theme.


'Walton's taste, discretion and romantic warmth, fused with a lightness of touch, serve as a reminder that it was in the poise and purity of 18th-century music that Tchaikovsky—as he told an uncomprehending Mme von Meck—found solace from life's woes' (Gramophone)

'Walton makes a good case for [the Glazunov], using a lightish, sweeping tone that means that the long, rhapsodic melodies don’t get too bogged down … Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations are given in the composer’s original version, and Walton’s poised playing suits them well' (The Guardian)» More

'Walton embraces Glazunov’s tenderness with the warmth and suppleness of his tone … Walton interprets [the Prokofiev] with impressive, seamless sweeps and refined dynamic shading … [the Tchaikovsky] retains its appeal in a performance as tasteful, spirited and affectionate as this one' (The Telegraph)

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Son of a wealthy St Petersburg publisher-bookseller and pianist mother, the young Alexander Glazunov’s extraordinary memory and exceptional musical ear were brought to the attention of his mother’s teacher, Mily Balakirev, who introduced the 14-year-old to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for composition lessons, in 1879. Glazunov immediately proved to be a handful for even the mighty Rimsky-Korsakov, who was astonished by the boy’s remarkable progress, commenting on his abilities to learn not by the day or week, but by the hour. Consequently, the teacher-pupil relationship soon sublimated into the two becoming colleagues. After the initial performance of his attempts at the symphony and string quartet in 1882, the young composer was brought into the circle of Mitrofan Belyayev, the son of a wealthy timber merchant who, after achieving great success in his father’s firm, turned his mind and money to his main desire—music, and the future of Russian music in particular.

Belyayev’s contribution to the music of his homeland is an extraordinary labour of love, resolute industry and high-end production. In 1884, he instituted the Glinka Prize, awarded annually to a Russian composer, following this up in 1885 with the Russian Symphony Concerts series and, more important still, he was granted permission to establish his own publishing house in Leipzig, thus securing a form of international copyright for Russian composers. Registered as M.P. Belaieff, the company would publish scores of the most important Russian compositions, from Glinka through ‘The Mighty Handful’ to Skriabin and beyond, in luxurious editions. The house continued to do so after Belyayev’s death until the Soviets appropriated it after the revolution (the catalogue passed over to Edition Peters of Leipzig in 1971). Belyayev attended the first two performances of Glazunov’s First Symphony and by 1884 had the work performed in Weimar where he introduced the teenage composer to the venerable Franz Liszt. By the time he conducted his Second Symphony at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, in 1889 (the same event at which Debussy was inspired by Javanese Gamelan music) he was already a greatly respected composer, enjoying widespread praise. In 1899, he joined the St Petersburg Conservatory teaching staff, and by 1905 would become the director of the institution until 1930. His record through the political turmoil and extreme privations, before and during and after the Revolution is exemplary, by keeping up musical standards, expanding the curriculum and taking good care of his students. He interceded on behalf of Shostakovich on a number of occasions, gaining the younger composer grants, favours and even recorded pleas for nourishment for the sickly student, complaining that, ‘The death of such a man would be an irremediable loss for the arts the world over’. Such a statement shows not only a recognition of great talent, but a greater magnanimity, as the musical direction Shostakovich worked toward was not to Glazunov’s taste.

Indeed, Glazunov’s musical style did not differ markedly from his early fame until the end of his life. He established his means of communication and stuck by it to great effect through his nine symphonies, the yet famous ballets, Raymonda and The Seasons, and the First Violin Concerto which was notably championed by Heifetz. After taking the Conservatory successfully through the First World War and post-Revolutionary period, by 1928 Glazunov had tired of the internal politicking and embraced the opportunity to travel abroad. After attending the celebrations in Vienna marking the centenary of Schubert’s death, 1928 saw Glazunov remain abroad and conduct extensively. The young (and later legendary) manager Sol Hurok took Glazunov to the United States, but as the composer ailed in his mid sixties he retired eventually to Paris, where he died in 1936. The Concerto Ballata Op 108 dates from these last years, written in 1931. Dedicated to Pablo Casals, it was first performed by one of the great cellist’s pupils, Maurice Eisenberg, in Paris with the composer conducting on 14th October 1933. The opening is morose, but soon quickens by moving the dark materials through beguiling rhapsodies, warm and cold. The Adagio, complete with big musical nods to Tristan und Isolde, is naturally marked con tristezza, and the finale picks up the mood without losing the cello’s baritonal reflective nature.

