Roger Ebert once said in his October 17th, 1999 second review of Shawshank Redemption that "all good art is about something deeper than it admits." The good art, in Glazunov's urbane yet unapologetically Russian music especially the symphonies, and José Serebrier's rewardingly innate rendition of them with his excellent orchestras at his disposal, went deeper, and with no regrets. From the inaugural album of Glazunov's Fifth Symphony and "Vremena Goda" ("The Seasons") that launched this series back in 2004, I had a feeling then that this series would be like no others. And so it proved to be. What we have been witnessing and experiencing throughout the years was a re-thinking of the symphonies due to Serebrier's penchant for molding and probing of every idea that brought these works to new heights. Only rarely were those heights ever achieved before him and in that manner: by Golovanov in his 1940s and 1950s classic recordings and Neemi Jarvi in his 1980s Orfeo set. Serebrier, though, takes the journey on a whole new level that sounds less labored and which yields greater senses of consistency, naturalness, and spontaneity. His structuralism is overall sound yet, at the same time, unique and fresh, as though he learned a thing or two from Eugen Jochum's examples in his Bruckner (or from Haitink's examples come to think of it).
Serebrier's approaches to the Glazunov symphonies are highly revealing yet very important because the symphonies are not so easy to bring off with the consistently high level of imagination and reading between the lines the maestro and his great orchestra were able to achieve. The thickness in the scoring is one culprit. The longwindedness, abrupt tempo changes, and the at times tendency for both the banality of ideas and the shortness of depth in expression are the others (Glazunov could be too lazy and facile for his own good). But what Serebrier succeeds in showing more than any other conductor before him (with some exceptions to Golovanov, Fedoseyev, Jarvi, Svetlanov, and Butt), is just how well the symphonies do stand up to some of the great Russian examples of the genre courtesy of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and later Myaskovsky, Shostakovich, and perhaps Weinberg and Eshpay; That, while not as always as profound as theirs, they are not shallow or cheap, but rather high examples of Russian musical art intermeshed with Western (Teutonic) sophistication in composition (with the orchestration that is generally brilliant). And it helps tremendously to have the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) by his side, with its ability and willingness to go all the way with boldness, finesse, blend, artistry, pinpoint articulation and virtuosity, as well as ardor to help carry this project through (the brass players and timpanist(s) are particularly superb). And of course the RSNO had exposure to Glazunov's orchestral music under Jarvi's leadership during the 1980s and 1990s (and to works of other Russian composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich for that matter). But that is besides the point. The consistency in the high quality of the playing as well as Serebrier's artful and imaginative conducting aided by his total understanding of Glazunov's idiom are, in the final analysis, what carried the day. And the relatively exemplary recording sound throughout adds pleasure in the listening experience: it is nicely spacious, atmospheric, warm, incandescent, penetrating, and for the most part clear. Only in spots (as in the concerti and the Fifth Symphony for instances) where better balancing and focus could have been made. But that's not a huge deal given the overall artistic journey which is high and exhilarating indeed. And lastly though not least, the booklet annotations of Andrew Huth, David Winnower, and Serebrier, are fun, at times, eye-catching read.
Since I reviewed most of the discs of the Glazunov symphonies already, there is really no need to be (too) superfluous here. There is not a single word used then that I would change now. I still think, for instances, that Serebrier's performance with the RSNO in the composer's Third Symphony is the highlight in this series and I admire the despondency they bring forth in the unfinished Ninth. I still hold to high esteem their ways with the Fifth Symphony, with that extra poetry in the first and third movements and their rollicking playing in the finale (though Jarvi's take in the coda is still the most thrilling to date). I adore their recordings of the Fourth and Seventh for their warmth and affection (the first movement of the Fourth, the andante movement of the Seventh to name a couple of examples). In other words, their presentations are soulful, but never pretentious. And while I still miss some of the gravitas in the Eighth as compared to Polyansky's Chandos recording, Svetlanov in his classic Melodiya LP recording, and even Rozhdestvensky's Melodiya one, my admiration towards Serebrier's album grows because of the details he brings forth more readily (Warner's recording is more forward and clear than Chandos' noticeably recessed one). If I really need to alter my opinion of this set, it is in regards to the recording of the Sixth, which I now deem as the best in the market. Further hearings of this symphony confirm more and more why Glazunov is a great composer and quite a hell of a symphonist. Yes, it is dramatic a la Tchaikovsky, yes it is dynamic, and yes it is of abundance in lyrical warmth and, in the intermezzo, sparkle. But the ingenuity with the ideas and structure is of a very high plane indeed and I admire how Serebrier negotiates the changes of tempi and transitions with sly spontaneity (the climax in the first movement, always one of Glazunov's strongest suits, is handled superbly here). While I think Serebrier could have been more flowing and structurally unifying in the Second Symphony's outer movements as compared to Fedoseyev, the overall recording is very successful. Likewise, the First Symphony comes off very well here, although I do find myself leaning towards Rozhdestvensky's approach that is more temperamentally Slavic in projection.
