Gliere: Symphony No. 3 'il'ya Muromets' Import
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Gliere's most successful orchestral work, the spectacular Symphony No.3, is heard on this recording in its uncut version. Scored for a large orchestra including eight horns, two harps and celesta, it was inspired by the adventures of Il'ya Muromets, the legendary warrior from the Middle Ages of Mother Russia.
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I think the answer is now 'yes.' We had an early indication of this when JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic performed this mammoth symphony at a Carnegie Hall concert in May 2013 -- a concert that was broadcast live on public radio.
I remember marveling at the exciting interpretation, along with the precision ensemble of the massed orchestral forces called for by the music.
I consider this symphony to be a prime example of the late flowering of Romanticism in classical music. Composed in 1911, it is a big work (more than 70 minutes in length), telling a big story, with a big orchestra. It is very "Russian," and it is very likely the biggest "statement" made by any Russian symphony.
The musical language isn't revolutionary in the slightest. There are interesting hints of other composers' influences in the score. For example, passages in the second movement sound like Scriabin (his 2nd and 3rd symphonies). And Borodin seems to be hovering around nearby - particularly in the first and third movements. But in its grandeur and sweep, this symphony really has no equal in Russian music - and certainly didn't at the time of its composition in 1911.
Another interesting aspect about this symphony is that the composer didn't compose anything on this scale before or after. I love a number of other Glière scores, especially when performed by leading artists. (Dame Joan Sutherland singing the Concerto for Coloratura Soprano & Orchestra or Ossian Ellis playing the Harp Concerto are good cases in point.) But nothing else in Glière's output comes even close to this piece, despite the fact that he continued composing for another 35+ years.
I have heard quite a few recordings of the "Ilya Mouremetz" Symphony - including older recordings: Leopold Stokowski (with Philadelphia and Houston), Eugene Ormandy (also Philadelphia), Hermann Scherchen (with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra), Jacques Rachmilovich (with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra) ... and other ones with Natan Rakhlin, Donald Johanos, Edward Downes, Yoav Talmi and Leon Botstein. A word of caution: Most of the earlier performances are brutally cut -- likely done so the symphony could be presented on a single LP.
To my knowledge, the first recording of the complete score was Hermann Scherchen's from the early 1950s, which I've always loved but which suffers from the orchestra sounding rough-hewn in places (plus, it's not in stereo).
One recording I haven't heard is Harold Farberman's with the Royal Philharmonic, clocking in at around 90 minutes which would seem to be way over-indulgent -- even for this piece of music.
JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic perform every note of the score, and their interpretation is perfectly timed - neither rushed nor too lethargic. Moods range from contemplative and brooding ... to stormy ... to utterly magical -- the second movement is particularly scintillating, and even ethereal in places. And the brief third movement, portraying a feast at the castle, is thrilling with its Rimsky-like orchestration portraying the festive atmosphere.
In the first and last movements, the Buffalo brass players really come forth with great drama and fury - going right to the edge but not going off the rails. It's really powerful stuff, and the precision ensemble work is everything one could hope it to be. I don't hear a single cracked horn note or any other "wrong note distractions." (The notoriously difficult passages for strings in the second movement are also navigated beautifully.)
For such a gargantuan composition, one would think it would end with a bang (think Mahler or Bruckner, or even Schönberg's "Gurre-Lieder"). But that is not the case here: This symphony begins and ends in the depths -- the ending truly a whimper as "all the heroes were now gone from Russia." But the catharsis is there, just as surely as it is at the end of a Bruckner or Mahler symphony. That's the beauty of JoAnn Falletta's interpretation, which delivers this resolution better than on any other recording I've heard.
On balance, I believe that this is now the best recording available of this symphony. It has the grit and power of Scherchen, but the playing is far more polished. JoAnn Falletta has figured out the key for getting past Glière's more rhetorical passages and creating a highly satisfying emotional "arc" for the musical narrative - and in this regard she is more successful than the Johanos, Rakhlin, Downes or Botstein recordings. (The performances by Rachmilovich, Ormandy, Stokowski and Talmi are out of the running because of the often-deep cuts made to the score.)