The cellist Piatigorsky recalls, in 1929, being surprised to be on the same concert bill as Glazunov at a Detroit Symphony concert. The two had met when the 12-year-old cellist was working at a Moscow hotel where Glazunov was dining. Piatigorsky played the older man’s Chant du ménestrel, among other works. The Chant and Mélodie Op 20, No 1, dating from the very end of the 19th Century, display the composer’s instinct for Russian melodic nuance and sensitive handling of the cello.

While Glazunov traded troublesome Moscow for cosmopolitan Paris, Prokofiev opted, as ever, for the opposite direction, settling in the Russian capital the same year that Glazunov died. That Prokofiev should have chosen to return to his homeland in 1935 is curious indeed. Musical organisations were inexorably coming under Communist Party control and Stalin was gearing up for the first of the infamous Moscow show trials, with the promise of purges to come. Even Shostakovich, the golden boy of Soviet music had become a degenerate corrupter. These were difficult times. Whether his initial motivation was concerned with his stated desire to return to his own country, to ‘see the real Winter again’, or to indulge in the privileges attendant on a celebrated Soviet composer returning home from the corrupting influence of the West, he would remain for the rest of his life as an artist of the USSR and a musical servant to the man with whom he would share his dying day—Stalin.

After leaving the evolving Soviet Union in 1918, Prokofiev spent most of the 1920 and early 1930s in the USA and France, where much as he tried, he failed to emulate the popularity of Rachmaninov in America or Stravinsky in Western Europe. Although also a Russian composer abroad, Prokofiev had neither fled nor left the Soviet Union without official permission, had by no means ever severed ties with his beloved Russia and, indeed, spent extended periods there on a number of occasions in the early 1930s. By 1936, he had moved his family permanently from Paris to Moscow, where he was allowed two more tours of Europe and the USA before his coveted passport, a rare allowance, was removed on a technicality, and never returned.

A dozen years after the first great condemnations, many a career nosedived with further charges of ‘formalism’ being aimed at both Prokofiev and Shostakovich, among others. Stalin’s cultural spokesman Andrei Zhdanov led the latest purge, in 1948, which all but made the pair ‘un-persons’ in the eyes of the authorities, under the so-called Zhdanov Doctrine which held that ‘The only conflict that is possible in Soviet culture is the conflict between good and best.’ This meant sticking very closely to the party line on all matters creative. In practical terms, the second denunciation meant having to repent publicly for being off-message and the unofficial cessation of performances for those works labelled as being of a ‘formalist’ bent. Family privileges were also withdrawn and many were forced into a more or less hand-to-mouth existence. During one of the interminable conferences where composers were coerced into delivering official apologies, Prokofiev was stunned to hear that his first wife had been arrested on suspicion of spying. These trumped-up charges earned her eight years in a labour camp, and Prokofiev would die three years before she was released, in 1956. One of the few rays of light in this dark period for Prokofiev was his collaboration with the spectacularly talented young cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. The composer had heard Rostropovich play his long-neglected Cello Concerto Op 58 in 1947 and was so amazed by the performance that he resolved to re-write the work for the cellist. The trigger for Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata Op 119 was likewise occasioned by another Rostropovich concert, this time playing a sonata by the composer’s long-time friend Nikolai Miaskovsky.

