Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.55
The Seasons, Op.67
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Recorded 6 to 8 January 2004 in Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: November 2004
CD No: WARNER CLASSICS
Duration: 71 minutes
Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) has always had an image problem. He was precociously gifted and composed some very technically accomplished works in his early years when he was closely associated with the group known as “The Five” and everyone had high hopes of him. Andrew Huth’s programme note refers to “rich and imaginative works where striking ideas are presented with beautiful craftsmanship”. Unfortunately as he got older he got more and more conservative – he actually became a pretty reactionary Director of the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1905 – and the music of Prokofiev and Stravinsky appalled him. His finest music is probably to be found in his chamber compositions, but for all his technical proficiency it has to be said that most of his works don’t linger in the memory.
The reasons for this are simple. In both the works featured on this CD there is a wealth of rhythmic and harmonic invention and loads of orchestral colour. But until you get to the Bacchanale from ‘Autumn’ there is a distinct lack of extended melodic material and when he does essay a big tune, it just isn’t memorable enough. In addition some of the rhythmic invention can sound a little repetitive. It must also be said that the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin and especially Tchaikovsky is to be heard everywhere and that can be irritating because it leaves the listener frustrated by Glazunov’s inability to move from introductory ideas to a satisfying resolution. In affect the music often hints at something which never quite arrives. Having said that this music is immensely diverting, eminently listenable-to and gorgeously crafted and orchestrated.
This CD offers pretty cosmopolitan music-making, a Russian composer played by a Scottish orchestra under an Uruguayan conductor of Russian and Polish extraction! José Serebrier is also up against some very stiff competition. In the symphony there is a superb performance on Orfeo by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi, and in The Seasons there is Svetlanov and the Philharmonia on EMI from 1978. In the symphony Serebrier never makes the mistake of allowing the music to slow down too much, he chooses a flowing tempo in each movement and generally sticks to it. The first movement for example has great conviction and he allows the strings to sing and the woodwind – a vital part of Glazunov’s orchestral palette – to characterise freely. The scherzo is delightfully light in texture and very fast, but here I would have liked a little more precision and dynamic variation from the woodwind. The slow movement is suavely phrased and Serebrier uses small accelerandos to great expressive effect and the brass chords at the centre of the movement are very imposing and grave. Serebrier’s account of the rondo finale is a brilliant tour de force, although the music does constantly remind me of a combination of the last movements of Tchaikovsky’s and Borodin’s second symphonies! So a superb account of the symphony which seriously challenges Järvi.
In The Seasons Serebrier doesn’t quite convince me. His ‘Winter’ sounds very mild, with textures that are too plush and the phrasing needs more bite. ‘Spring’ is better, but for me it’s just a bit too smooth and the clarinet melody which introduces the ‘big tune’ about one-minute in is very flat. The most famous part of the score and of Glazunov’s entire output, is the rollicking opening to ‘Autumn’. Here Serebrier and his orchestra are brilliant, the tune is delivered with immense sweep and power and the intervals between its re-appearances never lose focus or impetus. But Svetlanov does bring more life and lilt to the rhythms and given that this is a ballet score this is very important. Incidentally the finest recorded account of The Seasons has not, as far as I am aware, been transferred to CD. Boris Khaikin’s 1962 version with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra is simply brilliant. He and his orchestra completely outshine all rivals in their instinctive grasp of phrasing, rhythm and dynamic nuance, and the orchestra has an authentic Russian sound that has today, regrettably, almost completely disappeared. So if you have this performance on an original blue label Russian or HMV Melodiya LP you have the best there is, in sound which no digital re-mastering is likely to equal. But of digital performances this Serebrier is about as good as it gets.
So all in all a very fine disc featuring highly polished and distinctive performances that would serve as an attractive introduction to Glazunov’s orchestral music.
The recorded balance is good, being not too forward and no register is given undue prominence. Definition and clarity are excellent, the brass section in particular is very vivid, with individual instruments clearly heard even in section tutti passages. The dynamic range is extended although I’m not sure that there is sufficient attention to micro-dynamic variations. There are however problems with the depth of the sound stage, which is, as with all digital recordings, totally unnatural. Yes there is a sense of depth but it all sounds contrived and produced; no orchestra sounds like this. The acoustic signature is typically digital, a sort of slightly reverberant nothingness is which the orchestra is synthetically placed.
The contrast with the Khaikin ‘blue label’ Melodiya LP is startling, the master tape from which the LP derives was made using valve amplification and the sound has an entirely natural sense of flow and life and a tangible sense of depth and acoustic which this Warner CD, or for that matter any other CD, cannot approach. But if all you have ever heard is digital sound, or lack a modern cartridge/tone arm/deck combo, then this will be excellent.
I congratulate Warner on this CD’s generous playing-time.