Glazunov: Symphony No.6; La mer; Introduction and Dance from Salome

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier (Warner 2564 69627-0)

15 September 2008 3.5 stars

Glazunov Symphony No.6Alexander Glazunov's position in Russian musical history is, more often than not, defined by his relationship to others. Seen as the bridge between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff (Glazunov's dreadful conducting, probably under the influence of a fair amount of Vodka, had been partly responsible for the disastrous premiere of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony) it's easy not to see his own works without making, inevitably unfavourable, comparisons to his more illustrious compatriots.

José Serebrier and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra have been going some way to redress this balance with their series of Glazunov's symphonies on Warner. And I have to say, were it not for the total commitment of the performances on this disc – of the Sixth Symphony of 1896, La mer (a fifteen-minute orchestral fantasy), and the Introduction and Dance from Salome – it might have been easy to dismiss these works as finely crafted but forgettable.

As it is, the Sixth Symphony comes across as a well conceived work and any lack of melodic inspiration – there are no really hummable tunes à la Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff – is compensated by formal mastery and a real sense of dramatic momentum. The opening Allegro, preceded by an elegiac, slow introduction, is urgent and genuinely stirring, Serebrier drives his orchestra hard and they deliver drama and delicacy with a welcome warmth to both the brass tone and the strings.

Although cast in a standard four movement mould, the symphony's remaining  movements are unusual: the second is a theme and variations that could be a ballet divertissement; the third is a jolly, rustic dance with more than a hint of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky's fourth; the Finale is an elaborate concoction based on theme that, although essentially unmemorable, is treated with considerable ingenuity. Similarly, Glazunov's theme for the second movement is nothing to write home about, and comes across as slightly weak and sentimental. Luckily, though, he introduces a bit of drama, culminating in a powerful final variation. The Finale too, starts off less than convincingly and follows a slightly meandering course, but again Glazunov manages to build up his material into a something that ends up sweeping you along right to the end.

As Andrew Huth suggests in his liner note, it's best not to listen to the next two works on the disc thinking of Debussy and Strauss. Composed in 1889, some fifteen years before Debussy's work, La mer suffers less in comparison than the Introduction and Dance from Salome, which it is hard to believe was penned for a St. Petersburg performance of Oscar Wilde's play as late as 1908, that is three years after the premiere of Richard Strauss's operatic setting of the same play.

The liner note gives us only a couple of extracts of what seems to have been a detailed programme provided by the composer for La mer so it's not easy to divine exactly what Glazunov's fifteen minute score is supposed to be describing. However, this matters little and it's a piece full of imaginative orchestral touches: there are the stock-in-trade arpeggios in the violins (not the only hint of Sheherazade) and watery flourishes on the harp; but also novel effects like flutter-tonguing flutes from around six and half minutes in and slides on the trombones. Not everything works but it's an entertaining piece and is shot through with an appealing, falling melodic idea. Again, Serebrier's commitment, and that of the excellent RSNO, cannot be faulted.

Even if one resists comparisons to Strauss, Glazunov's Salome music is still the weakest on the disc. The advocacy of the performers can do little to hide the fact that the introduction is rather generalised and the dance, although one senses Glazunov is trying to push the boundaries of his by then already hopelessly old-fashioned musical language, is unimaginative, marred by an excess of cheap oriental effects. I can imagine returning to the symphony and La mer but can only see myself digging this Salome out as an almost comic counterpoint to Strauss's trailblazing effort.

So, if Glazunov's output, as represented here, isn't of universally high quality, there's still a lot of stirring music to be enjoyed. The playing of the RSNO under Serebrier is exemplary, captured in clean, warm and detailed sound.

By Hugo Shirley