The drunk conductor who ruined Rachmaninov’s career

The disastrous first performance of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony has cast a long shadow over the work

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

Would musical history have turned out differently if Alexander Glazunov hadn’t been smashed out of his wits when he conducted the first performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor? The best of Glazunov’s own neatly carpentered symphonies hover on the verge of greatness. Perhaps if he hadn’t been such a toper — swigging from bottles of spirits during lectures at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he was director — they would do more than hover. Unfortunately, his drinking didn’t just screw up his own career.

The 23-year-old Sergei Rachmaninov had spent two years working on his first symphony, whose climaxes erupt from melodic cells borrowed from Orthodox chant. Not that Glazunov would have noticed. He barely glanced at the score before the premiere. On that fateful evening in 1897 he conducted ‘like a zombie’, according to one account. The orchestra was all over the place. Poor Rachmaninov hid on a spiral staircase while it was going on and then ran into the street to escape the catcalls.

Russian Composers
Composer, conductor and drunk Alexander Glazunov. Photo: Getty

Posterity doesn’t lay all the blame at Glazunov’s door. The conventional wisdom is that, even in a fine performance such as Ashkenazy’s with the Concertgebouw, the work is a sprawling mess, exciting in places but basically one of music’s shipwrecks.

Nonsense. Yet again I find myself turning to Mark Morris, whose Methuen Guide to 20th-Century Composers (350 of them, expertly dissected) is one of four indispensable surveys of the music of the last century, the others being Norman Lebrecht’s enchantingly bitchy Complete Companion to 20th Century Music, Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise and Ivan Hewett’s Music: Healing the Rift. Don’t get me started on what a scandal it is that Morris is out of print, though if you hurry you can find it second-hand on Amazon. This is his verdict on the First Symphony:

One of Rachmaninov’s finest works, heroic in tone, obviously indebted to Tchaikovsky and Borodin, but constructed with a flow of symphonic purpose and devoid of the kind of nostalgic limpid beauty that pervades his later work. The slow movement has real menace… evolving to an almost Mahlerian intensity and scope, the finale that Russian blaze of uplifting glory combined with darker dramatic urgency… It achieves what Glazunov’s own symphonies so often unsuccessfully attempted.

Ha! That’s a well-deserved dig at Glazunov, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it was ten years before Rachmaninov found the nerve to write another symphony, by which time he had the triumph of the Second Piano Concerto behind him. The Second Symphony is beautifully composed, full of good tunes — but they’re gloopy tunes of the type that make the concerto so lovable, if you like that sort of thing. I do, as it happens. You can’t help wondering, though, what might have happened if the First Symphony had been a success. Instead of throwing away his copy of the score (the orchestral parts were discovered by accident during the second world war and the work received its second performance in 1945), Rachmaninov might have gone on to write seven or eight symphonies. We’d have a Russian cycle to rival those of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Jaunty sarcasm and wrist-slitting bleakness are all very well but it would be nice to have an alternative.

Anyway, you can make up your own mind when the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Jurowski play the First Symphony at the Festival Hall as part of their Rachmaninoff: Inside Out season on 3 December. Why they insist on spelling the composer’s name with two ‘f’s I don’t know. Also, given that the series includes all his works for piano and orchestra, it’s a shame that none features the greatest living interpreter of the concertos, the British pianist Stephen Hough, whose de-glooping of numbers Two and Three on Hyperion is a revelation. That said, Inside Out, which runs until April, promises to be a fascinating ‘journey’ (as we must now refer to all artistic projects). Rachmaninov eventually moved on from the exquisite sentimentality of his middle years. His late Symphonic Dances are lean, jazzy, tautly constructed — and contain bursts of savage exuberance that take us back 43 years to the First Symphony, from which he briefly quotes. Finally he was ready to acknowledge its merits — though it was a secret gesture, given that he thought the piece was irrecoverably lost.

Anyone who sits through all the LPO concerts will hear the development of an intriguing, elusive composer — and a great one. This is not what the pianist Alfred Brendel once loftily described as ‘music for teenagers’. That sort of snobbery now seems far more old-fashioned than anything written by Rachmaninov. And, as a footnote, let’s not forget that Rachmaninov was one of the supreme pianists of the 20th century. On YouTube you can find him playing his arrangement of Kreisler’s Liebesleid. In the 93 years since it was recorded no one has matched its perfectly suspended rubato. Listen to it and weep.

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  • robert greenspan

    this article explains why I despair of critics including cui who idiotically damned rachmaninov’s first symphony. this symphony has more than recovered with any number of superb recordings from previn to slatkin to askenazy. there are powerful reasons for this , something which completely eludes your critic. don’t wait for the lpo concert and instead check out ormandy or slatkin both of whom nail this composition. only a drunk would fail to hear value in this music.

  • Samson

    A new copy of that Morris book is priced quite near the £4000 mark. Second-hand it’s only just over a hundred. I forget sometimes that The Spec isn’t written for me and my kind.

  • Daniel P.

    Most likely the reason that the concert series spells the name Rachmaninoff is that this is how Rachmaninoff spelled his name. German copies of his music used a “v” for obvious reasons but I’ve seen many of his signatures over the years (he autographs lots of things in his day) and I’ve only seen it spelled with two “ff”s.

  • mahatmacoatmabag

    Thompson , music snobs like you are like wine snobs , drunk on your own self importance

  • ApathyNihilism

    How did this ruin Rachmaninov’s career? He had a brilliant career, and his works stand the test of time.

  • David Anthony Hollingsworth

    It is true that the premiere was a disaster, but for a number of reasons besides the allegation that Glazunov was drunk (still a hot debate).

    1) You got to remember that Rachmaninoff’s score was ahead of its time, but in idiom and on technical matters. Myaskovsky, who heard Gauk’s piano version played by Lamm was astonished as to its language written in 1895. And St. Petersburg was conservative at the time, and simply was not ready for Rachmaninoff’s daring, complex work. Critics like Cui were the most damaging in my opinion, more so than the inadequate performance in question. Moreover, the score also requires a lot from an orchestra, which brings me to point number two.

    2) Orchestras back then were not the orchestras we know today. Orchestras, except for a few, were mostly provincial, had a very narrow repertoire, and did not play much. There were many instances of scores rejected and returned as “unplayable” (recall Bruckner, Schubert, Bax?). And the playing was typically (though not always for some) subpar and not so proficient. Myaskovsky often complained about the lack of orchestras’ execution (and even feeling) when they played his music. Simply put, orchestras evolved as music had gotten complex during the course of the last two centuries.

    3) Glazunov. A great composer, but an okay conductor, who, according to sources, liked the score. But he made little use of rehearsals and made cuts in the score. Moreover, his schedule that day (or night I forgot) was full, and he was not accustomed to boss his players (he was not demanding and often shied away from any conflicts of any kind). Whether or not he was drunk is still up in the air.

    4) Rachmaninoff. A very promising beginning, a serious, devastating setback, and a nice resurgence from the crisis. He bounced back and produced numerous masterpieces. But you must keep in mind that he did not compose more not simply because of that event (in question) alone, but because of his very busy schedule as a pianist (traveling to many places in Europe and North America playing the instrument). He also had a stint as a conductor. But in the end of the day, Rachmaninoff carved himself out as a great composer (and a great pianist).

    The article, perhaps putting it mildly, is not scholastically written, fatally biased, and one-sided (for the account is more complex than is portrayed here). If anything, the article would have been more usual in discussing the rise of the composer before he embarked on the symphony, and the merits of the work.