Wednesday 18 September 2019

Classical: The melodies of Glazunov for turbulent times

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Composer Alexander Glazunov
Composer Alexander Glazunov

George Hamilton

The name Alexander Glazunov is probably familiar enough, but could you put that name to any particular piece?

The composer Glazunov was born on this day in 1865, a silver spoon accompanying the happy event.

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The family fortune came from a publishing house that had launched the first edition of Pushkin's classic narrative poem, Eugene Onegin.

When the boy showed an interest in music early on, they were able to hire the top piano teachers.

This brought the great Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov into his life. He took the 13-year-old Glazunov under his wing.

"A charming boy, with beautiful eyes," he wrote in his autobiography, "who played the piano very clumsily."

Nonetheless, Glazunov was a natural, to the extent that his studies progressed "not by the day, but literally by the hour".

Encouraged by the older man, Glazunov completed the first of his symphonies when he was just 16.

When the composer Alexander Borodin dropped dead on the dance floor at a society ball in St Petersburg, it was the Rimsky-Korsakov/Glazunov combination who saw to it that Borodin's unfinished opera Prince Igor made it to the stage.

Glazunov also reworked the sketches that were to be the basis of a third symphony by Borodin. This had its first outing at a memorial concert, with Rimsky-Korsakov conducting.

Which brings us to a somewhat less inspiring tale of a Glazunov performance on the rostrum.

The occasion was the premiere of Sergei Rachmaninov's First Symphony in St Petersburg. The composer was an admirer of Glazunov, so he was the obvious choice to conduct the concert.

But the esteem in which Rachmaninov held Glazunov didn't seem to be reciprocated.

The conductor appeared to have little enthusiasm for the music. The orchestra was under-rehearsed.

And when performance time came around, it looked like the man wielding the baton had spent rather too long at the bar. That was certainly the view of Rachmaninov's wife.

It took her husband several years - and a course of hypnotherapy - to get over the trauma of that night.

It would be unfair, though, to let that be the lasting impression of Alexander Glazunov, who reached the pinnacle as head of the St Petersburg Conservatory where he numbered Shostakovich among his students.

As a composer, Glazunov really picked up where Tchaikovsky left off, not so much pushing the boundaries as exploiting his keen ear for melody, with a style that, in increasingly turbulent times for Russia, recalled an era of burgeoning self-confidence when Russian music came into its own.

It was a style that particularly suited ballet. The best known of Glazunov's is his final effort - The Seasons - featuring beautifully rendered short movements to match a series of 16 tableaux.

There's also a stunning violin concerto with an absolutely spellbinding final section, introduced by a chorus of hunting horns that raises the bar and sends the soloist off on a magic carpet ride of violin virtuosity.

In later years, Glazunov developed an interest in the distinctive soundscape created by a relatively recent invention, the saxophone.

And thereby hangs another tale, about which more next week.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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