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<<  -- 3 --  Roderic Dunnett    MAD ABOUT GLINKA


'Non-Russians often find it difficult to explain why Russians are so mad about Glinka', says the BBC Radio 3 presenter of Discovering Music and Russian music expert Gerard McBurney. 'It's a bit like trying to explain what the English feel about Elgar, who was often viewed abroad as just another provincial post-Wagnerian composer.'

Gerard McBurney with his daughters Helena and Charlotte. Photo: Alison McBurney
Gerard McBurney with his daughters Helena and Charlotte. Photo: Alison McBurney

'The key to Glinka is that he was a very close friend of Berlioz. And he shares with Berlioz the characteristics of a self-taught composer (though neither actually was) -- the "ill-bred" qualities that gave him courage to write what he wanted, and -- though his opera is rooted in French "rescue opera" epitomised by works like Cherubini's Lodoiska and The Water Carrier (or Les Deux Journées) -- not to be afraid to stamp his own identity and personality upon it.

'From 1830 Glinka travelled extensively in Europe, visiting France, Italy and Spain. He was a close friend of Bellini (then at his height, with the premières of Capuleti, Sonnambula and Norma), even helping him out occasionally, and of Donizetti, with whom he actually took lessons.

'As a result he wrote marvellously for the voice. What mattered to him was the Italian sense of line : from them he acquired a thorough knowledge of bel canto, and it's this which gives his music a wonderful quality, what the Tashkent-born Russian composer Alexander Knaifel once described to me, very aptly, as its "plasticity".

'He was a superb orchestrator : -- there's an astonishing orchestral translucency that appears again and again throughout Susanin -- especially in his accompaniments to big numbers. Berlioz got him to rescore a number of his earlier pieces to remarkable effect, and the influence lasted.

'His two "Spanish" overtures (written a decade or so after Ivan Susanin and sometimes referred to as Jota Aragonesa and Recollection of a Summer Night in Madrid) launched a whole genre. Liszt -- with whom he also had an ongoing musical relationship -- loved them, and you can see why. They're an extraordinary medley of tunes -- like a rich man living in Spain and trying to catch the flavour -- and were, I think, the very first in a long line of such pieces, epitomised by Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier and Ravel.

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Copyright © 11 May 2003 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK


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