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Classical Review: A star - of the second rank

Music on Radio 3
Glazunov has not been sufficiently performed in this country for his creative personality to become properly focused or for an influential body of opinion to form concerning his true scope. Our impression of him has been blurred by irrelevances like his pupil Shostakovich's bizarre tale of how, during composition classes at the Petrograd Conservatoire, Glazunov would duck behind the lid of his desk to suck vodka through a straw.

What has emerged is an insubstantial image of a wunderkind whose astonishing First Symphony was written in his teens (he was born in 1865 and lived through to 1936) but who never subsequently threw off the mantle of Borodin, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, and who sank during the final decades of his life into a stultifying academicism and, eventually, creative impotence.

The feeling is that his incredible fluency precluded profundity of utterance, and immediate successors like Stravinsky, Scriabin and even Rachmaninov quickly made him irrelevant. On grounds of historic necessity, it is certainly only too easy to dismiss this conservative, but oddly touching, and certainly never trivial, composer.

It is true that, despite being born a full generation after Tchaikovsky and his St Petersburg contemporaries, Alexander Glazunov added nothing to the musical language he evolved from them. Not for him the wild intensity of Rachmaninov, or the proto-serial processes of late Scriabin, least of all the iconoclasm of the young Stravinsky - three figures with whom he need not have been historically out of touch.

But these facts should not lead us to treat Glazunov casually. Even in the pedestrian performance that his Fifth Symphony received on BBC Radio 3 last week from Tadaaki Otaka and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, a special quality of poetry emerged. Strangely, that quality is a romantic innocence, expressed with a purity of language which is the last thing you might have expected from a composer writing towards the end of a well- used tradition. Glazunov did not feel compelled to adopt any of the harmonic extravagances of late romanticism or early modernism, nor did he assume their agonies and ecstasies of expression. He managed to keep alive the high-romantic Russian style some way beyond its sell-by date, and he did so with Mendelssohnian grace and elegance.

Of all second-ranking composers (never let's call him second-rate), Glazunov is among the most engaging and inventive. More than one sophisticate of my acquaintance found themselves unexpectedly bowled over by the structural energy of the Third Symphony's scherzo, for instance, in which no direct repeats occur; while the disruptive shadows that hang over the Eighth prove that Glazunov was able to savour the irony of his situation and articulate it with heroic power.

Once one of the most palliative and unenterprising of programmes, Radio 3's Composer of the Week has in recent years given us far more to think about, and not for the first time it dealt seriously this week with one of the greats of this century's popular music. Listening to song after song by Cole Porter, whose sharp wit and passionate romanticism were matched by structural iconoclasm and the greatest originality of melody and harmony, one lamented the plunge into bathos and commercialism that marked much that followed his golden age. And there were Kern, Berlin, Gershwin and Rodgers too, all pouring out great music at the same time. Paul Guinery's narration celebrated this explosion of talent with a light but informing touch.

This week's broadcasts of `Composer of the Week: Cole Porter' end today at 12 noon; the whole series is repeated next week, Monday-Friday at 11.30pm