The manner in which the symphonies are performed in general neatly yet aptly applies to how the concerti are approached where again, this great maestro proves himself a great painter on the podium, giving each stroke of paint its own personality to glow and be expressive. The Russian National Orchestra (RNO) is featured in the concerti and smaller works in concertante form, and it leaves me no wonder why it is a world-class ensemble. The strings are rich in tone and body and the woodwinds have its Slavic, characterful fervor that reminds me of the good ole days when the Melodiya LPs were around. The brass is ideally imposing and deep sounding (particularly in the Concerto Ballata) and the percussion department is simply excellent and alert. But what I find entrancing is how modishly sounding the RNO is, as though its players are allowed their own personalities to shine through and dictate the sound. In other words, it's the blend of the orchestra that is wonderful, essentially because it does not have a corporate feel to it. This is particularly true of its performance of the Saxophone concerto where the strings have an admirable trendy sound that is full of expressiveness and enjoyment. And of course alto saxophonist Marc Chisson helps lead the way with his idiosyncratic approach to the score that, like Lev Mikhailov in his marvelous Melodiya LP recording, has sparkle, ebullience, and at times grittiness (which is befitting since Glazunov admired Jazz, as he expressed in a newspaper interview upon his visit to the United States in 1929).
The rest of the soloists featured here are likewise exceptionally fine, particularly Rachel Barton Pine with her beautiful tone that is full of warmth and flow in the Violin Concerto (like Oscar Shumsky in Chandos, but with less volatility). Pine's take of the Méditation on the second disc, meanwhile, is pure wonder whereas Alexey Serov is mesmerizing in the Reverie. On the two piano concerti, Alexander Romanovsky is a fine interpreter, with suave and a nice narrative yet autumnal feel in the Second. And even though I still feel that the recording balance leaves him a tad overwhelmed by the orchestra in the First Piano Concerto, he rises to the challenge admirably. The RNO's support is huge, with, interestingly enough, some of the most cinematic, once upon a time feel of expression that sticks to memory (Serebrier coaxes Glazunov's warm brand of symphonism euphoniously). In the final analysis, however, Maneli Pirzadeh's projection with the instrument remains unchallenged in her more clearer, analytical recording courtesy of Chandos. But I have no reservations with regard to Wen-Sinn Yang's deep yet soul searching approach in Chant du Ménestrel (the tone that swells the melancholy arrestingly) and the abundance of color, vitality, and artistry in the Concerto Ballata.
And to increase the value of the eight-discs set even further, Warner Classics thankfully retains the fillers that accompanied the symphonies in the earlier single disc albums including "The Seasons", Suite from "Raymonda", Symphonic Fantasy "The Sea" and Introduction and Dance from "Salome." While I am still finding myself hooked to Neemi Jarvi's more exhilarating and ebullient way with "The Seasons" and his more exciting, dashing a la Wagnerian line of attack with "The Sea", the performances here are generally excellent, with the details that are brought out to the fore more readily comparatively speaking. The "Raymonda" Suite in particular is beautifully rendered.
So, with all that said, the Glazunov symphony cycle is the most absorbing, revelatory, thought-provoking, satisfyingly searching one to date and this box set overall is of an extraordinary value (especially when you consider the more than reasonable price for eight discs that make up the box). It is not so often do I see such a value with regards to the mind-altering performances, recording sound, presentation, and the quality of the music (the Atterberg/Rasilainen, Tubin/Jarvi, Langgaard/Dausgaard, Mahler/Bernstein, Prokofiev/Jarvi, Myaskovsky/Svetlanov, Janacek/Mackerras, Bax/Thomson, Braga Santos/Cassuto, and Bantock/Handley series readily come to mind). For anyone new to Glazunov's music, particularly the symphonies, this will be a hell of a great place to start. For anyone not new to the works, this is much more than a worthy acquisition in every way that counts.
Colloquially speaking, as far as Glazunov's music is concerned, José Serebrier is the man (and not an island at that as we have seen from the wondrous support by all involved).