Violin Concerto in A Minor, op. 82

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            A man of prodigious musical talents, Glazunov’s long career as a composer, performer, teacher, and music administrator spanned a period of profound evolutionary musical changes.   As a young man he was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory around 1880, ultimately succeeding him as director, but he lived well into the nineteen thirties, long after Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, et al, had led the world into modernism.  There has always seemed to be an innate tendency for pundits in the arts to denigrate as passé the work of those geniuses who—despite achievement and contributions of the highest order—have the misfortune to live on into changed times.  It is true of J.S. Bach, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Louis Armstrong, and it is equally true of Alexander Glazunov.

            His musical style is fundamentally romantic, tonal, and well grounded in the best of nineteenth-century compositional procedures.  Within that context his musical language is warm, but emotionally restrained, and not at all prone to many of the well-known excesses of late romanticism.  His mastery of the orchestra is complete, and reflects the colorful orchestration of his mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov.   Glazunov is a careful craftsman, and workman-like in every regard, but there are some notable quirks in his style that seem to be hallmarks of most of his works.   Rather than laying out a clear theme, and then working it out—familiar to, and expected by most audiences—he has a tendency for rapid shifts of color, dynamics, harmony, and even melodic motifs.  So there ensues an architecture that often seems rhapsodic.  The other signal trait is a notable penchant for striking—almost confusing--innovations in formal structure. 

            Of his many works, the large instrumental ensemble compositions include eight completed symphonies, two piano concertos, the popular saxophone concerto (1934) from late in his life, and the violin concerto.  Other than the saxophone concerto, many think that his best work was done about the time he assumed the leadership of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1905, and that includes, of course, the important violin concerto. 

            Composed in 1904, the violin concerto was given its première by the famed Leopold Auer, professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and one of the most well-known violin pedagogues of all time.  While the concerto has all of the familiar movements of a standard concerto, one is challenged to pick them out.  For one, they are performed without a break, seamlessly.  But, even more confusing for many is the composer’s famous predisposition for ingenious novelty in choosing what to occur when!  Basically, the slow movement in this concerto, rather than occurring normally as a separate second movement, in this case is blended right into the middle of the first movement, and it’s not exactly easy to spot exactly when that happens—remember, it all flows “seamlessly” from the very beginning to the end.  So, one will hear the beginning of the “first movement,” wherein the fundamental themes occur, but before the usual working out of this material, Glazunov takes a time out, and segues right into brand-new material that serves as a “slow movement.”  It is just as lyrical as the first section, so some will find it a bit tricky to spot the inception.  When finished with the contrasting movement, Glazunov then takes up the development of the opening material, recaps it, and ends this part with the traditional cadenza. This one is a particularly difficult one—aren’t they all?  However, this one is notorious for its fiendishly challenging double stops.  Upon its conclusion the work then moves on to the last movement without pause.  That is easy to follow, for the trumpets announce the dynamic, active last movement with a martial fanfare, which the solo violin answers and repeats, and we’re off to the races to the end in a most vivacious manner. 

            It’s clear why, despite its eccentricities of form, relatively brief length, and somewhat ambiguous musical syntax, Glazunov’s work has remained a major work in the repertoire, and a favorite with audiences everywhere for over a century.  Its beauty, lyricism, virtuosity, and romantic appeal put paid to any arguments over being out of step with the modernism of Glazunov’s younger contemporaries.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan