Between Tchaikovsky's and Myaskovsky's Sixth Symphonies (of 1893 and 1923 respectively), there are a few Russian symphonies written in-between them that surely stands out as among the finest in the genre: Glazunov's Eighth, Scriabin's Third, Rachmaninov's Second, and Gliere's monumental masterpiece of 1911. This score (Wagnerian in scope), which calls for quadruple woodwinds, eight horns, four trumpets, tuba, four trombones, an opulent percussion department including a celesta, two harps, and strings, combines the epic traditions of Borodin and Glazunov (to whom it's dedicated). It is strongly nationalistic in outlook, picturesque in its programming, and a strong defender of Late Romanticism. And yet notwithstanding its popularity, this score suffers from some oblivion beyond Russian borders and, in the past at least, fell victim to some rather heavy cuts especially in the outer movements (like the Stokowski and the Nathan Rakhlin recordings, the latter which is otherwise a thrilling and an exemplary account under the Melodiya/Columbia/Russian Disc labels-all nla). Thankfully, few and more recent recordings happen to be totally faithful to this extraordinary music, the earliest of such featuring Hermann Scherchen and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (under the deleted Westminster Gold LP label-and a very hair-raising state of affairs at best).
Charles B. Yulish's fascinating notes in that Melodiya/Columbia LP recording explains that Ilya Murometz, according to historians, emerged in the 10th or 11th century, about the time Kiev became a focal point in northern Russia as a center for commerce. However, Kiev became also a focal point for invaders, which prompted Prince Vladimir, son of Sviatoslav, to build a ring of fortresses to protect the city. Vladimir, who became the first to consolidate Russia, enlisted northerners for defense purposes. Ilya was among the knights recruited, and he is often credited for helping Vladimir achieve various nationalistic goals, such as bringing Christianity to Russia. Vladimir converted to Christianity, though historians differs as to why (to marry Anna, the daughter of Emperor Basil II or was it due to some calculated ploy to power). Whatever the reason, Ilya's adventures and escapades, as Yulish observes, is best understood through the Russian bylina, a secular folk song equivalent to spiritual verses often spoken poetically. Gliere, quite a master of storytelling and picturialism, wrote his own story line for the purposes of the music, which is well detailed in Anthony Burton's synopsis for this recording.
Not forgetting even for a moment the Rakhlin's classic Melodiya recording or Sir Edward Downes very theatrical approach to the score, Leon Botstein, whose approach reminds me a good deal of Scherchen's, makes a very strong case for this work, and the London Symphony Orchestra responds with upmost conviction, authority, and flair. Their's a performance that ripe in more ways than one. What I like particularly about Botstein's reading is the buildup from the first movement's andante sostenuto into the very exciting and thrust forward allegro risoluto section. Even the tranquillo misterioso is arresting in its own right. But turn to andante second movement "Il'ya Murometz and Solovei the Brigand" and even the mysterious layers behind each note are well captured. The finale "The Heroic Deeds and Petrification of Il'ya Murometz" is well served also, and Botstein's sense of urgency brings extra dimensions of drama to it, though as the expense of the expansiveness especially in the climax (where after the Tartars multiplied themselves, Il'ya and his bogatyrs were turned to stones as they flee towards the mountains).
This in turn arises a problem I have with Botstein's recording. Going back to Downes's 1991 Chandos recording with the BBC Philharmonic, and it is Downes who articulates the expansiveness and the spaciousness that make the story-telling more intriguing yet absorbing. Botstein is effective in this regard, but Downes is much more than that. Their timings in the first three movements are very identical, and yet it's Downes who unfolds the story behind the score more naturally. It is this momentous, heavily-scored piece where accentuation does indeed count, otherwise some of the effects would be drowned (Farberman understood this in the well, far-searching Unicorn-Kanchana recording). For example, the climax, and the poco meno section preceding it, is absolutely captivating in Downes' hands while Botstein is too fleeting and comparatively thinner in tone. And credit shall be given to Downes' BBC Philharmonic, the ensemble with more body and weight, and with more sonorous phrasings throughout than Botstein's orchestra. Furthermore, the Chandos recording sounds more intimate and involving than Telarc, with the bloom and atmosphere wonderfully at present so as to give the sound more vitality and reverberance.
So, with a couple of reservations, this disc is very collectable, for Botstein, at least for some I suspect, may have set new standards in performing Gliere's masterpiece. But as for me, Botstein's performance remains a tad too symphonic while Downes' very theatrical approach serves the music even better (even to the point of using a component home theater surround system rather than going out to see an action-packed film).