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Reinhold GLIÈRE (1875-1956)
Symphony No. 3 in B minor Il’ya Muromets Op. 42 (1911) [93:02]
Cello Concerto Op. 87 (1946-47) [46:26]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Harold Farberman (Symphony)
Sergei Sudzilovsky (cello)
Russian Cinematic Symphony Orchestra/Sergei Skripka
Rec. Dec 1978, All Saints Church, Tooting, London. DDD (symphony); Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, July 1986 (concerto). DDD
REGIS RRC 2068 [65:27 + 74:01]

Glière saw it all. From tsarist days to the 1917 revolution to Stalin and indeed outliving the man by three years. He did not feel the siren-pull of modernism and so escaped condemnation for formalism to which his students Miaskovsky and Prokofiev were subjected in the 1940s. His natural bent was toward folk material and melody. The opera Shah-Senem (1925) draws on Azerbaijani mythology as does Leili and Medzhnun (1940) - works I would very much like to hear. His 1927 ballet The Red Poppy said all the right things in the right way so far as the regime was concerned. However it was his ballet The Bronze Horseman that won him the Stalin Prize in 1950. There was much more too, including tone poems plus concertos for violin, harp, horn and coloratura soprano, five string quartets (the Fourth attracted the 1948 Stalin Prize), at least two hundred songs and the same number of solo piano pieces amongst much else. Both the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Quartet were left incomplete on his death. There are three symphonies of which Il’ya Muromets is the Third. Interesting that he abandoned the symphony so early in his career. There were to be forty-five years without a symphony from his pen. It was as if Muromets had drained him of symphonic creativity.

Rely on Glière’s Il’ya Muromets for atmosphere you could cut with a knife ... and it would have to be a big one at that! Farberman’s recording stands at the extreme of the range of interpretation of this awesome sprawl. He plays the thing without cuts although I cannot verify that independently. However at this timing it is the longest of any of the recorded versions. Many conductors have tackled the work including Scherchen, Talmi and Stokowski (both versions drastically cut), Rakhlin and Golovchin (on long-deleted Russian Disc CDs: 75:09; 75:21 respectively), Johanos (Naxos), Ormandy (two versions - the first time around greatly cut: 1956: 54:31; 1971: 59:13) and most recently Leon Botstein (Telarc CD-80609; 72:20). The Chandos version is conducted by Edward Downes who knows his Russian repertoire very well indeed. No one comes anywhere near Farberman.

Il’ya Muromets was a character of fable perhaps comparable with Arthur and Robin Hood. The legends tell of the 12th century hero, doughty and magnificent in battle, but also wise in peace. Ultimately he converts to Christianity. Despite this undertow the work did well in Soviet Russia. No doubt the element of triumph through religion was elided in Soviet programme notes.

In common with many programmatic works of the period Glière’s score carries a detailed storyline movement by movement. Muromets is of peasant stock. He rises to greatness in the Bogatyr army of Sviatogor and when his great general dies Murometz assumes the mantle. In the second movement Muromets defeats Solovei, a king among brigands in the dense forestlands of Russia. Dragging his wounded captive to the court of Vladimir he decapitates Solovei and Vladimir embraces Il’ya and welcomes him to the feasting table. In the finale after a twelve day battle Il’ya at the head of his army of Bogatyrs defeats the pagan forces of Batyagha the Wicked. He meets his nemesis when he encounters an army that doubles in number every time he strikes down one of their soldiery. With his seven surviving companions he is turned to cold stone; so dies a dynasty of heroes.

Glière’s language in this sumptuously scored work has Scriabin (Second Symphony and Poem of Ecstasy) disporting with Elgar. Tchaikovsky (Manfred and Pathétique) and Borodin (16:20 in first movement) jostle. The early Stravinsky of The Firebird bubbles along in the finale of the first movement as well as at numerous other points (e.g. 7:23 in second movement). The creepy mystery of the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto casts a diaphanous fairy mantle over the episode with Solovei in the Forest (tr. 2 CD1). Birdsong is a prominent feature of that movement with the complex proto-impressionist soundweb recalling such contemporaneous works as Bax’s Spring Fire symphony and Ravel’s Daphnis. Farberman allows us to bask in this to the point of warm saturation. The nine horns bawl magnificently and towards the end of the 28 minute movement the four trombones and tuba grunt out presumably echoing the subjugation of Solovei. The predominance of slow music, over 56 minutes and two movements, is contrasted with an eight minute scherzo. This swashbuckles along keeping up with the best scherzos by Borodin (Symphony No. 2 - sometimes subtitled ‘The Bogatyrs’ by the way), Rimsky-Korsakov (the swooning counter-subject is closely related to romantic themes in Antar) and Glazunov (Fourth and Fifth symphonies). Glière cannot sustain this across a whole movement. He succumbs again (4:40 in III) to black-hearted atmosphere and the myriad colours of mythical scenes before returning to the Borodin-Glazunov axis. In the fourth movement Glière mobilises every device in suggestion of the sinister army - one can easily imagine Tolkien’s orcish hosts. The battle is ferocious and a Russian chant-like theme rings clear in Holy triumph at 15:23. The work closes in awe as the petrified giant warriors gaze enigmatically across the endless steppe-lands. For all that Glière has been criticised, this understated and atmospheric valediction reveals integrity. The whole work evinces a brilliant if garrulous magician of image and atmosphere.

This is a lavish extravagance of a piece. The massive orchestra is used with a craftsman’s fastidiousness to create lush effects and an impressionistic skein of sound - rarely for wall-shaking effects. Only in the finale did I feel that Glière was truly meandering - note-spinning. Otherwise if you are in the right mood this is an opulent tapestry of a piece.

The Il’ya Muromets Symphony won a Glinka Prize. It was premiered under the auspices of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow with the conductor Emil Cooper on 23 March 1912.

The big Cello Concerto is from 35 years later. It was written for the young Rostropovich but seems to have made little headway. For whatever reason his performances appear not to have been recorded. I had half expected to find it included alongside Kabalevsky, the two Khachaturians, Knipper, Tischenko and Boris Tchaikovsky in EMI Classics’ 13 CD ‘The Russian Years’ set (7243 5 72016 2 9) but no such luck. The big 22 minute first movement is full of action and lyrical address with more than a shade of Miaskovsky (try 9:30 onwards for example) present. The middle movement uses melodies suggestive of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade. The finale is lively but with a predominance of curvaceous lyricism - warm and rounded. Lacking enduringly distinctive ideas it remains a pleasing work. This recording was originally issued on Olympia OCD 592 with two works by Mossolov. Rostropovich premiered the concerto in Moscow on 18 February 1947. Everyone involved here turns in a competent performance and Sudzilovsky digs in with a will clearly enjoying the many lyrical undulations.

This is a real treat for those who like to venture around the periphery of Russian nationalist repertoire and there are plenty of rewards to be had. Audio ‘archaeologists’ should also snap up this bargain price set. The recording of the Symphony is one of the very first digital recordings and was made by Bob Auger using hired Sony PCM-1 machines. Entire movements were recorded each in a single take! It still sounds wonderful. It is of the wide-open spaces school rather than the close-up microphone approach.

Rob Barnett

 



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