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Reinhold GLIERE (1875-1956)
Symphony no.3 in B minor Il’ya Muromets (1911) [71:40]
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 3-5 May 2013, Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York
24-bit, 96 kHz. 5.1 Surround – DTS-HD Master Audio; 2.0 Stereo - PCM
NAXOS NBD0041 BD-A [71:40]

The CD version of this performance was the subject of a comprehensive review a little while ago by Rob Maynard. Indeed, he so admired the disc that he made it one of his Recordings of the Year for 2014. Having heard it in its BD-A format I can understand why. Rob enjoyed an advantage over me in having access to a number of earlier recordings whereas my collection only contains the 1991 Chandos recording by Sir Edward Downes, which I bought when it first came out (review). It’s interesting to note that Downes takes rather longer than Ms Falletta – his performance plays for 78:08 – and his timings are longer in every movement except the short third movement where he and Falletta are literally within a second of each other. I haven’t made detailed comparisons between the two recordings; I’ve simply done some spot-sampling of the Downes recording to compare the respective recorded sounds. So I can’t compare the interpretations except to note that on the face of it Downes’ treatment of the score appears a little more expansive than Falletta’s. I was interested to find that the spot comparisons I made with the Downes recording proved that as far back as 1991 the Chandos engineers – on that occasion Don Hartridge – were able to produce results that still sound mighty impressive on CD over twenty years later.

Everything about Glière’s Third Symphony is on an epic scale. For one thing, it’s very long. Both the Downes and Falletta performances play for over 70 minutes and there’s a version conducted by Harold Farberman (review) that lasts 93 minutes. I’ve not heard that account but the disparity between his timing and that of the Downes and Falletta traversals must relate to the speeds adopted since none of these versions makes the cuts that used to be made by some conductors in the past. The forces required are pretty massive. Glière specifies, inter alia, quadruple woodwind, eight horns, five trumpets, two harps, celesta and a substantial percussion battery. Divided into four movements, three of which play for in excess of twenty minutes, the symphony is described by annotator Edward Yadzinski as “a suite of four picturesque tone-poems.” That’s perhaps not quite fair on the composer as it implies free-standing movements but in fact certain motifs recur and as the final movement draws to a close Glière draws things together by recollecting themes from the preceding three movements. Each movement illustrates episodes from the life of Il’ya Muromets, a legendary figure from medieval Russia and I’m tempted to describe it as the ne plus ultra of programme music.

Given the ambition of the score and the vast forces required it’s unsurprising that live performances are rare. This present recording was made, I believe, around the same time as a series of performances that the Buffalo Philharmonic and JoAnn Falletta gave in 2013. They took the work to Carnegie Hall just a few days after the recording sessions as part of the hall’s 2013 Spring for Music season and you can see here what I think is an image of them in action during that performance. Their familiarity with this rare score comes across in a recorded performance of great assurance and conviction. Furthermore, while in no way short-changing the listener in the riper passages JoAnn Falletta  appears to adopt a purposeful approach, keeping the music moving forward and avoiding any temptation to wallow.

I found that the sound on this BD-A was very fine indeed; I listened to it in the 2.0 Stereo – PCM format. The recording has punch and presence; the monumental climaxes, of which there are several, register powerfully but the wide dynamic range means that the quiet passages, such as the very opening, also come across very well.

Right at the start of the work the subdued orchestral sound is deep and sonorous; as the music expands so too does the sound of the orchestra. JoAnn Falletta distils a strong atmosphere in these pages which bodes well for the odyssey on which we’re embarking. In this long first movement – it plays for 21:24 – she controls Glière’s vast musical canvass most effectively. In particular I admire the way that she gives the music the time and space to make its full effect yet she keeps the proceedings on a tight rein. The massive climaxes – for example around 15:30 and again around 20:50 – register very impressively.

In the equally substantial second movement there’s a good deal of atmospheric writing as Glière paints an aural picture of a dark forest. Ms Falletta and her players – and the engineers, too - establish an eerie, spooky ambience at the outset. There’s a great deal of virtuoso orchestration in this movement and I like the way the delicate sounds suggesting carolling, trilling birds (high woodwind and solo violin) come across: this symphony isn’t all about gargantuan forces; there’s more delicacy in it than you might think. At the movement’s huge climax Glière does rather overplay his hand but the passage is superbly delivered here and the arrival and capture of the evil brigand Solovey is graphically portrayed.

At just over seven minutes in duration the third movement seems almost short-winded but in many ways it’s the most successful part of the work – less means more? There’s a great deal of colourful, balletic music of which Rimsky would have been proud and this Buffalo performance, which has dash and vitality, is quite splendid.

In the extensive finale Glière rather throws the musical equivalent of the kitchen sink at the battle scene – think Ein Heldenleben on steroids. The result may be excessive but, my goodness, the whole thing is spectacularly delivered here. I just turned up the volume, giving thanks that I had the house to myself for once, and surrendered. Excessive the music may be but in this performance everything is tightly controlled: evident familiarity with the score has enabled orchestra and conductor to calibrate everything very effectively. The climaxes are colossal and Ms Falletta and her orchestra convey the drama in a most exciting way. After the battle – and volume – has peaked the last five or six minutes, in which the composer revisits motifs from the preceding movements and the music gradually winds down, are very well managed indeed.

This fine performance makes the best possible case for Glière’s score. The excitement, ardour, colour and poetry of the score all come across most convincingly. The score must be extremely taxing to play yet the Buffalo Philharmonic respond marvellously and appear to relish the opportunities afforded by Glière’s colourful orchestration. The sound is very fine indeed – the sheer scale of the work and the great contrasts it contains must have tested the expertise of engineer Tim Handley but he’s done a great job. I haven’t heard the CD version so I cannot say to what extent the BD-A represents an enhancement but I can certainly confirm that the BD-A sound is most impressive.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Rob Maynard (CD) ~~ Dan Morgan (BD-A)