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Birth of the Gliere Concerto

Valeriy Polekh


polekhReinhold Gliere was a modest, reserved, and refined person. No carelessness either in his clothes or in his manners. Thick eyebrows. A tender and friendly look in expressive brown eyes, lips ready for a smile.

By 1951, the year in which Gliere wrote his concerto, I had already been a performer for ten years. I started in March 1941 after I won a prize at the Moscow competition, and, though still a student at the Moscow Conservatory, I dreamt of playing solo and performing in concerts. In the Moscow competition, I played Variations Brillantes by Henry Gottwald and Les Dernieres Pensées by Weber. I had the full command of a virtuoso and was able to play with sounds as I liked, but my colleagues reproached me for insufficient care for the beauty of the sound. Because I wanted to become a solo performer, I had to learn how to sing on the horn. So I began taking vocal lessons. I mastered bel canto and strong breath, and then applied all that to the horn. I was awarded first prize at the 1949 International Competition in Budapest. By that time I had a fairly broad repertoire, but today it seems to have been just a prelude to a great composition--that superb concerto which Gliere wrote for the horn.

gliereI met Gliere for the first time at the Bolshoi Theater at a rehearsal of his ballet The Bronze Horseman. We had almost completed the ballet's musical adjustments, but I had not seen the composer at any of the rehearsals. At the Bolshoi, we were accustomed to composers never sitting calmly at rehearsals; they would dash up to say a word to the conductor and then again to the leader of the orchestra. Quite frequently this made rehearsing fairly difficult. I wondered why this composer never came to rehearsals. It turned out that he actually was sitting quietly in the hall, and discussed things with the conductor only during breaks. I was invited to take part in one such discussion. I had an impression of Gliere as a modest and very understanding person. His learnedness in music seemed quite boundless to me. He spoke in a nice and simple manner. He asked questions. He liked to know our opinions and always considered them. Our talk went on further, and not just about horn parts in the ballet. Gliere noted our expressive playing and said it was regrettable that composers rarely wrote solos for wind instruments. I took the chance to suggest that he write a concerto for the horn. He mentioned being very busy but did not reject the idea; he promised that he would work on the concerto in his free time.

By this time he had already written his Nocturno and Intermezzo for horn and piano, and invited me to come to his place and discuss certain details of the future concerto. On the agreed day, I went to Gliere's home. He took me to his study and asked me to wait there while he finished his lessons with his students. Gliere brought in a tray with a silver pitcher, a glass, and some sweets. Giving me a friendly smile, he invited me to refresh myself and went back to his students. I was alone in his study. I did not drink or eat anything because I was sure I would have to play. Later, Gliere re-entered the study and began asking questions about the instrument and my capabilities regarding range. He thoroughly wrote down my answers in a thick notebook. At the end of our talk, he asked me to play something and sat at the piano. I put the music on the holder--the Nocturno which Gliere composed in his young years--and we began to play. I always included the Nocturno in my concerts, but I don't recall any other occasion when I played with such inspiration as that time with the composer himself. Then I played Mozart, Strauss, orchestral solos, instrumental miniatures, and my own arrangements. Gliere said that what he heard was an instrument absolutely new to him; that it was an instrument for solo and concerts, and that he would have to take another interesting and unexplored approach.

After that meeting with Gliere, I did not see him for a year. He was working. I waited patiently. At last, late one evening, my telephone rang and I heard something I hoped for so much: "Valery, I wrote a concerto for you. Will you please come to my place?" In the winter of early 1951, in Gliere's flat, I played the just-completed concerto from the manuscript. I could feel with my entire self that the concerto was a success. The composer put his whole heart, soul, talent, and great love for the instrument into it. I felt that the concerto would become a horn player's favorite. Gliere did not even ask me about my impressions. He could see it for himself and sense it in my enthusiastic attitude.

For a few days I did not touch nor try to play the concerto. I was still living through the moment of its birth. It was only when I had somewhat cooled down that I began to study the piece which was so dear to me. I studied the concerto very thoroughly and repeatedly verified my perception of it. When I had a clear idea of the final version of my edition, I went to Gliere. I played the concerto for him. He was satisfied, accepted all my suggestions, and set out to make some final changes. Adhering to tradition, Gliere let me write the cadenza myself. When the piano reduction was finally ready I started to learn the concerto. The composer gave me a very short time to prepare. I had to work really hard. The date and place of the first performance was fixed--May 10, 1951, in Leningrad.

On that day I came to Leningrad with my wife. The rehearsal was to start at 11 a.m. When I came to the Grand Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic Society, Gliere was already rehearsing with the orchestra, the Leningrad Radio Symphony Orchestra. The rehearsal went well and I did not feel nervous anymore.

In the evening we met again. The orchestra was preparing to enter the stage. Everyone was a bit nervous. I looked at the hall--it was full. The bell rang for the third time. Gliere took me by the hand and said, "God help us! Come on!" I played with inspiration, and everything went as I hoped it would. It was a success. We took bows several times. The audience would not let us go. Gliere was very pleased. After the first performance he made an inscription for me on the score.

I describe these recollections in such detail because I really cherish them. As I tell you about the first performance, I am once again living through one of the most wonderful, fleeting, and very rare moments of a performer's happiness.

In 1952 I made a recording of the concerto with the Bolshoi Orchestra, conducted by Gliere. The matrix was sold to the US and soon a record came out. That was the start of the concerto's biography and of its performance life. I began to receive a great deal of letters. I acquired friends all over the world. Many horn players like the concerto and still perform it. I sincerely appreciate this. I am glad that the concerto and my cadenza are included in competition programs and that very interesting recordings have appeared.

Dear friends, I am happy that there exists a concerto which unites us and helps us to better know and understand each other. I send my greetings to all horn players and wish good luck and success to all.

For the accompanying photos see The Horn Call XXIX, No. 3 (May 1999)

Valeriy Polekh was born in Moscow on July 5, 1918. He began professional studies on the horn in 1933, and enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory in 1937. He was appointed as Principal Horn of the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra in 1938, a position he held for 35 years. Mr. Polekh made numerous other recordings besides the Gliere concerto, and edited a performance edition of the Mozart Concertos.