Classical Concert Review : BBC Philharmonic- Discovering Glazunov

Words: Ian C Douglas
Saturday 01 June 2024
reading time: min, words

The Royal Concert Hall plays host to a long overdue revival...

BBC Philharmonic Web Hero Image 1600X600

Glazunov might not be well remembered today, but there was a time when he the ‘new big thing’. Not only was he a composer and conductor but also director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He was a part of that golden generation of Russian composers so famed today. Taught by Rimsky-Korsakov, he went on to teach Shostakovich. And sadly, he also ruined the premier of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, by apparently turning up to the conductor’s podium drunk as a lord. Imagine a full orchestra at the mercy of an intoxicated baton. No one knew their oboes from their cor anglais!

Thanks then, to the BBC Philharmonic for championing a revival in his works. The orchestra originates in Salford, Manchester, and has earned a worldwide reputation with what the programme called its ‘distinctive energy and character’.

Tonight, they kicked off with Autumn, an excerpt from Seasons, one of Glazunov’s most popular ballet scores. He wrote this movement to suggest Autumnal trees overcasting the joyful dancing of Spring and Summer. Very much mists and mellow fruitfulness. 

horsedrawn sleighs in the snow, bright and glittery

The programme also included Glazunov’s Fourth Symphony. But before we dived in headfirst, music journalist Stephen Johnson came on stage to talk us through Glazunov’s career and style. The BBC Philharmonic provided the live clips of sound to illustrate his points. His presentation was humorous and cogent. As well as informing the audience on Glazunov, he broke the Symphony up into bite-sized portions, allowing newcomers to the composition to understand it all the better. When, after the intermission, the orchestra played the full Fourth Symphony, it made complete sense.  

Unlike his three earlier symphonies, derived from nationalistic Russian tunes, the Fourth was his opportunity to express his musical vision more freely. One movement’s use of violins suggests horsedrawn sleighs in the snow, bright and glittery. Other movements were sombre and funereal. Although not reaching the heights of grandeur and pathos of a Tchaikovsky composition, it did nevertheless, hold the audience enraptured.

In later life, Glazunov left Soviet Russia and claiming ill health, never returned. He toured Europe and the United States before settling down in Paris and dying there in 1936 at the age of 70.

Tonight’s audience clearly derived great enjoyment from the performance, clapping until their hands must have been sore. We left with a new Russian genius to follow. Glazunov is good enough to join the pantheon of great composers.    

The BBC Philharmonic Discovering Glazunov played at the Royal Concert Hall on Friday, May 31st 2024. 

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