2015’s Anniversary Last Hurrah

Do you know which composer would have turned 150 on the 8th December? Read on and find out!

Four days to go to the last, and perhaps most widely celebrated, musical anniversary of the year. On 8 December Jean Sibelius would turn 150 – almost exactly six months younger than his fellow-Scandinavian, that great Dane, Carl Nielsen (who ‘was’ 150 on 9 June). In the wake of this northern focus for orchestras and promoters this year, two Russian anniversary composers have had less coverage – Alexander Scriabin’s death centenary (27 April) and, surely the most hard done by – Alexander Glazunov, who was born in the same year as Nielsen and Sibelius (and between them – 10 August).

I stumbled across this fact earlier this year when commissioned to write a CD liner note for violinist Esther Yoo’s enterprising coupling for her debut on Deutsche Grammophon (DG40120/ 481 215 7), accompanied by the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy, which has been released in her Korean homeland. She plays the Sibelius and Glazunov violin concertos – a rare pairing on CD indeed – and I was amazed to find that not only were the composers born in the same year, but they composed their violin concertos at around the same time. And they knew each other, if not quite friends, then acquaintances. See what I mean about context? Glazunov was a Finnophile and regular visitor to Helsinki (he also composed both a Finnish Fantasy Op. 88 and Finnish Sketches Op. 89). He had expressed a liking for Sibelius’ Night Ride and Sunrise, which had its première in St Petersburg in 1909 conducted by Alexander Siloti, who reported Glazunov’s comments back to the absent Sibelius. But there seemed always to be some diffidence on Sibelius’ part – he noted often that he would miss performances by Glazunov in Helsinki (retrospectively expressing regret for not going), and was perhaps both miffed and jealous that his champion, the conductor Robert Kajanus, seemed to fall under Glazunov’s spell.

As to their respective violin concertos, Glazunov’s was by far the smoothest compositional process, conceived in 1903 and composed the following summer, mostly at Ozerki, a country retreat near St Petersburg. It is dedicated to virtuoso Leopold Auer who gave the first performance at a Russian Music Society concert in St Petersburg (where Glazunov was soon to take up the position as Director of the city’s Conservatoire) on 4 March 1905. That Glazunov was well known outside Russia is clear from its rapid performance – a year or so later – in London, conducted by Sir Henry Wood with the 14-year-old Mischa Elman, a pupil of Auer’s who Glazunov had been astounded to hear play his concerto in class.

Meanwhile Sibelius struggled hard at his concerto, which was originally composed in 1903. One time leader of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Willy Burmester, followed the concerto’s progress closely, and Sibelius wanted him to accept the dedication of the work as well as giving its première (tentatively pencilled for March 1904). But at short notice (needing cash) Sibelius had to arrange a fund-raising concert and needed a new work, and so had to use the Violin Concerto. Burmester couldn’t make the February dates, so the honour fell to Viktor Nováček, teacher at the Helsinki Musical Academy. The critical reaction, particularly from Karl Flodin, stung Sibelius and he withdrew the work for revision.

The concerto eventually saw the light of day again – with substantial cuts and reworking in both the opening and closing movements – on 19 October 1905 with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Richard Strauss. Unfortunately Burmester was not the soloist, as his diary was already full, so it was played by the orchestra’s leader, Karl Halir. Not surprisingly, despite his initial support and enthusiasm, Burmester’s patience was vastly over-extended and he never played the concerto.

Intriguingly, the Sibelius estate has now given permission for the original version of Sibelius’ violin concerto to be regularly performed. It’s fascinating to uncover the differences and consider the composer’s decisions to make them.

More anon.

© Nick Breckenfield, 2015

Author: Nick Breckenfield
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