Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2005
Issue No. 746
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

From Russia with love

Amal Choucri Catta hails two friends of old

photo: Tamer Youssef Click to view caption
photo: Tamer Youssef

Glazunov's Saxophone Concerto and Rachmaninov's Second Symphony, Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conductor William Conway, soloist Andrew McNeill, saxophone. Venue: Main Hall Cairo Opera House, 4 June, 9pm

Saturday night, Cairo Symphony Orchestra's concert at the Main Hall introduced novelty while concentrating mainly on two celebrated Russian composers: Alexander Glazunov and Serguey Rachmaninov, both dedicated upholders of Russian musical tradition, both internationally applauded as the last of the colourful Russian masters of the late 19th century, and both regrettably belonging to the lesser known composers in Egypt. For reasons unknown, neither Glazunov nor Rachmaninov enjoy the popularity of composers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov among Egyptian audiences; their lives and their works would have deserved a larger amount of interest since the beginning of the current season.

Born on 10 August 1865 in St Petersburg, where his father was a successful publisher and book seller, and his mother an amateur pianist, Glazunov was eight when Rachmaninov was born. His precocious first steps were taken, as with any young composer, within established forms: his mother's theory lessons with Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov led to the latter taking a particular interest in young Glazunov's musical education, while discovering that his pupil progressed as he said, "not from day to day, but from hour to hour" -- Glazunov was 17 when he wrote his first symphony, promoted and conducted by Mili Alexeyevich Balakirev in 1882. The work was hailed as a masterpiece, bringing in its wake an introduction to Mitrofan Belyayev, a rich timber merchant and a well-known benefactor, who offered to publish it, an event which led to the establishment of a giant in musical publishing and to the institution of Seasons of Russian Symphony Concerts. Glazunov soon held important posts within both these undertakings.

The 19th century saw Russian music battling for its nation's soul, between the cultures of Europe and Asia, between modernity and primitivism, and the conflict raged inside individuals as well. From 1891 to 1899 Glazunov's prolific musical output included three of his eight important symphonies, and the highly successful ballet Raymonda, as well as "the seasons". However, with the foundation of the Conservatory system in Russia, Glazunov found himself devoting a quarter century of effort to grueling academic and administrative work at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. The responsibilities seemed to have worn him out, though his waning creativity did not dwindle completely. He was, after all, a man happy to assume controlling positions in Russia's musical world. In 1905 Glazunov's music was played in Moscow and St Petersburg to honour his 25 years as a composer, and in 1907, on a visit to London, he studied the curricula of British music colleges.

Revolution and civil war took their inevitable toll on Glazunov's lifestyle, though he still succeeded in establishing a good relationship with the Bolshevik government: in 1922 he was even able to add the title of "People's Artist of the Republic" to his honourary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge. However, having gone to Vienna in 1928 to represent the USSR at the Schubert centenary events, he embarked on an extended leave of absence, visited the USA in 1929 and settled near Paris with his wife and daughter in 1932. Two years after composing his Saxophone Concerto, Glazunov died in Neuilly-sur- Seine on 21 March 1936. In 1972 his remains were reinterred with honours in Leningrad.

Last Saturday, Cairo Symphony Orchestra, masterfully conducted by Scottish William Conway, performed Glazunov's Concerto for Saxophone and string orchestra in E-flat major, Opus 109, with the excellent soloist Andrew McNeill, one of the most talented young musicians in Britain today. Invented by the Belgian instrument-maker Adolphe Sax, the saxophone was registered in 1846, and has been effectively used in symphonic music: Debussy, Ibert, Milhaud, Richard Strauss, Vaughn Williams and others have written works including the saxophone which has gained so-called "respectability", even cachet, in past years. Glazunov's sax concerto, presented in fluid single movement, with the usual contrasting sequences Allegro-Andante-Allegro echoing through its rhythms and its meditative or mirthful themes, while comprising a virtuoso "Cadenza" beautifully interpreted by McNeill, is generally considered to be one of the famous works written for the saxophone, though it is rarely performed. Saturday's audience appreciated the novelty, while cheering the soloist's brilliance and the Maestro's remarkable sensitivity.

The second Russian composer on Saturday's programme, Sergel Rachmaninov, born in 1873, was, likewise, a young prodigy. He entered the St Petersburg Conservatoire and began composing in 1886. His first symphony was premiered in January 1897 under the bâton of Glazunov. It was a disastrous event -- the orchestral performance was chaotic and it was said, at the time, that Glazunov had been drinking before going on stage. Rachmaninov commented: "I am amazed how such a highly talented man as Glazunov can conduct so badly. I am not speaking now of his conducting technique, but about his musicianship. He felt nothing when he conducted." Rachmaninov withdrew the work, which was never again played in his lifetime; he lost faith in his power of composition and sank into a deep depression. Dr Nicholai Dahl, an amateur musician, helped him through hypnosis treatment and, a few months later, Rachmaninov started work on his second Piano Concerto, dedicating it to Dahl. It was an immediate success, remaining popular to this day.

His second symphony was likewise a remarkably successful -- an hour-long work, in E-minor, Opus 27, in four seemingly endless movements, imbued with broad melodies and a somewhat resigned melancholy which runs through most of the work's sequences, as it runs through the larger part of Rachmaninov's compositions. Due to his long absence from his beloved Russia, Rachmaninov suffered from homesickness. Worried by political unrest, he had moved to Dresden in 1906, travelled to the United States in 1909 and in 1917 he left Russia definitely and began a new career as an international concert pianist making America his base until his death in Beverly Hills on 28 March 1943.

Brilliantly performed by Cairo's symphonists, Rachmaninov's second symphony was greeted with loud Bravos by Saturday's audience. That night, however, the concert had started with Ludwig van Beethoven's Overture to Egmont, Opus 84. A Flemish freedom fighter, Count Egmont is the hero of Goethe's five-act tragedy, written in 1976. While attempting to liberate the Netherlands from Spanish domination in the 16th century, the count is captured by the Duke of Alba, representing King Philip II, and condemned to death. There is, naturally, a romantic side to the plot: Claire, a maiden in love with Egmont and loved by him, opens the first act with a song, which Beethoven has turned into a meditative introduction, with appropriate tender melodies and ever-recurring nostalgia. It is, nevertheless, a glorious overture, dedicated to a victorious hero dying the death of a martyr. The work is therefore devoid of tears and regrets -- it is one of grandeur and splendor, the last of Beethoven for this season. It was superbly performed, as was the rest of the concert. Maestro Conway surely knows how to lead his musicians to success. Everyone loved him, although, regrettably, there seemed to be more musicians on stage than listeners in the hall.

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