Reinhold GLIÈRE (1875-1956)
Symphony No. 3 in B minor Ilya 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
ALTO ALC 2019 [65:29 + 74:07]

Ilya Muromets was a (12th century) Russian hero or champion (bogatyr) and his story is told in a tale (byliny) from the past. We find him just as he is being released from sitting motionless (the opening of the work is slow and still) for the past thirty years. This act is by two passing pilgrims as they blow a horn call. His two saviours then proceed to send him on his way with a series of dangerous tasks. The first is to mount a winged horse and seek out the hero Svyatogor. Together they deal with danger in the Holy Mountains until Svyatogor (unaccountably) climbs into an open coffin and, because of his enormous weight, cannot climb out. Having divested himself of his powers he dies and Muromets rides off to Kiev, a city ruled at that time by Prince Vladimir. On the way (in the second movement) he encounters the brigand Solovei in a dense forest. This unsavoury character, by imitating the call of a nightingale (three flutes) and, with the aid of three sirens, lures humans into the forest where he kills them. His attempt to do so to Muromets (like Odysseus tempted by the sirens) fails when he is shot in the eye by an arrow from Muromets’ strongbow, taken prisoner and lashed to the pommel of his horse as he continues his journey to Kiev. This slow movement provides plenty of opportunity for Glière’s skills as a glorious melodist (Rachmaninov) and a gifted colourist in orchestration where the impressionist sounds of Daphnis by Ravel or Forest Murmurs (the Woodbird in Wagner’s Siegfried) seek to tempt Ilya or as dense low instruments, such as bass clarinet, double bassoon and bass trombones with tuba thicken the textures, show Solovei in his true evil colours and recall the Wagner of the lethal dragon Fafner. In the scherzo, Prince Vladimir is entertaining guests in his castle in Kiev when Ilya arrives Solovei whistles like a nightingale, the palace shakes and the guests fall dead. Only Vladimir survives and, upon seeing Ilya cut off Solovei’s head, he welcomes the hero and gives him place of honour at his table in gratitude for saving his life. The music here is packed with energy but for the section in which Solovei once again takes centre stage. Elsewhere the jubilation and merry-making is portrayed by tunefully spirited music full of vibrancy and colour, very reminiscent of Borodin’s second symphony. The finale is of the same proportion as the first two movements: long and massive in scale. It is entitled ‘The heroic deeds and petrification of Ilya Muromets’ and within its programmatic context bears the hallmarks of a composer’s traditional struggle with the finale form, resolved in part by revisiting material from earlier movements, adding counterpoint (the obligatory fugue) and depending heavily on the listener’s ability to recognise motifs and associate them with the characters or events they depict. Muromets is engaged in an epic battle with the wicked Tartar Batygha and eventually succumbs to overwhelming odds. His two guardian pilgrims return whereupon he is eventually returned to his still motionless state as we found him at the start.
Glière’s third (and last) symphony was dedicated to Glazunov – so that in itself tells us much about its style. The harmonic language is highly chromatic and post-Tristan unlike some of its fellow newcomers in 1911 which included Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Sibelius’ fourth symphony and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. However Glière made no attempt to move with the times and relied heavily on folksong and the strength of melody (a Russian clone of Bruch one might say). This disc with this pairing has already appeared under the Regis label (Regis RRC 2068) in 2004 but for the Alto label it has been re-mastered by Paul Arden-Taylor. The symphony has an auspicious recording pedigree. Its engineer Bob Auger was described in his 1999 obituary in the Independent by Lewis Foreman as ‘a pioneer of digital recording who was responsible for [this 1978 recording for Unicorn of] Glière’s expansive third symphony’. Unlike previous recordings since 1940 which range in length from around forty minutes (virtually just a taster) to seventy-odd minutes by such conductors as Stokowski, Fricsay, Scherchen, Ormandy, Rachlin, Talmi, Botstein or Edward Downes, there are no cuts here at just over an hour and a half. According to James Murray’s booklet note it was recorded in four straight takes, one for each of its four movements. With three of them each lasting nearly half an hour and the scherzo eight minutes, that in itself is staggering considering the forces involved The orchestration is enormous at quadruple woodwinds, eight horns, quadruple trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani and a battery of percussion, two harps and strings. These days we have many more live recordings than ever before, so living dangerously is not so uncommon. It keeps brass players on their toes, or should that read lips!
That Glière made no attempt to move with the times is even clearer in the cello concerto written 35 years later. While there is an element of dissonance in places, essentially his writing for the cello is lyrical and, like his concertos for horn or coloratura soprano, the musical language readily accessible to the admirer of tuneful material. Sudzilovsky takes a muscular approach to the technical demands of a work which was written for Rostropovich. Like the symphony, it has a substantial first movement and a melodious Andante in which his Russian forbears, in particular Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, are clearly heard.
There is however no doubt that the greatest accolades must go to conductor Harold Farberman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, whose brass section give an amazing account of themselves. If the movements were recorded in one take the result is incredible and truly to be admired. Only very occasionally are there tiny lapses in ensemble at tempo junctions. It’s good to have an uncut version of Ilya Muromets even though the composer himself was clearly running out of ideas during the finale and might well have done some judicious pruning of those sequential chromatic rising and falling scales for multi-divided muted strings. It’s no wonder then that concert performances are comparatively rare but should one occur in a concert hall near you, my advice is to go and hear it.

Christopher Fifield

Gliere’s epic Muromets - readily accessible to the admirer of tuneful material.