Stravinsky and Glazunov conduct their own Ballet music
"Stravinsky’s performance is filled with passion and considerable dramatic understanding ... The performance we have here of [Glazunov's] own music is masterful" - Fanfare
This release presents music from three Russian ballets premièred
within the first two decades of the 20th Century, which reflect the
enormous stylistic changes going on in music during the period. Igor
Stravinsky began as an admirer of Glazunov, but soon set out on his own
course with The Firebird in 1910. The following year saw the première of Petrushka, a work which the conservative elder composer characterized as “not music, but […] excellently and skillfully orchestrated.”
Stravinsky made some never-published acoustic piano sides for the Brunswick label while on tour in America in 1925, but the present suite from Petrushka was his first issued recording. Although the ballet had, by that time, been recorded twice complete on eight sides by HMV (acoustically by Goossens, electrically by Coates, the latter on Pristine PASC 304), Columbia opted to record only a suite on six sides. Missing from this version were the “Dance of the Ballerina” and most of the “Waltz: The Ballerina and the Moor” in Scene III, and “The Peasant and the Bear” (except for the opening bars) and “The Jovial Merchant with Two Gypsy Girls” in Scene IV. Like other concert versions of the ballet, it ends with “The Masqueraders”, rather than with Petrushka’s fight, death, and ghostly reappearance.
After this recording made in London, the focus of Stravinsky’s microphonic activities shifted for the next few years to Paris. At the tail end of his 1928 Firebird Suite sessions (Pristine PASC 387), he recorded the last three selections from the suite to Pulcinella, his ballet for orchestra and singers based on works by Pergolesi, which had marked the beginning of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period. Four years later, he returned to the work and recorded two more movements, but did not record any further excerpts during the 78 rpm era.
Like Stravinsky, Glazunov made his first recording in London; but
unlike the younger composer, it was not to lead to a further series of
discs. In his memoirs, Columbia producer Joe Batten recalled the Seasons
recording sessions under Glazunov’s direction: “Here is a far too
seldom played suite of happy music. It was recorded at the old Portman
Rooms in Baker Street. I shall never forget meeting him, tall, elderly,
so ill and frail with gout and rheumatism that I wondered if he could
stand the physical strain of three or four hours of intensive recording
But he did and produced a performance of sheer beauty.”
None of the frailness described is evident in this energetic and stylish reading, but only some of the beauty survives on the issued discs. Recorded over three sessions, at least two different engineering approaches were used: one which favored a warm, bass-full sound, and the other which was treble-oriented almost to the point of shrillness. Despite its drawbacks, it remains invaluable as the only recording the composer ever made.
The sources for the transfers were American Columbia pressings: “Viva-Tonal” copies for the Glazunov; a “Full-Range” label edition for Pulcinella; and a large label, post-“Viva” pressing with patches from a laminated French Columbia copy for Petrushka.
STRAVINSKY Petrushka – Ballet Suite (1911)
Symphony Orchestra ∙ Igor Stravinsky
Recorded 27 – 28 June 1928 in London
Matrix nos.: WAX 3867/72
First issued as Columbia L 2173/5
STRAVINSKY Pulcinella – Ballet Suite (1920)
Walther Straram Concert Orchestra ∙ Igor Stravinsky
Recorded 6 May 1932 & 12 November 1928 in the Studio Albert and Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
Matrix nos.: WLX 1605/6 & WLX 626/7
First issued on French Columbia LFX 289 & D 15126
GLAZUNOV The Seasons – Ballet in 1 Act, Op. 67 (1900)
Symphony Orchestra ∙ Alexander Glazunov
Recorded 10, 13 & 14 June 1929 in the Portman Rooms, London
Matrix nos.: WAX 5009/10, 5014/6 & 5022/4
First issued on Columbia LX 16/8 & 29/30
It finds Stravinsky in striking form, leading musicians who are clearly excited to play for him
The juxtaposition of Igor Stravinsky and Alexander Glazunov on one CD is a little puzzling. Neither composer had the warmest admiration for the other. The producer’s rationale is that all three ballet scores presented here are by Russian composers and were premiered in the first two decades of the last century. Stravinsky, though, referred to Glazunov as “Carl Philip Emmanuel Rimsky-Korsakov,” a jibe which perhaps indicates the relative significance of Glazunov compared with his mentor, but which I believe substantially overlooks the aesthetic differences between those two composers. As for the conservative Glazunov, he said Petrushka was “not music,” although he praised its orchestration. I suspect Pristine Audio planned to release The Seasons, but was puzzled over a coupling, as Glazunov made no further commercial recordings. So we have here the shotgun marriage of Stravinsky to Glazunov. Nevertheless, this CD may be considered a bargain. A copy of Dutton’s reissue of The Seasons currently costs $215 on Amazon Marketplace.