In his last years, Prokofiev and the young Rostropovich, now in his mid-twenties, became fast friends, spending a number of summers together at the composer’s dacha in Nikolina Gora, whilst collaborating on the re-writing of the early cello concerto and a couple of other cello works which Prokofiev did not live to complete. The Concertino Op 132 is from this time. Left incomplete, the composer Dmitry Kabalevsky, together with Rostropovich, worked from Prokofiev’s piano score, and with the cellist’s memories of conversations about how the work would end, as the final movement was left unfinished at the time of Prokofiev’s death. Naturally, Rostropovich was soloist in the first performance of the orchestrated version, in March 1860. Prokofiev had spoken of the piece as ‘delicate’, and while it might be so for this composer, this is still a strong work, brimming with character and immensely appealing. The opening Andante mosso states a delectably melancholy theme, with a thorough and typically tough development section, while the succeeding Andante is wistful and the Allegretto finale full of fun, picking up on a theme from his own Symphony-Concerto, and whilst throwing in some militaristic elements is generally in good spirits.

Like his compatriot, Dmitri Shostakovich, a fug of mystery often surrounds the life and music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky—a mix of fact and myth which, whilst absorbing, tends to mist the music in hearsay, speculation, economy of truth and even possible fabrication. While Shostakovich was periodically celebrated and excoriated by Stalin and his successors, Tchaikovsky was eventually rehabilitated from being a decadent product of Tsarist Russia into a ‘standard-bearer of human progress’ by the Soviet authorities—an about-turn brought about by little more than his extreme popularity in the USSR as well as in the rest of the world.

Tchaikovsky’s immense musical achievement was no less initially undermined by the West during the early 20th century. He died not long before the recording industry was beginning to bring classical music to the masses, and the profundity of his music, as well as the luridly fascinating nature of the legends associated with him, helped the industry in no small way. Surrounding music with a narrative is a sure-fire way to bring it to the market—outside associations helping to give context and explanation to music which might otherwise not find an immediate connection with the listener. Tchaikovsky’s final symphony has been affected by both the positive and negative aspects of such a narrative approach.

Tchaikovsky was born in the small town of Votkinsk, near the Ural Mountains, where his father was a mining engineer, and the young Pyotr was proficient in languages and music from an early age, amassing a good many compositions in his early teenage years. His parents’ initial indulgence of his musical abilities gave way to the normal realities of the age and so the 10-year-old was enrolled in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg, a superior institution which specialised in law and more specifically provided a relatively fast track into the civil service. The death of his mother a few years later, from cholera, was a devastating loss to the young teenager, indeed decades later he could write to his benefactor, ‘Every moment of that appalling day is as vivid to me as though it were yesterday’. Graduating in 1859, Tchaikovsky took up a position in the Ministry of Justice, but by late 1862 his musical leanings led him to enrol in Anton Rubinstein’s newly-minted St Petersburg Conservatoire, where he flourished prior to joining the staff of Rubinstein’s brother Nikolay’s Moscow Conservatoire.

Ten years of teaching and composing were abruptly called to a halt in 1878 when the already highly regarded composer was given a more than generous monthly stipend of 1500 francs through the generous patronage of a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck. Von Meck, aside from bearing him 18 children, encouraged her husband, Karl, to maximise his considerable engineering abilities and on his death she duly inherited major railway networks, extensive estates and sizeable bank accounts. Famously, she met Tchaikovsky only once, and even then by happenstance—both parties keeping their distance, and fleeing before long without apparently exchanging a word. Such an apparently odd arrangement was rather more likely by design, stemming from her reclusive nature and wilfulness rather than any more fanciful or romantic notions that have been proposed. Reputedly a fine pianist in her youth, she appears to have been devoted to music, employing Debussy to travel with her family, teach her children and accompany her in four-hand works for piano, among other musical duties. She even gave succour to the ailing virtuoso violinist and composer, Henryk Wieniawski when in his last months. Her correspondence with Tchaikovsky began in 1876, when she requested some violin and piano arrangements from the composer of his own works, writing to him, ‘…I ask you to believe this literally, that with your music I live more lightly and more pleasantly.’ Thus ensued an extraordinary relationship which gave solace, succour and no little fantasy to both parties, in over 1000 existing letters written over 14 years. They begin just prior to Tchaikovsky’s short-lived and utterly disastrous marriage and end abruptly in 1890 when von Meck seems to have had serious financial issues. The correspondence provides a fascinating insight into Tchaikovsky’s daily life and thoughts on everything from love, marriage and religion to thoughts on his fellow Russian composers and indeed forays into his own compositional processes.

