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The Power of Performance: Impressions on Stephen Coombs' Glazunov Project, Part II

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Coombs divides the solo piano music of Glazunov into 4 volumes, each one featuring at least one long work. Thus, the Theme and Variations op. 72, the 2 piano sonatas, and the Prelude and Fugues op. 101 are all on separate discs. Coombs made sure to add works without opus number as well, including a few student works of bizarre maturity. In this way, Coombs gives each work its due, and thus making the volumes have a kind of big-picture progression in and of itself.

Notwithstanding the 4 "major" works he recorded for solo piano repertoire, Coombs does an excellent job at Glazunov's "salon" works, which typically were miniatures and shorter piano suites. The 3 Etudes op. 31 is a highlight among Glazunov's salon genre, particularly the 1st etude in C major which is extraordinarily technical. Coombs makes one of the only good modern recordings of this etude, so if I wanted to hear clean, effectual performances of Glazunov's showpiece literature, go to Coombs.

Perhaps what I love most in the whole Project however is Volume 3, the one that features 6 fugues by Glazunov. All of them are extraordinarily complex and technical, and were some of his most progressive pieces from a tonal perspective. Op. 101 I consider one of Glazunov's late masterpieces, written shortly after the Russian Revolution in 1918. Read Coombs' notes for more details:

Who would have thought a Russian composer would make so many fugues? No other composer compares except for Shostakovich, who himself was influenced by Glazunov's set. Fugues weren't nonexistent to Russian composers, but being a difficult genre, they were treated more as a counterpoint exercise than a form for serious music. Taneyev's Fugue op. 29 predates Glazunov's and was a likely influence. But neither Moscow nor St. Petersburg embraced fugues like Glazunov, which makes him a unique voice in the history of Russian music. That's what makes me so happy that Coombs recorded all of them, including the tragic E minor that dates 1926 and has no opus number.

When it comes to playing Glazunov's later music (op. 62 and onward), the importance of his contrapuntal, chromatic style must be juxtaposed to where he came from, which was the glitzy, Romantic expressionist style of many Russians of his day, such as Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Arensky, and the like. Op. 101, the highlight of the whole Project, is such an example of performance practice that reconciles both supposedly mutually exclusive fields. Coombs says in his program notes that Glazunov always had an interest in the parts of music that are lesser recognized, the inner voices. Sure, the melody and bass will always be heard and remembered, but the inner voices can get lost in their support of these stronger voices. Thus as a musician, Glazunov wrote late piano music with the sole intention of having excellent inner voices, as well as emphasizing them in performance. The attention to inner voices that Coombs gives to Glazunov's fugues (including the one in the Piano Sonata no. 2) couldn't be more appropriate to what was desired all a long. Glazunov was aiming for a new kind of polyphony, simultaneously recognizing the past was well as the present, and Coombs achieves it with his whimsical, introspective interpretations of the fugues.

There is only one thing I personally miss from the Glazunov Project. Coombs didn't record the single work Glazunov wrote for 2 pianos, the Fantasy op. 104. I terribly miss it, since Coombs did record 2 piano albums with Arensky for example, and it would have been a nice addition to this very thorough compilation. But perhaps viewing it as a separate genre, Coombs has no music on the Glazunov CDs that involve more than one piano, although they could involve orchestra, or even singers, such as op. 40.

Last comment: with the Piano Concertos, Coombs also recognized historic precedence over personal liberties. The tempos and styles he chose in particular fro the 1st Concerto are very similar to Richter's classic performance. Also, Coombs performance well matches Elena Glazunov's own rendition of the 2nd Piano concerto, although I can't be certain if it was merely coincidental, or if he had heard that recording himself. For the concertos, it seems that Coombs was more interested in doing exactly what Glazunov had in mind, rather than bring anything radically different to the table. That would possibly sum up the entire Project, but I'd like to take the bite off of that seemingly disparaging comment.

Sometimes it is appropriate for a pianist not to put their own personal imprint on a piece of music, but to actually unearth what was in the music all along. Although those pianists are sometimes considered more like vessels of art rather than true artists, to be merely interpreters and not creators, I don't believe that's entirely wrong. After all, Glazunov was a musician in his own right, who had his own historical context with its own inherent value. It's worth preserving that, just as much as anything else, to be a musicologist. And when it comes down to that, I think I would prefer a performance that gets to a heart of a composer rather than the heart of the performer. For that reason, I think that could be why I gravitate to Coombs so much for Glazunov, but he just got him so well! How often do you see that in music today? Those are the true geniuses, in my opinion.

For more information on the Hyperion/Coombs collection, see the link below:

Some critics' comments on the Project:

'A dazzling series of salon and genre pieces full of the easy charm and winning tunefulness that also mark Glazunov's ballet The Seasons. Stephen Coombs proves a most persuasive advocate, consistently conveying sheer joy in keyboard virtuosity … which gives magic to pieces which might otherwise seem trivial. It makes a feast for any lover of piano music' (The Guardian)

'Wonders unfold still further in [this] third disc in the series … Glazunov has not enjoyed such persuasive advocacy in recent years. Stephen Coombs really succeeds, where others have not, in making the listener believe that this is not only music of charm but of quality' (Gramophone)

'A series that will surely raise this composer's status immeasurably' (Gramophone)

Well, even if you weren't that interested in Glazunov before, is this not enough compelling evidence to support what has been done by Stephen Coombs? Glazunov comes to life from the right performers. If you want to start with Glazunov somewhere, and piano is your forte, you must start with Coombs. The CDs are easy to find on Amazon for an affordable price.

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Updated Feb-27-2016 at 01:52 by Huilunsoittaja

Classical Music , Musical Instruments , Musicians , Composers , Recorded Music