Glazunov: Symphonies 1, 2, 3 & 9

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier (Warner Classics & Jazz 2564 68904-2)

1 November 2009 4 stars

GlazunovJosé Serebrier's Glazunov cycle with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra comes to a conclusion with this double-CD set (for the price of one) of the first three and 'unfinished' ninth works in the Russian composer's symphonic crop. It's remarkable in many ways that such a project – on the face of it with little to recommend it commercially – should have been undertaken, yet the consistent quality Serebrier has achieved with his orchestra has made for a refreshing and invigorating reappraisal of a composer who hovers on the verges of concert life.

The conductor himself stops short of making unrealistic claims for Glazunov, acknowledging his reluctance to engage with the avant-garde, and choosing rather to emphasise, in his own booklet note, his works' many qualities. And listening to this final instalment, along with previous releases in the series, Glazunov's consummate craftsmanship, his sturdy command of musical structure and his gift for melody, all mean there's always a lot to admire and enjoy. There's no doubt some truth in his describing him as a 'Russian Brahms'.

Unlike Brahms, though, Glazunov had no qualms about penning his First Symphony at an early age. Although somewhat revised in later life, it's an astonishing achievement for a sixteen year-old, its first performance, as David Winnower explains in his excellent note, persuading the businessman Mitrofan Belyayev to promote and publish several Russian composers (through Edition Balieff). Already Glazunov's enormous skill as a composer is in evidence in a work that brims with youthful exuberance and no shortage of melodic inspiration. As with a great deal of the symphonies, the influence of Tchaikovsky is never far away, but the more famous composer is never slavishly emulated, with Glazunov's ripe imagination providing its fair share of innovations. Serebrier's performance of the early symphony maybe takes a little while to get underway, but once he hits his stride, the first movement is lively and exciting. The rustic Scherzo is followed by a heart-felt Adagio, performed with delicacy and tenderness before a rip-roaring account of the finale.

By the time of the Second Symphony, composed four years later, Glazunov's mastery is unmistakable. The central Andante is particularly fine, and Serebrier turns in a beautifully tender account, his wind players reacting especially well to the composer's imaginative writing. Serebrier's aim to recapture the flexibility and passion of the works – removed by a performance tradition based on metronomic regularity of pulse – helps bring the expansive first movement to life, its opening fanfare arresting, while the Scherzo is remarkable for Glazunov's further experiments with orchestration.

Perhaps the finest performance is that of the grand Third symphony – a work that is little short of fifty minutes in length – where Serebrier's flexibility of approach fits the expanded palette of the music especially well. There are times between the moments of stirring rhetoric and Tchaikovskian lyricism in the first movement when Glazunov's writing seems to have lost some freshness, but the Scherzo sees him once again showing his experimental side with some interesting orchestration and the finale finds him again at his exuberant best, the RSNO rising fully to the challenge. The 'Unfinished' Ninth, one movement orchestrated by Gavriil Yudin, completes the release in a typically persuasive account.

It seems unlikely that anything will kick-start a Glazunov renaissance of any significance, and the composer's place in a sort of limbo between obscurity and ubiquity precludes his being touted as a forgotten master. In Serebrier's survey, however, we have fine modern recordings, performed with commitment and passion that give us a chance to enjoy these beautifully written works on their own terms.

By Hugo Shirley