Size does matter - and that’s especially the case in music. Just the sheer scale of some compositions can present challenges. Sometimes those challenges are not so much artistic as simply logistical. In the mid 19th century, Louis Moreau Gottschalk was famous for organising “monster” concerts of his own rambunctious scores through Central and South America and the Caribbean. “My orchestra consisted”, he wrote of one Havana event, “of six hundred and fifty performers, [in addition to] eighty-seven choristers, fifteen solo singers, fifty drums and eighty trumpets - that is to say, nearly nine hundred persons bellowing and blowing to see who could scream the loudest. The violins alone were seventy in number, counter-basso eleven, violoncellos eleven! You can judge of the effect…”
As Gottschalk clearly implies, he was composing scores that could be performed relatively easily by massed amateur and minimally rehearsed forces. As a result, it seems fair to assume that he would have been compelled to modify at least some of any higher artistic aspirations that he may have entertained. Thus, although Stokowski or perhaps even Toscanini - both noted explorers of forgotten byways of American musical history - might have been tempted, I’m not aware that it ever crossed the minds of the likes of Karajan, Abbado or Günter Wand to perform A night in the tropics, Á Montevideo or the Grande fantaisie triomphale sur l’hymne national brésilien.
When, however, Late-Romantic composers began to use sheer orchestral size as an entirely legitimate tool to help them express their personal Weltanschauung, the jumbo score - requiring, this time, accomplished performers rather than mere bellowers and blowers - acquired genuine artistic credibility. Il’ya Muromets is one of those great Late-Romantic orchestral leviathans. Like Strauss’s Alpine symphony or Mahler’s Symphony of a thousand, its epic scale and its practical requirements deter most orchestras from even attempting it. Whereas a quick trawl through YouTube will uncover plenty of orchestras from around the world perpetrating all sorts of entertainingly horrific massacres on familiar scores, I cannot locate a single one attempting even a portion of Il’ya.
Thankfully, though, several professional orchestras have, over the years, risen to the challenge of recording Gliere’s third symphony in greater or lesser degrees of completeness. Sadly, we have, as far as I know, no surviving account led by the composer himself. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Gliere certainly ventured into the studio to record his own music on several occasions. As a result, we can still hear his idiomatic and gripping accounts of both the first (Consonance 80-3001) and second symphonies (Consonance 80-3002) in the glaringly abrasive - but strangely appropriate - sound favoured by Soviet engineers at the time. Other accounts that I have on my own shelves include: Leopold Stokowski conducting the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1957 (EMI CDM 5 65074 2) - a winning performance but one ruled out of further consideration by the decision to jettison almost half the score, presumably so as to make the (then) unfamiliar music more user-friendly; Natan Rakhlin’s slightly pruned account with the USSR Radio and TV Large Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1974 (Russian Disc RD CD 15 025); a well-regarded version recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Harold Farberman in 1978 (Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD2014/15, subsequently reissued by Alto and reviewed here); two accounts set down in 1991 - the first from Donald Johanos with the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava) (Marco Polo 8.223358) and the second from Sir Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN 9041 - subsequently reviewed as part of a reissued box set here and here); a 1994 recording by the State Symphony Orchestra under Igor Golovchin (Russian Disc RD CD 11 358); and Leon Botstein’s with the London Symphony Orchestra, dating from 2003 (Telarc CD-80609). Those accounts are now joined by this new Naxos release, featuring the increasingly well-regarded Buffalo Philharmonic under their charismatic Music Director Jo-Ann Falletta.
Even when performed by professional orchestras, there is a real danger that, notwithstanding Gliere’s accomplished orchestration, such a dense, complex score can emerge as a congested, impenetrable mass - especially if a conductor fails to balance his or her orchestral forces effectively. The quality of the recorded sound therefore takes on a special significance. In that respect, any new, technologically up-to-date account like Ms Falletta’s ought to enjoy an advantage over rivals that are almost all twenty years old or more. Revisiting those past accounts for the purposes of this review, I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find all of them more than acceptable. True enough, Rakhlin’s recording boasts a generously reverberant acoustic, but it is one that still leaves the orchestral detail clear and might even be regarded as appropriate in such a glittering score. Even Stokowski’s account, coming up for its 60th birthday, entirely belies its age with the help of some judicious digital restoration. Matters of recording quality are, then, of rather less importance than one might have imagined, placing the responsibility for achieving a satisfying performance fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the artists themselves.
