With the release of this new recording of Reinhold Glière's monumental "Ilya Mourometz" Symphony, do we now have the "definitive" performance of this music?
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 Mourometz" 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 Mourometz," this one's it. And at NAXOS's affordable mid-line price, it's a bargain to boot.