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CLASSICAL  February 2005

CLASSICAL February 2005

Subject:

Glazunov's Music for String Quartet

From:

Donald Satz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 11 Feb 2005 23:16:07 +0000

Content-Type:

text/plain

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   Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)
        String Chamber Music

5 Novelettes for String Quartet, Op. 15 (1886 - 30:07)
String Quartet No. 5 in D minor, Op. 70 (1898 - 28:18)
St. Petersburg String Quartet
Recorded First Congregational Church, Los Angeles, June 2000
Released April 2001
Delos  DE 3262 [58:25]

String Quartet No. 3 in G major "Slavic", Op. 26 (1886/88 - 28:13)
String Quartet No. 5 in D minor, Op. 70 (1898 - 28:03)
Utrecht String Quartet
Recorded Doopsgezinds Kerk in Haarlem, March 2003
Released April 2004
MDG 603 1236-2 [56:33]

Summary: St. Petersburg Wins By A Head

Alexander Glazunov had a very fortunate childhood.  His father was a
publisher and violinist, his mother a pianist.  Early on, Glazunov started
playing musical instruments, and he studied under Rimsky-Korsakov and
Balakirev.  Further cementing his hold on a successful musical career,
Glazunov formed a strong friendship with a wealthy timber merchant named
Mitrofan Belyayev who formed a music publishing house to assist young
Russian composers.  Glazunov wrote his first symphony when only 16 years
old, and he went on compose a total of nine symphonies (the last one
unfinished).  He composed in every form except for opera, and is most
known today for the symphonies, a violin concerto, and the ballet Raymonda.

Glazunov was a music conservative to the core.  The 20th century advanced,
but his compositions remained steeped in the romantic era.  Also, he was
increasingly consumed by his penchant for alcohol.  As a result, Glazunov
did little composing in his last twenty years.  Concerning the string
quartet medium, Glazunov wrote seven string quartets, the last one in
1930.

Overall, Glazunov is likely nobody's favorite composer.  He definitely
does not possess the inspiration of a Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov, but
he was an excellent 2nd tier composer based on his highly enjoyable and
often folk-song melodies.  In addition, he carved out a widely-known
reputation as an exceptional teacher/director of the St.  Petersburg
Conservatory, even having Shostakovich as one of his students.  Getting
back to his conservative nature, there is the story of his walking out
of a performance of Prokofiev's early Scythian Suite, reportedly stating
that he couldn't stand all the noise.  Yet, he continued to mentor
Prokofiev, always giving his best to budding composers.

In accomplishing this review, I based my conclusions on the following
considerations:

1.  The Five Novelettes represents Glazunov's most immediately appealing
music in the string quartet medium, and repeated listening does not
diminish their allure.  This suite was composed for one of Belyayev's
numerous evenings of string quartets and makes great use of folk music
all originated by Glazunov except for the Hungarian folk song of the 5th
Novelette "All' Ungherese".

The first two pieces are in ternary form with a fast-slow-fast regimen.
The first Novelette is titled "Alla Spagnuola", the second "Orientale";
however, don't start thinking that the titles really describe the musical
settings.  Glazunov was a pro at combining the Russian and Germanic
styles, and each Novelette cleary reveals this feature.  The fast sections
are extremely delightful with slow sections having wonderful melodies
and tender refrains.

The 3rd Novelette is slowish throughout and the most gorgeous music
Glazunov ever penned; its counterpoint is so poignant and delicious
that I feel like I'm in a trance.  Further, the nobility of the music
is irresistable and reminds me of Vaughan William's "Fantasia on a theme
by Thomas Tallis".  The disc is worth premium price for this piece alone,
and the St.  Petersburg String Quartet performs it exceptionally with
heart-felt emotions.  The 4th Novelette is a vivacious waltz, while the
5th carries a bit of the gypsy in it.  I can't say enough about these
pieces; they totally surprised me.

2.  Glazunov's works for string quartet do not plumb any emotional depths.
Playing them in a very serious or heavy manner can rob the music of its
buoyancy and sweetness.  Such is the case with the Utrecht's performance
of the D minor Quartet.  They have no problem with the earlier G major
Quartet which is more overtly exuberant, but the group gives the D minor
too much weight.  In comparison, the St.  Petersburg Quartet's lighter
and more vibrant approach fully conveys the music's lift and melodic
charms.  Further, the St.  Petersburg displays as much drive as the
Utrecht in the conclusion of the first movement and in the final movement
of the D minor, clearly showing that it knows the right time to switch
from lightness to tensile strength.

3.  Portamento is a perfectly valid device to use in performing Glazunov's
music, but the Utrecht String Quartet treats it as a poison to avoid at
all costs.  Their detached approach lessens the impact of the music's
natural flow significantly and creates a rather dour first movement in
the D minor.  In contrast, the St.  Petersburg's performance use portamento
liberally, never losing sight of the long musical lines.

Don's Conclusions: The St.  Petersburg String Quartet plays splendidly,
capturing the music's exuberance, sweetness, and strength; having the
Five Novelettes on the program only further enhances the disc's appeal.
Although I have been rather hard on the Utrecht String Quartet concerning
the performance of the D minor Quartet, there is certainly value to the
disc.  The group is planning to record all seven of Glazunov's String
Quartets, and the only other cycle is from the Shostakovich Quartet on
Olympia.  Unfortunately, that fine series is no longer in print, so MDG
appears to have the field to itself as the cycle progresses.  As it
happens, I just received the second volume having the 2nd and 4th Quartets
and will review it in the near future.  In the meantime, I strongly
recommend that readers first acquire the Delos disc.

Don Satz
[log in to unmask]

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