José Serebrier

The conductor talks about unlocking the hidden drama of Glazunov's symphonies.
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You were originally asked to record just some of Glazunov’s symphonies… but you've now finished recording the whole lot! How did that happen?
It all seemed to happen quite naturally. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which has worked under several Russian or Slavic conductors, really knows the style, and it felt to me almost as if I’d written the music myself.

So you found an unexpected empathy with Glazunov?
Actually Glazunov and I have quite a lot in common, including the fact we both wrote our First Symphonies when we were 16, and had them performed a year later. So before we knew it we were halfway through a cycle. But when Warner Classics first proposed that I should finish the cycle, I listened to a few recordings of the earlier symphonies and at first I thought they are not of the same quality as the later ones. I didn’t immediately realise that the problem was to do with the way they were performed.

So what’s the secret?
I think they are very exciting works, including the First Symphony, but they cannot be played straightforwardly or metronomically. Consider Mahler, who was an exact contemporary of Glazunov – they started and they stopped composing about one year apart from each other. Mahler would mark his scores obsessively – ‘faster, but not too much’, or ‘slower but only a tiny bit’ – every other bar. Now Glazunov doesn’t do any of that – but as you know as a composer that the notes written on paper hardly reflect what you hear. So you have to imagine something else and play the music accordingly.

And how did you do this? Was there a performer or a particular style of performance which gave you an insight?
I just tried to imagine what Glazunov really wanted – without taking liberties with the music. One of the recordings I heard which I thought was the closest to Glazunov’s concept was Evgeny Svetlanov’s; he recorded all the symphonies but the Ninth, and Svetlanov understood that you couldn’t play them straight-forwardly.

What has been the greatest challenge of conducting these works?
One of the most difficult things about performing Glazunov symphonies are the constant, drastic and instant changes of speed, of tempo – very hard to do. In the middle of an allegro he interrupts the flow with an eight-bar adagio, like an theatrical aside in a play – suddenly the light dims and you see only one thing for a moment, like a memory – and then it goes right back to the allegro. Those are very difficult when you have a hundred players to control. This is typical of Glazunov – he’s essentially writing music dramas.

Interview by Daniel Jaffé


José Serebrier’s recording of Symphonies Nos 1, 2, 3 and 9 is released on Warner 2564 68904-2 and will be reviewed in the November issue

Audio clip: Glazunov: Symphony No. 1  –Finale: Allegro

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