Reinhold Glière: Symphony No. 3 “Il’ya Muromets”
JoAnn Falletta, cond.
Listening to Glière’s Third Symphony, especially in this excellent new recording from JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, it is difficult to understand why the piece doesn’t have a place at the very centre of the orchestral repertoire. The music is in a Russian Romantic vein, by turns lyrical and dramatic, and filled with memorable tunes, intense dramatic episodes and dazzling orchestral effects. It was written in 1911 early in Glière’s career, but it has much more character and a more dynamic profile than the generally blander music of his later years.
Reasons for its relative neglect may include the composer’s lack of name recognition, which is a shame, because this work worthy of Tchaikovsky or any of the Mighty Handful in terms of musical quality and originality. It draws on all of those composers, particularly in its narrative structure and its colourful dramatisation of episodes from Russian history. The work is subtitled “Il’ya Muromets” and tells the story of this early Russian warrior’s political intrigues, military victories, and grizzly fate, turned to stone along with his army as a punishment from God.
Another problem that stands against greater exposure is the challenge the work poses to any orchestra considering a performance. A large orchestra is called for, and virtuosity is required from every player. Glière’s orchestral textures are often dense, yet require the utmost clarity and accuracy. The work is also a challenge for the conductor. Like many programme symphonies – Manfred, those of Berlioz and Strauss – the work seems to be structured simultaneously according to both a formal symphonic plan and the narrative. The conductor must balance the two, giving individual episodes the dramatic autonomy to set their various scenes, yet without the overall work becoming overtly episodic.
Falletta and her Buffalo forces succeed in meeting all these challenges. This recording is the result of a major project focussing on the symphony, which also included performances in Buffalo and at Carnegie Hall. The intensive rehearsal has clearly paid off, because the orchestra is on top form. Ensemble throughout is very precise, particularly so within sections. Yet there is never any feeling that they are playing it safe. The orchestra really brings out the myriad colours and exotic textures, which the sound engineering captures spectacularly well. There is plenty of weight from the brass, but they never overpower at the climaxes, and always retain their tonal control.
Naxos is rightly marketing this recording as the rediscovery of a little-known masterpiece. As it happens, this isn’t the first time Glière’s Third has been presented as such. In 1991 Chandos released a recording to a similar fanfare, and succeeded in enthusing a great many listeners to the work. That recording was made by Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic. Downes takes a more episodic approach, slower and with greater focus on the atmosphere of each section. It too is a great recording, but this one is even better. Falletta takes things faster, and although her tempos are fluid, she doesn’t go to the same extremes as Downes. The result is greater continuity and flow – a more symphonic approach. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic are particularly good at pacing slow build-ups, and, conversely, at switching suddenly between textures when the score demands. This Naxos recording also trumps the Chandos in the recording quality. Again, both are good, but Naxos achieves a greater bass presence and a more convincing sound stage.
A top recommendation, then, for this new Il’ya Muromets. It’s a symphony that should really be known much better than it is, so let’s hope that this excellent new recording puts it one step further in that direction.
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