New Classical Tracks: Rediscovering Alexander Glazunov

by Julie Amacher
May 10, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks - May 11, 2011
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Glazunov - Complete Concertos: Jose Serebrier/Russian National Orchestra (Warner 67946) (Courtesy of Warner Music)

Jose Serebrier is a conductor and composer who in 1960, at age 22, was already hailed by his mentor Leopold Stokowski as "the greatest master of orchestral balance." Serebrier is also a composer, and believes that his experience with orchestration, counterpoint, and harmony helps him really get inside other composers' music. For the past few years, Serebrier has been digging into the orchestral works of Russian composer Alexander Glazunov. Two years ago, Serebrier earned rave reviews when he finished his complete cycle of Glazunov symphonies with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and now he's released a two-CD edition of the complete concertos by Glazunov with the Russian National Orchestra and several guest soloists.

Jose Serebrier was born in Uruguay to a Russian father and a Polish mother. He was thrilled to discover he had a few things in common with Glazunov besides his Russian ancestry. Like Glazunov, Serebrier wrote his first symphony at age 16, and, though it was decades apart, they shared the same manager, legendary impresario Sol Hurok. That's where the similarities end. Alexander Glazunov studied with the orchestral master, Rimsky-Korsakov, and he followed in his teacher's footsteps, eventually becoming head of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Glazunov was more than a wonderful composer and teacher. He was a thoughtful human being who offered his students financial and personal assistance. One of those students, legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz, helped popularize Glazunov's Violin Concerto in A minor. The work was dedicated to Leopold Auer, who premiered it in St. Petersburg in 1905, but it was Heifetz who made the work his own. Since then many violinists have incorporated this concerto into their repertoire, including Rachel Barton Pine, the featured soloist on this recording. In order to make Glazunov's music breathe, Serebrier believes you have to take liberties with the tempo. The energy waxes and wanes in the first movement increasing the emotional impact of this romantic work. Rachel Barton Pine's golden, unwavering tone draws the listener into this passionate tale. Her technical expertise is fully exposed in the cadenza where she performs fearless double-stopping.

Both of Glazunov's piano concertos were quite popular in the beginning of the 20th century. Russian pianist Alexander Romanovsky performs both works beautifully on this new recording. The Piano Concerto No. 1 features only two movements, the second of which is a series of ten variations each with its own distinctive title and character, much like the scenes Glazunov composed in his ballets. The work is dedicated to famed Polish-American pianist Leopold Godowsky so it's appropriate that one of the variations is a mazurka, a Polish dance in triple meter. Romanovsky dances lightly over the keys, performing this work with delicate ease.

The last work composed by Glazunov was his Concerto in E flat major for alto saxophone and string orchestra. It was written at the request of American saxophonist Sigurd Rascher. When Jose Serebrier was just 18 years old conducting his first orchestra in upstate New York, Rascher came to play this concerto with the Utica Symphony. It was Serebrier's first exposure to the music of Glazunov, and the piece which inspired him to explore the composer's music. On this recording, saxophonist Marc Chisson's creamy tone and relaxed style makes this work really gratifying for the listener.

There are three shorter works scattered throughout this recording, one each for solo violin, cello and French horn. The Reverie in D flat Major for Horn and Orchestra is a dreamy meditation with a lush horn solo by Alexey Serov.

The "Chant du Menestrel" is a wistful minstrel's song whose theme moves from the cello to the oboe. Cellist Wen-Sinn Yang's nostalgic solo line blends seamlessly with the woodwinds of the Russian National orchestra, setting a mood that allows the mind to drift down memory lane.

In his day, Alexander Glazunov was hailed as a genius. Today few can identify his music and Jose Serebrier is working to change that. Serebrier has spent years getting inside the music of this often neglected Russian composer. He's pored over orchestral scores and absorbed every nuance. Serebrier has made this music his own, and now he's sharing it with the rest of us.