The present suite from Petrushka, recorded in London with an unnamed orchestra in 1928, was Stravinsky’s first commercially released recording as a conductor. It finds him in striking form, leading musicians who are clearly excited to play for him. It also is a welcome opportunity to hear the composer conduct music from his original 1911 score, as his stereo version of the complete ballet employs his 1947 revision, which Nicolas Slonimsky referred to as a “self-mutilation.” Whether Stravinsky prepared the revision out of conviction or the desire to finally have the ballet copyrighted, we may never know. It seems a gray area to me. The present suite has numerous excisions from the complete version, most notably Petrushka’s death and reappearance as a ghost. Instead, the suite ends with “The Masqueraders,” providing a conclusion that has real instrumental punch, rather than pathos. Stravinsky’s performance is filled with passion and considerable dramatic understanding. Even the no-nonsense approach of Pierre Boulez in his two recordings of the complete ballet sounds slack by comparison. “The Shrovetide Fair” offers a real feeling of greasepaint, as all its participants are sharply characterized. In “The Magic Trick,” the solo flute seems to beckon to the audience at the fair. The “Russian Dance” blends folk music with wonderfully edgy orchestral effects. “Petrushka’s Room” presents an astute psychological portrait of the tortured, misshapen doll, with the solo piano making a superb contribution. The dances in the evening at the fair are loaded with color. We also are given the final five movements of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, with the composer leading Paris’s Straram Orchestra. The performance mixes exuberance with a perhaps unexpected degree of warmth for the Neoclassical style of the composer.
Apparently the most famous anecdote about Glazunov as a conductor is that he supposedly was drunk for the disastrous premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony. It’s possible Glazunov viewed the symphony as being dangerously progressive, and couldn’t face his task without being fortified with alcohol. I would note that Glazunov, after leaving Russia, embarked on a conducting tour of the United States, managed by none other than Sol Hurok. The performance we have here of his own music is masterful. José Serebrier has written that the failure of Glazunov’s symphonies to achieve wide popularity is due to conductors not taking enough interpretive license with expression. I disagree. What we hear on the composer’s own recording of The Seasons, with a thoroughly captivated unnamed London orchestra, is an approach to conducting that is at once refined and direct. There is plenty of beauty of tone color and phrasing, but never a gesture that seems extravagant. My favorite conductor of Glazunov today is not Serebrier but Alexander Anissimov, whose approach is entirely more classical. As for the popularity of Glazunov’s music, its patrician charm and lack of histrionics probably make it unsuited to the admiration of the broader public. One of my English professors, Robert Chapman, said to me, “We know what the public likes. They like Dickens.” Glazunov is not Dickens.
Among the high points of this recording of The Seasons, “The Ice” has the magic of a Russian Delibes. “The Snow” swirls and dances. “Spring” is verdant and luxuriant. In the “Waltz of the Cornflowers and Poppies,” there is no influence of Tchaikovsky or Johann Strauss II’s waltzes, but rather a richness all Glazunov’s own. The “Petit Adagio” in “Autumn” marks the performance’s emotional climax, with Glazunov achieving a glorious legato. Remastering engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has left a lot of surface noise from all these 78s in his restoration, which probably explains the rich colors he derives from the recordings. The “Bacchanale” in The Seasons is marred by a more shrill recording technique that most of the rest of the performance, but it’s not too distracting. If you are looking for a complete stereo recording of the 1911 Petrushka, I would recommend Ernest Ansermet’s, which I have on a Classic Records gold CD. For the entire Pulcinella Suite, I like Salvador Mas Conde on Koch, while my preference in The Seasons is Evgeny Svetlanov and the Philharmonia. The combination of Stravinsky and Glazunov on one CD may be unusual, but the satisfaction derived from their recordings here is a unifying force. It’s a bit like the Chinese dinner with one from column A and one from column B, but if you appreciate such culinary options, this disc definitely is for you.
This article originally appeared in Issue 38:6 (July/Aug 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.