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Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (cymbals, glockenspiel, and triangle), harp, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 24, 1927, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Max Rosen
“His musical development progressed not by the day, but literally by the hour.” So spoke Rimsky-Korsakov of his 15-year-old student Alexander Glazunov. The teacher-pupil relationship that began in 1882 lasted less than two years, but the friendship between the youth and the 20-year-older master lasted until the latter died in 1908. At about the time his tutelage with Rimsky ended, the young student composer aroused the interest of an extremely wealthy art patron, Mitrofan Belyayev. To state it crassly, Belyayev put his money where his mouth was in the effort to develop the careers of the new generation of musicians headed by Glazunov.
The Belyayev Circle, as it came to be known, was the natural successor to The Mighty Five. But whereas The Five (Rimsky, Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Cui) had to fight the good fight to install nationalism into Russian art music, The Circle could reap the benefits of that victorious battle, take them for granted, and then slip effortlessly into the mainstream of Western European music. Armed with a complete mastery of the craft of composition, Glazunov wrote in a traditional, colorful style in which were combined elements of Russian nationalism and those of the German Romantic school. It was a style that won for him wide success throughout Europe and America. In fact, Glazunov enjoyed a triplefaceted career — as a conductor (whose mastery did not, however, go unquestioned), as a respected professor (among his students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory was Shostakovich) and scholar (he received honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge Universities), and as composer.
Glazunov seems to have run out of creative steam after he completed his Eighth Symphony in 1906, when he was only 41. Irreversibly conservative, he must have realized that he was about to be swamped by the tides of the radical waters flooding Europe at the time, by the likes of his countrymen Scriabin, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev, and by Schoenberg, Bartók, and others. Perhaps better to stand on his distinguished accomplishments than to fly in the face of the new wave. Of those accomplishments, little is heard now in the concert hall, much more on recordings; a reassessment of his worth would seem to be in order. Even his once popular Violin Concerto does not have as much currency as it once did.
The work, composed in 1904, has about it a deep-hued Romanticism, its lyricism tinged with a hint of world-weariness, the melodies bittersweet. The first movement’s chromatic, pensive main theme, given buoyance by an accompaniment of Mendelssohnian repeated notes in clarinets and bassoons, and the sweet-sad secondary theme bear out this observation. The second movement, with the burnished broadness of the main theme, has a poignance that is heightened by the warm ministrations of harp and French horn.
The Concerto, filled with virtually every technical trick in the book, is in three movements played without pause — with no final cadences at the ends of the first and second movements. In fact, one could say there are only two movements: in an unusual structural procedure, Glazunov in effect combines the first and second movements, the second taking the place of a development section and the main and subordinate themes of the first movement returning as recapitulation. The slow movement has a whirlwind middle section that separates its own main theme from the return of the first movement’s themes, after which there is a knotty cadenza that goes directly into the finale. Here, Glazunov is ebullient (the main “hunt” theme, introduced by trumpets), charming (the light-as-air second theme), and rustic (the third, out-in-the-country theme, complete with peasant pedal points). He is also the maker of a wonderfully attractive ending to a colorful, bravura showpiece.
— After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.