Based on the argument presented by conductor Evgeny Svetlanov in his set of Glazunov's eight completed symphonies, it could be maintained that the fin de siècle composer ranks at the very top among nineteenth century Russian symnphonists. There are Russian symphonies equal to Glazunov's -- for example, Balakirev's First, Borodin's Second, Rachmaninov's Second and Third, and Tchaikovsky's Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth, plus a handful of others -- but there is no Russian symphonist to match him. Only Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky contributed so frequently to the genre. Most Russian composers wrote two or three works in the form -- Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, Kalinnikov, and Lyapunov, for instance -- while many didn't write any at all, including Mussorgsky, Liadov, and Glinka. No other Russian composer, including Tchaikovsky, wrote so many consistently superlative symphonies. From the ingenious First, written when he was still a teenager, to the magnificent Eighth, written 25 years later, Glazunov's symphonies form a body of work unparalleled in Russian music.
Svetlanov makes a strong case for the argument in these excellent performances. With an unfortunately unnamed Russian orchestra, Svetlanov allows the distinctive character of each work to come through -- the First assertive, the Second epic, the Third romantic, the Fourth lyric, the Fifth heroic, the Sixth tragic, the Seventh bucolic, and the Eighth ecstatic -- and also integrates each work into Glazunov's oeuvre so that through these sympathetic readings, the listener can hear the composer's development from confident youth to optimistic maturity. With his unfailingly positive symphonies, Glazunov's demonstrates his striking ability to counter the tendency of his fellow fin de siècle Russians to write ever more pessimistic symphonies; even the Sixth's dark Theme and Variations and the Seventh's haunting Andante are followed by boundlessly hopeful finales.
Part of the reason Svetlanov's argument is so persuasive is that he himself is so clearly, wholly convinced of it. His readings are strong muscled and big hearted, with robust fast movements and expressive slow movements. When necessary, his accounts have tremendous gravity, as in the Eighth's lugubrious Mesto, but more often they are wonderfully effervescent, as in the Fourth's quicksilver Scherzo. They are always sumptuously played, with lush sonorities, rich textures, and radiant colors provided by the unnamed orchestra. Though the sound quality is variable, with no recording dates given, the overall sound is certainly more than listenable. This six-disc set belongs in the collection of anyone who enjoys Russian symphonies and who does not already know Glazunov's masterpieces.