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Reinhold GLIÈRE (1875-1956)
Symphony No. 3 in B minor, ‘Il’ya Muromets’ (1911) [71:37]
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
24/96 PCM stereo and dts-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. Reviewed in stereo
rec. 3-5 May 2013, Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York
NAXOS NBD0041 BD-A [71:37]

Brooklyn-born JoAnn Falletta has impressed me enormously over the years. In particular I must single out her Respighi with the Buffalo Philharmonic (review) and her Kenneth Fuchs with the LSO (review). As the recently departed principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, she won new friends and admirers on this side of the Atlantic as well. It’s not difficult to see why, for she boasts a wide repertoire, a substantial catalogue and a powerful podium presence; that ought to give those who disparage female conductors pause for thought.
 
Few Russian symphonies demand more stamina than Reinhold Glière’s epic No. 3, which chronicles the exploits of the medieval Russian bogatyr Il’ya Muromets. It’s essentially four tone poems in one, all of them stitched together by a heroic narrative. The first movement, in which our knight errant takes on the mantle of the great warrior Svyatogor, is the musical equivalent of loam – dark, rich and endlessly fertile; the brass are solid and secure, while Falletta guides and shapes the music with sensitivity and style. Even Glière’s soggier patches are less of a problem than usual, thanks to transparent textures and a telling lightness of touch.
 
The second movement, Solovey, the Brigand, is blessed with some of the composer’s most noble and luminous music, to which all sections of the orchestra respond with glowing timbres and a thrilling sense of purpose. The forest setting is as Romantic as it gets, and Falletta teases out the score’s naturalistic elements to great effect. In a work that can so easily stall and stagnate it’s especially gratifying to report that momentum never flags. As for the 24/96 recording - in PCM stereo at least – it has plenty of bass weight and dynamic swing; remarkably, that’s also true of the ‘CD-quality’ version I downloaded from eclassical.com.
 
The third movement, At the Court of Vladimir, the Mighty Sun, has seldom sounded so ardent, those tuttis so theatrical; not only that, the soft percussion – shades of Respighi’s approaching legions – has a pretty high goose-bump quotient. The final movement, The Heroism and Petrification of Il’ya Muromets, melds epic valour with the abiding spirit of Mother Russia; this is music of immutable dignity and strength, and Falletta doesn’t allow it to ramble or become rhetorical. Goodness, the playing is transported, and the recording – analytical but never fierce or clinical - captures small details and mighty flourishes with equal ease. As for the symphony’s closing moments they are endowed with a wonderful feeling of repose; indeed, the funereal brass and timps are Siegfried-like in their mythic scale and sense of loss.
 
Up until now my Il’ya Muromets of choice has been Leon Botstein and the LSO on Telarc. It’s a measure of the potency and power of this newcomer that my loyalty to that recording has been well and truly shaken. Botstein brings a gravitas to the first movement that I find very moving indeed, and balances are good, if not exceptional. Oddly enough for a label that prided itself on sonic spectaculars the bottom end isn’t as weighty as I remembered it, and the brass don’t leap out of the mix as thrillingly as they do on the Naxos disc. Still, Botstein’s forest murmurs are atmospheric enough – the LSO strings are gorgeous – and Telarc’s fabled bass drum adds startling frisson to the symphony’s finale. That said, Falletta’s account is the more complete one; it has a much stronger narrative – there’s a distinct dramatic arch here - and she is by far the more painterly throughout.
 
For those unfamiliar with Blu-ray Audio (BD-A) these discs offer high-resolution PCM stereo and dts-HD Master Audio Surround at a hefty premium over the standard Redbook CD (in this case £11 as opposed to £6). Naxos are selective in their choice of BD-As, and those I’ve heard or reviewed so far are pretty good, even if they don’t always represent a significant upgrade in terms of sonics. The same is true of this release, for the CD sound – a downsampled version of the 24/96 recording used on the BD-A – is very impressive in its own right. Indeed, unless you absolutely must have multi-channel I’d suggest you stick with the CD or CD-quality download; yes, they really are that good. But wait, there’s more; listening to Botstein after Falletta I have to admit the latter is now my preferred choice for this most colourful work.
 
Musically and technically first rate; a performance that really does stand out from the herd.
 
Dan Morgan
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Previous review (CD): Rob Maynard