Full Works Concert Highlight of the Week: Glazunov's Heroic Symphony

For Jane Jones, this week's Full Works Concert highlight is also something of a discovery.

This week my featured work is a bit of a discovery for me – and hopefully it will be for you too when you’ve heard the music of Alexander Glazunov.  

Glazunov and I have history: I’m a big Rachmaninov fan – so how can I forgive the man who almost certainly triggered the young composer’s breakdown? It was Glazunov, drunk and ill-prepared, who stepped onto the podium to conduct Rachmaninov’s first symphony, with predictably disastrous results. 

But I’m willing to give him a second try – and listening to this, the fifth of his nine symphonies, I’m glad I did.

Glazunov’s rehabilitation in my eyes is due to the fantastic survey of his symphonies by Classic FM’s Orchestra in Scotland, the Royal Scottish National orchestra under Jose Serebrier. He has described the Russian composer’s music as ‘close to his heart’ and it’s that emotional connection which makes this such an involving and enthralling performance. Glazunov’s music played without feeling or subtlety can end up sounding, well, a bit dull. Add tension, passion and a touch of spontaneity to the notes on the page and the entire symphony lifts off!

Composed in 1895, it was a return to the symphonic conventions of the day for Glazunov whose fourth symphony experimented with the three movements of the earlier classical era. Despite employing the more usual four movement structure for this late romantic work, Glazunov nevertheless ascribed some pretty unconventional descriptions to his music, calling it an ‘architectural poem’ which ‘silenced sounds’.  

Listening to this symphony - packed with rhythms and pace, Russian nationalist melodies and dance - it’s hard to interpret this guidance from Glazunov much beyond a report at the time that described the music as profound. 

Glazunov combines much of the best of his era, so detractors might suggest he’s a bit too Tchaikovsky, or a bit too Wagner! You will certainly hear those echoes, but Glazunov emerges with his own voice. The second movement, a scintillating scherzo is unmissable and the finale is full of orchestral fireworks in that full-on Russian romantic style.  

I had always assumed that the title of the fifth, the Heroic, is a reflection of the way the music evolves even though there’s no specific narrative. One thing is for sure, though - by the end of the finale, Heroic is exactly how it feels!