Anyone who loves the joyfully optimistic music of Russian fin de siècle composer Alexander Glazunov will be drawn to this issue by virtue of its contents because, in addition to his cycle of eight completed symphonies plus several shorter orchestral works, it contains his celebratory Coronation and Commemorative cantatas, two substantial works that have not heretofore been recorded in the digital era. But after listening, Glazunov lovers might wonder if it was altogether worth it. On all but one of the discs, the conductor is Valery Polyansky and the orchestra is the Russian State Symphony, and in almost all the performances, they go no deeper than the surface of Glazunov's scores.
Polyansky's tempos are not so much slow as stodgy. From the First Symphony's opening Allegro through the Eighth's opening Allegro moderato, the performances drag, as if Glazunov's symphonic argument was too heavy. The Russian State Symphony's colors are bright in the upper registers, but muddy in the middle and soggy in the bottom. The Second Symphony's Andante, for example, suffers from terminal turgidity in the horns, violas, and cellos. In consequence, most of these performances never take off. Where the Fourth's central Scherzo should soar lyrically, it remains earthbound, and where the Fifth's opening Maestoso Allegro should rise majestically, it remains prostrate. As for the never-before-recorded cantatas, they unfortunately sound overblown, overscored, overloud, and overlong in Polyansky's interpretations.
There are only two exceptions to this generally dull picture: the pair of Concert Waltzes and the Seventh Symphony. The Concert Waltzes work primarily because of the works' conviviality and lighter-than-air rhythms bring out the best in Polyansky and the Russian State Orchestra, and here at least their playing really does take off. The Seventh works primarily because the conductor and orchestra aren't Polyansky and the Russian State. Although the other six discs feature the Russians, this one features Tadaaki Otaka and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales performing the Seventh and Yondani Butt and the London Symphony Orchestra performing the Suite from the ballet Raymonda. While not a great Seventh (look to Rozhdestvensky, Fedoseyev, and Anissimov recordings for performances that truly embody the work's combination of the heroic and the lyric), it does give at least a sense of the flowing tempos, robust rhythms, and unbounded confidence that are central to it. But since Otaka's complete cycle of the symphonies is available on BIS, listeners who like what they hear here are likely to seek that out instead.
Also, it should be noted that Butt and the London Symphony's performance of the Raymonda Suite, while clearer and more colorful than the Russians' performance of the symphonies, is nowhere as colorful or as buoyant as it ought to be. And it should further be noted that Julia Krasko's bold and soulful performance of Glazunov's Violin Concerto coupled with the First Symphony is well worth hearing by fans of that work's saucy warmth, particularly her breathtaking cadenza. Chandos' uncharacteristically thick sound does Polyansky and the Russians no favors. BIS' characteristically clear sound, however, puts you in the same room as the Welsh musicians.