Finally, the quality of the recorded sound is exceptional, aided by the bright-but-natural acoustics of the Buffalo Philharmonic's concert hall which the NAXOS engineers have captured faithfully.
In sum, I give this recording the highest recommendation. While many of the alternative ones have their strong points, if you were to own just one recording of "Ilya Mouremetz," this one's it. And at NAXOS's affordable mid-line price, it's a bargain to boot.
The first recording of this work was with Stokowski, who (with Gliere's permission) trimmed the work down from 70+ minutes to a svelte 38 minutes. Although it's a thrilling performance (it is Stoki, after all), it didn't do the work justice. Because Gliere's third symphony has no filler -- every note is there for a reason, and every note helps further the story.
Others have recorded the complete version of this work, but somehow failed to completely communicate overarching dramatic motion of the music. There are plenty of beautifully written sections that its tempting the linger over, but just as with the organic music of Wagner and Mahler, they're most effective in context.
And JoAnn Falletta understands that context. Her performance with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra is one that delivered new pleasures every time I listened to it. The story for this programmatic work is quite detailed -- but you really don't need to follow it with this recording. Falletta and the BPO effectively paint each scene completely.
The release is beautifully recorded, allowing the listener to hear Gliere's subtle orchestrations. A joy to listen to from start to finish.
While dubbed a symphony, Gliere's third is more a programmatic work than a symphony in any traditional sense. As a Mahler enthusiast, perhaps that's what attracts me most to the work. But this is also a piece that can feel like 80 minutes of sameness. That's why slower performances simply don't work, regardless of what the composer's initial tempo thoughts might have been. In other words, too much of a good thing can, indeed, be just that: too much. Falletta's faster tempi, combined with stellar orchestral execution, elevates "Ilya Muromets" to a plain that it is simply hasn't enjoyed prior to now. Little more needs to be said in terms of the performance. What does the piece sound like? . . .
For Gliere's third, think of a cross between Borodin on the one hand, and the highly chromatic (half-step harmonies) and over heated, late romantic idiom of Scriabin, Szymanowki and Suk on the other hand. His music is generally more 'tuneful' in a typically Russian way than the latter three composers. But the elongated harmonic progressions and loose structure better resemble those three than Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov. I'm not sure that anything else by Gliere sounds anything like this; certainly not the horn concerto. It isn't a truly 'great' work, but it is interesting and unusual enough not to deserve neglect as well. Give it a spin - you might disagree and think that it's an awesome symphony.
Not until Farberman's Unicorn recording was there an absolutely complete "Muromets." While there is fastidious reverence for the material, the conducting is plodding, maddeningly so, and nearly lifeless. If you were never a fan, this recording would kill enthusiasm; all of Gliere's "borrowing" of Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin become overly apparent and so many passages seem long-winded. Luckily, some labels and conductors were not discouraged. We've had well recorded versions by Downes on Chandos and Botstein on Telarc (Super Audio Surround Sound). In particular, Botstein breathes new life into this material, although (like Falletta) he does bulldoze the luxuriant Andante (Solovei the Brigand), which in my opinion is a serious detriment.
Let's face it: this music is a narrative and is not a hymn. What Falletta has done is tell a story in almost cinematic terms. She does not linger over the most ponderous bars in order to thwart the momentum. This version has a brilliance and flow that exceeds all previous versions. Her breathtaking clip for the Allegro movement (At the Court of Vladimir) makes perfect sense. I was rather impressed by her treatment of the final movement, where Falletta must deal with the complex action at hand, the memory of past experiences of the hero Muromets and the gravity of his demise, all with a nationalistic flair. The Muromets motif has never been so prominent; the horns of the Buffalo Philharmonic are superb.
For a recording engineer, this symphony could be a blessing or a nightmare. Alas, while the recording is good, Tim Handley is often overwhelmed by the layers of this score, especially in the fourth movement. The sound does get distorted. Since multi-tracking has become an anathema in classical recording, judicious placement of microphones is required - I do not know the challenges of this venue, but the sound is muddled at times.
Those who mock Gliere as a worthy composer should listen to his sextet and his concertos. If you are a fan of this symphony, you should be aware that it clocks in at 71:40, but it never sounds rushed (except, as mentioned, for the 2nd movement). This is just the latest in maestro Falletta's considerable achievements.