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Reinhold GLIÈRE (1875-1956)
Symphony No.3 Op.42 ‘Il’ya Murometz’ (1909-11) [72:20]
London Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein
rec. Watford Town Hall, January 2002
TELARC CD-80609 [72:20]

Glière’s sprawling, programmatic epic is rather an unwieldy, episodic work, or at least can sound like it in the wrong hands. It’s of Mahlerian or Brucknerian length but without their control of structure, rather like a much longer Manfred, and it’s down to the skill of the orchestration that the piece is so hugely enjoyable to wade through.
In this Telarc version conductor/scholar Leon Botstein restores the complete 1911 score, making the piece even longer but making slightly more sense. There are still countless audible influences in every movement, and a lot of the material is way too thin for its treatment. However, with gloriously ripe sound and tremendously committed playing from the LSO, it still makes for an absorbing listening experience.
The dedication of the score is to Glazunov, and the Russian nationalist ‘tradition’ is here in spades, with particular echoes of Stravinsky (Petrushka) and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, but as if filtered through a Wagnerian lens. There are also wisps of Glière’s near-exact contemporary, Sibelius in places, especially in some of the melodic material of the long first movement ‘Wandering Pilgrims’. Of course, what happens to that material is the key, and at over 22 minutes even Glière’s considerable skills are sorely stretched. Mind you, the main theme is indeed a noble one, the LSO brass having a field day with the big climaxes, as from 12:20 onwards.
The second movement, subtitled ‘Il’ya Murometz and Solovei the Brigand’, is also over 20 minutes long and the most Wagnerian in mood and colour, with references to The Ring throughout (Siegfried Act 2, loads of Walküre). But it is very deftly scored and if you follow Anthony Burton’s excellent synopsis of the story, the music makes a lot of sense.
The scherzo of the symphony is the most obviously Russian movement, entitled ‘At the Court of Vladimir the Mighty Sun’. It’s a short, 7-minute musical illustration of a feast, with the massive orchestra used once again with great sophistication.
The huge finale is in almost identical proportion to the first movement, some 22 minutes long, thus framing the whole work. Again, the harmonies are opulent, the scoring brilliant and here the mood takes an almost Rachmaninov-like turn into Russian melancholy. The subtitle is ‘The Heroic Deeds and Petrification of Il’ya Murometz’, so you can guess the way the legend plays out. Here Botstein gives the phrases more breathing space, allowing the massive climaxes plenty of space and impact. He is pretty exemplary throughout, seeing the longer line and letting the music unfold with complete naturalness.
As far as modern versions go, the competition for this work really only amounts to Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos, a very good version at comparable price. I have heard it, and don’t remember being quite as impressed as here, though memory can play tricks. The Telarc recording is certainly a state-of-the-art test for your hi-fi, and if you fancy a wallow in the glorious Indian summer of late Romanticism, you can treat yourself with confidence.
Tony Haywood


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