The Variations on a Rococo theme, Op 33 were written in Moscow in December 1876, while the composer’s tenure at the Conservatoire was slowly dragging to a close, and his lucrative, epistolary relationship with von Meck beginning to flower. Although he resented the hours teaching that prevented him from composing, Tchaikovsky had nevertheless made some enduring friendships at the Conservatoire, among them the cello professor Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who had taken positions in Moscow after refusing an offer from the great Franz Liszt to remain with his orchestra in Weimar. No cellist and famously riddled with self-doubt, Tchaikovsky had agreed to a number of alterations suggested by Fitzenhagen, for whom the work was composed, and it seems to have been this ‘original’ version which was premiered in November 1877, in Moscow, under Nicolai Rubinstein, with Fitzenhagen as soloist. So far so good. However, Fitzenhagen had further ideas of his own for the piece and set about ‘improving’ the work; substantially altering the solo part, tagging endings on here and there, shuffling the movements and even omitting the final variation altogether. ‘Horrible Fitzenhagen insists on changing your cello piece…and he claims you gave him permission. Good God!’ wrote the unconvinced publisher Pyotr Jurgenson to the composer. Nevertheless, the piano score was published in 1878, presumably without the composer’s approval, and the orchestral score appeared some years later, in 1889, both ‘revised and corrected’ by Fitzenhagen. In the case of the piano score, Tchaikovsky’s seeming reluctance to get involved may have been in part due to the extensive travels undertaken to shake off the horror of his badly-judged and swiftly-aborted marriage in 1877. And in the case of the publication of the orchestral score, a furious, and either accepting or resigned Tchaikovsky famously declared, ‘The devil take it. Let it stand!’. And so the Fitzenhagen version of the Rococo Variations remains the standard version of the piece—even to this day.

Not until 50 years after Tchaikovsky’s death did the composer’s ‘original’ version come to be heard in the concert hall, its first modern performance documented as being by Daniil Shafran in 1941. The Soviet-published edition of 1956 is the version played on the current recording by Jamie Walton. The composer’s ‘original’ score obviously still retains much of Fitzenhagen’s initial and, indeed, subsequent revisions to the cello part, but the variations are restored to Tchaikovsky’s original plan.

The Rococo Variations reflects Tchaikovsky’s adoration of the music of Mozart, a composer he revered above all and referred to as the ‘Christ of music’. The poise and order of the music of Mozart and his time appealed greatly to a composer we regard as representing of the heights of the so-called Romantic period. The work has a brief, almost subdued, orchestral introduction leading into the refined charm of the cello theme—not an 18th-century original, but rather Tchaikovsky’s idealised view of such a theme. Thereafter the cellist barely draws breath, the melody expanding into ever more expansive declarations, duets with the flute and the clarinet, cadenzas and a virtuoso package of classic cello cantabile, pizzicato, double-stopping, nostalgic waltzes, runs and trills until the coda brings us to an invigorating conclusion.

The brief Nocturne was arranged by the composer from the fourth of his 6 Pieces for Piano, Op 19. Fitzenhagen is again in evidence here, as he transcribed the piece prior to Tchaikovsky’s 1888 version for reduced orchestra and soloist Anatoly Brandukov. Despite their many disagreements, Tchaikovsky could write to his brother the next year, in a post script, ‘Poor Fitzenhagen is dying’. And this he duly did, in early 1890.

M Ross © 2015

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