Glazunov: String Quartets, Vol. 5 / Utrecht String Quartet

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GLAZUNOV String Quartets: No. 1; No. 7 • Utrecht Qrt • MDG 603 1736-2 (52: 16) Contrasting the first and last string quartets of Glazunov...

GLAZUNOV String Quartets: No. 1; No. 7 Utrecht Qrt MDG 603 1736-2 (52: 16)

Contrasting the first and last string quartets of Glazunov on a single release is a good idea. Unlike many such pairings, they literally do represent the beginning and end of his compositional career, a sort of real-life version of Machaut’s Ma fin est mon commencement . And Glazunov, as one of the foremost admirers in his day of the Franco-Flemish School and its antecedents, would have caught the reference.

His String Quartet No. 1 was the composer’s first published work, premiered in 1882, when he was 16. It was first presented at one of the Friday soirées of the wealthy timber merchant Mitrofan Belyayev, where composers and performers met each week to perform and critique each other’s work. The public premiere took place a few months later, and received an ovation similar to Glazunov’s First Symphony. At a time when Russian nationalism was still a subject of intense debate, with few adequate examples in chamber music, this First Quartet conveys technical assurance and a rich sense of style. The opening movement possesses an authority in its inspired materials and detailed, idiomatic writing that would credit a far more experienced composer. The scherzo is competent, but less individualized, as Glazunov wouldn’t start up his series of remarkable essays in this vein until the Second Symphony, four years later. By contrast, the songful, miniature andante is an early cradle song-like example of the striking lyricism and harmonic subtleties the composer would subsequently lavish on many similar movements. The finale is one of those hybrid sonata-rondos based on two folklike themes that Glazunov would use repeatedly to round off his larger multimovement works.

The Seventh String Quartet was completed in 1930, in Paris. It was among Glazunov’s last compositions, and is both considerably more vivid and imaginative than the pallid Sixth of nine years earlier. Its opening movement is unusually rich in imitative textures and contrapuntal procedures, looking back to the Renaissance, as noted above—not for nothing its subtitle, Hommage au passé . Russian nationalism, which had become less pronounced in Glazunov’s later works, reappears as well, though without discarding the chromatically shifting harmonies of his Eighth and unfinished Ninth symphonies. The slow movement, “Le souffle du printemps,” has the character of a lyrical recitative surrounding lighter material that occasionally launches into full-throated, Borodin-like song. The scherzo, labeled “Dans la forêt mystérieuse,” is the last in an amazing series notable for their delicacy, whimsy, and imagination. This one, spun out of short motifs, irregular rhythms, and counterpoint, creates an impression of unpredictable, fast-moving shadows and complex features beneath a transparently simple surface. The finale, “Festival Russe,” is exactly what it says—with celebratory bells, balalaikas strumming, and a chorus singing joyous hymns, as well as brief recollections of earlier movements, handled with panache. Thus Glazunov returned to the inspiration of his musical youth, and for a brief moment successfully recovered it.

This is the final release in the Utrecht String Quartet’s Glazunov series. I’ve previously reviewed its recordings of the Third and Fifth quartets (MDG 603 1236-2), the Sixth Quartet and the Novelettes (MDG 603 1239-2), and the String Quintet and Suite for String Quintet (MDG 603 1238). The features of its work as a group have remained fairly constant: technically expert playing, a sleekly attractive tone, and an internal response to each other and to the music that is only possible when an ensemble has worked a great deal of time on a given work. The approach is cooler, more objectified than the older Shostakovich Quartet recordings of Glazunov from the 1970s (on Olympia; deleted, but still available from some sources) that feature warmer phrasing, a less linear approach to tempo, and more rubato and portamento. Overall, I respond better in this music to the Shostakovich’s approach, which was developed in training under musicians to whom Russian nationalism was as natural as Beethoven and Brahms. But I find much to enjoy in the Utrecht’s balance, textural clarity, and affection for these works.

The group is least successful in the First Quartet’s finale, where in place of the moderato tempo designation it prefers an andante for much of the movement, and in the Seventh Quartet’s andante affectuoso , which goes at a moderato clip and loses much of its charm in the process. These two instances on this disc (and others, in the series) seem of a part with the group’s emotional coolness, a certain reticence to engage the music at a simple emotional level—hence the inability to express effusive enthusiasm and tenderness. Far better is the finale to the Seventh Quartet, also marked moderato , but with more vigor and flexibility, perhaps because the movement is more complex than its counterpart in the First. The soft playing in the Seventh’s scherzo is a treat, and the four-part harmony, though lacking the richness of the Shostakovich performers, has a spaciousness and majesty that contributes much to the opening movements of both works.

The sound is immediate and close, yet without mechanical noises. In short, this is a distinguished recording by the Utrecht String Quartet, and a suitable one on which to end its survey of Glazunov.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Release Date: February 01, 2012

  • UPC: 760623173627

  • Catalog Number: 6031736-2

  • Label: MDG

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Alexander Glazunov

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Utrecht String Quartet