So how do Ms Falletta and her Buffalo players do? The first point to note is that their interpretation is unlikely to come as too much of a surprise to listeners familiar with any one of the previous recordings, with the exceptions of Stokowski’s Il’ya-lite and just two of the others. One of those rogue performances, notable for a uniquely portentous opening movement that gives the music a dramatically different character at that point, comes from Igor Golovchin - closely associated with Evgeni Svetlanov and here leading that maestro’s orchestra. The other is from Harold Farberman and is characterised by exceptionally slow tempi, resulting in by far the longest timing overall and necessitating a second CD. Thus, whereas not only Ms Falletta but also Messrs. Rakhlin, Johanos, Downes and Botstein all bring the first and second movements in within quite narrow ranges - at anywhere from 21:24 to 22:53 and from 21:24 to 22:53 respectively - Farberman’s leisurely, if not positively lethargic, timings are 28:28 and 28:44.
What does, however, confer great distinction on the new Naxos recording is the immense care that the Buffalo orchestra and Ms Falletta lavish on the score. Il’ya Muromets has, it appears, a special significance for them, for we read in the booklet notes how, after long preparation that culminated in a performance at Carnegie Hall, the conductor has come to regard Gliere’s score as “an adventure that changed our orchestra, strengthened us, and became an artistic benchmark for our musicians … an unforgettable journey.”
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of this new performance is its often relatively brisk tempi. Among all the “mainstream” accounts (Rakhlin, Johanos, Downes, Botstein and herself), Ms Falletta achieves the briskest timings in movements I - where her allegro risoluto is second to none in its pronounced risoluto-ness - and II. She achieves, moreover, if only just, the shortest Il’ya Muromets timing overall. The great advantage of not over-indulging the score’s slow sections is that they then blend far more seamlessly with its upbeat elements. While some conductors appear deliberately to emphasise sudden gear-changes that might have been executed by a learner driver, Ms Falletta’s approach, in executing smoother transitions of tempo, ensures that Il’ya comes across as far less episodic. The lengthy andante sostenuto introductory section of the first movement, for example, blends seamlessly into the succeeding allegro risoluto at 07:30. Similarly, in the final movement, where, what with its various depictions of fierce battles, personal duels to the death, heavenly intonations and human petrification, the potential for disjointed confusion is most apparent, she skilfully and successfully pulls all the disparate elements together.
Ms Falletta - aided by some fine engineering work - also proves adept at keeping orchestral textures clear so that all sorts of sometimes overlooked detail are revealed. In the first movement, for instance, the attractive woodwinds chirruping away beneath the strings can actually be heard (13:50-14:28). In the second, the solo violin line (7:27-8:27) also emerges clearly into the light of day. In the finale, she carefully ensures that the “chant of the celestial army” is not so overpowering as to conceal all the other variously conflicting themes that are being reprised throughout the orchestra (11:21-12:28).
This new performance is also particular strong on mood. Strong dynamic control exercised over the first movement’s introductory section (00:00-07:30) ensures that it emerges as not merely a prelude to the drama to come but as an atmospheric and integral part of it. Falletta effectively conjures up, too, an appropriately desolate, mysterious and supernatural picture of a dark, Slavic forest - far darker than the more familiar “forest murmurs” of the Rhineland - at the opening of the second movement. There she controls the music-making so tightly and effectively that you can almost see the Buffalo players hanging on her every gesture. After a short third movement that is more of a simple (!) orchestral tour de force, the highly atmospheric opening of the finale, full of suggestively threatening musical intimations, once again demonstrates the performers’ artistry. Its valedictory closing section (17:28 onwards) provides a genuinely affecting conclusion.
What we have here, then, is an excellent performance that is enhanced by its superb - and superbly balanced - sound-picture. Even without the attractive Naxos price, it would be among the best recommendations for a listener coming new to Gliere’s mammoth score. What a shame, though, that we have, as far as I know, no recordings from the likes of Svetlanov - rather surprisingly, in view of his stated intention to record every Russian symphonic work that he could - or that maverick genius Nikolai Golovanov. Is it too much to hope that somewhere in a dusty Soviet radio archive, there might exist that elusive recording by the composer himself? Now, that would certainly be worth hearing.