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Reinhold GLIÈRE (1875-1956)
Symphony No. 3 Op. 42 ("Il'ya Murometz") - complete version 1911
London Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein
Recorded in Watford Town Hall, England, January 2002.
TELARC CD-80609 [72.20]


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I had little previous firsthand knowledge of Glière's music, other than Stokowski's championing and recording of the work being discussed here and hearing a few balletic excerpts. I enjoyed making the acquaintance of the full, uncut version (all seventy two minutes of it!) of the monumental, programmatic "Il'ya Murometz". Although late Romanticism is not a major focus of my listening, I was gripped from start to finish by the consummate mastery of the highly evocative construction of this score. The work is largely free from Straussian self-importance and bombast, although employing similar large-scale techniques. This musical story of a knight-errant's eventful wanderings is given a performance of great stature by the LSO under Leon Botstein who, I admit, I have previously rarely encountered. I'd like to think the blueprint for the work comes more from Russian than German models and more than once was reminded of the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer far more important and forward-looking than he is sometimes given credit for (Christmas Eve is a particular personal favourite work in this context).

The work begins with a twenty-two minute(!) opening movement, Wandering Pilgrims, which is epic in every sense of the word yet thankfully fails to come over as being "over the top" at any point. There is the occasional bout of cloying sentimentality but, for the most part, the construction hangs together very well, considering it is longer than most more recent symphonies are in total. The second movement (marked Andante) is almost as long as the first and, in its evocation of a dark forest and its inhabitants, is the "most Wagnerian of the four", according to Anthony Burton's informative notes. The mood changes somewhat with the much shorter, more sprightly and lighter sounding Scherzo, portraying Il'ya at the court of "Vladimir the Mighty Sun", almost Elgarian in its more noble, slower melodies.

The work concludes with another orchestral tour-de-force, virtually as long as the first movement, in which we are afforded "The Heroic Deeds and Petrification of Il'ya Murometz". Despite Glière's reputation for being musically very much rooted in the late 19th century, such simplifications are soon put to rest with passages that could easily hold their own, in terms of momentum, with Shostakovich or early Sibelius. There is not the sense of genius that colours almost anything you would care to hear by Mussorgsky. However this is definitely the music of more than an also-ran. I am not sure that the highly detailed booklet synopsis of Il'ya's legendary feats is in the last analysis that helpful. In the end I gave up and listened to the music as music and was not disappointed. The impending doom heralded by the brass around ten minutes into the finale is as incisive as anything in, say, the Symphonie Fantastique.

This fairly unusual new release for this work should gain plenty of friends, with a superlative recording and performance that ought to appeal to the late-Romantic orchestral specialist and Russophile alike.

Neil Horner



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