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David Anthony Hollingsworth
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For the composer very much a stranger to the stage, Alexander Glazunov surely knew what he was doing when composing the music for a theatrical work for the first time: the music for Raymonda remains as glorious and illuminating as ever. The story of Lydia Pashkova, from which the music is based on, is not quite a masterpiece (it lacks something of a continual inspiration, elegance, and flow of Jane Austen's novels). Yet, there's much to admire (its humaneness is inescapable), even though it takes rather too long for Raymonda to make up her mind. Once more, the over-abundance of divertissements threatens the flow of the ballet more so than in "Sleeping Beauty." Much of it was due to Marius Petipa himself, who wanted to show-off the dancing aspects and techniques of the ballet more than retaining the flowingly symphonic story-telling of Tchaikovsky's aforementioned masterpiece (or of Delibes' "Sylvia" for that matter). But the gamble paid off, at least for the most part, and "Raymonda" remains a well-beloved work for the stage, despite a whole variety of adaptations and changes since its 1898 premiere.
And it is the music that keeps the lustre of "Raymonda" from becoming obtuse. Glazunov, who was by 1896, a very well-known composer in his own right, was commissioned by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the Director of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres to compose the music for Petipa's new project. The choice was perfect and logical, for the ancestry of Glazunov's music extends to Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov (and his ability to blend the schools of Russian musical art gives his works a rather unique stamp). Glazunov responded with enthusiasm (and 'animation' as he described the occasion once he was approached with the proposal). And while Tchaikovsky remains the most gifted melodist even in Russia, Glazunov can pose challenges to that claim. I'm thinking of, among other things, the Entr'acte for the magical Second Tableau of the First Act, where the nobility, sentimentality, passion, and beauty of the music remain as strong and genuine as ever. But if there something I'll point to first when defending how great the musical art of this misunderstood Russian can be, it has to be the Hymn that concludes Act II. To me, it remains one of the greatest and the most inspiring of codas in all of music. The way that Glazunov merges two principal themes with great dignity, orchestral skill and originality shows even myself of how under-rated he still is. And how wonderful Glazunov is when he re-uses one of the key themes as the Entr'acte of Act III, with its awesomely grand, Straussian manner that could've easily be the introduction to the ballet itself. Awe-inspiring stuff here as in various points of the Third Act (like the Pas classique hongrois with its earthbound pulchritude).
However, with a ballet such as "Raymonda" that has a tendency to cloy, a certain kind of production can be damaging (the one that can appear to be rather routine and indifferent). What is needed to mitigate at least some of the damage is tenderness. But the tenderness that comes with it imagination and the yearn for storytelling. This, and much more, is what we get from Yevgeny Svetlanov and the Bolshoi (in its peak form). They truly have the score to full measure, with such a compelling sense of narration that it's easy to picture in your mind what's actually going on. It's hard to belief though that some forty-four years since this 1961 recording that it remains the most classic of all other albums that succeeds it. And by classic, I mean the pure authenticity and that sense of the story telling Svetlanov brings forth with his Bolshoi forces (the same way they did in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Mlada" that same year). The performance is simply oracular all-round (with some wonderful harp playing by Vera Dulova). No conductors since Svetlanov were any match for his sense of passion, nobility, wonder, and poetry that this score demands, even though later recordings, of Alexander Anissimov in Naxos for instance, bring with them their own virtues (And Anissimov, while not in Svetlanov's league remains as tender and affectionate throughout). Svetlanov's inclusion of Mazurka (from Glazunov's earlier Scenes de Ballet Suite) in Act III is an added bonus. And although the recording itself shows it age and remains a bit coarse at tutti, it still sounded good then and it sounds even better now.
A vintage recording technically speaking, but also a classic for what it brings to the fore; which is the pure authenticity of the music and the story it so vividly tells. It's a recording where affection towards music grows with familiarity. That's clearly the case here and wherever we're fortunate enough to bear witness of that special occasion that occurred many years ago. And yet, it is with the recording that still manages to be so much alive.