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Gliere: Symphony No 3 "Il'ya Muromets" / Falletta

Gliere / Buffalo Philharmonic Orch / Falletta Release Date: 02/25/2014
Label: Naxos Catalog #: 8573161 Spars Code: DDD
Composer:  Reinhold Gliere Conductor:  JoAnn Falletta Orchestra/Ensemble:  Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Number of Discs: 1
Recorded in: Stereo Length: 1 Hours 11 Mins.

This is an important recording for several reasons. First, it contains the finest version yet recorded of Glière’s epic Third Symphony, “Il’ya Muromets”. Second, it defines once and for all how the piece is supposed to go. In order to understand this latter point, we need to take a moment and review the work’s history on disc.

The symphony’s most famous early recording was Hermann Scherchen’s, a mono Westminster release that wasn’t very good, and more to the point, came from a conductor too erratic to be taken seriously as a definitive interpreter of, well, anything (fun though he often was). After Scherchen, recordings such as Ormandy’s and Stokowski’s presented the music
Read more heavily cut, thus contributing to the legend of the work’s monstrous length and musical prolixity. Aside from a hard to find, rather crude Russian recording featuring the Moscow Radio Symphony under Boris Khaikin, that is where matters stood for many years.

At the dawn of the digital age, Harold Farberman made the first modern recording of the symphony for Unicorn. That version got a lot of attention, first, because it was one of the first digital LPs ever released, and second, because Farberman presented the piece uncut. Unfortunately, Farberman was famous for playing just about everything at half the normal tempo (Mahler too). His recording lasted more than 90 minutes spread over two discs, and further contributed to the myth of the symphony as a bloated monstrosity. This was the situation until two recordings, Edward Downes on Chandos and Donald Johanos on Naxos, showed that the complete piece could be played in about 70 minutes, or about the same length as a traditional performance of Beethoven’s Ninth or Mahler’s Fifth–long, but not absurdly so.

Those were good performances: the Downes handsomely recorded but a touch characterless, the Johanos more exciting but edgily played by the Bratislava orchestra and somewhat thinly engineered. Until now, that was the reference recording for the symphony. Now, finally, we have a superbly played, viscerally exciting, richly engineered recording that proves that the symphony does indeed “work” as a coherent piece of music. What are the qualities that make this recording special?

First, Falletta takes the first movement’s lengthy introduction at a naturally flowing tempo that creates a palpable feeling of anticipation. It leads to a swift allegro that presses forward without letup, lending the movement an unusual degree of inevitability and coherence. The Andante, which can sound almost suffocatingly, sickeningly thick, has plenty of atmosphere but again a welcome feeling of forward movement and a refreshing transparency of texture. The scherzo always works, and this one glitters brilliantly, with Solovey the Brigand’s shriek in the central section making an appropriately alarming impression. Best of all, Falletta offers a truly exciting, hell for leather account of the finale, easily the best yet recorded. The climactic petrification of Il’ya Muromets is overwhelmingly powerful, setting up the quiet coda as an inevitable and satisfying conclusion.

Now I am not going to suggest that the symphony is concise or pithily argued, but this interpretation makes better sense of it than any previous version, and it’s also engineered with the vividness and impact necessary to do the playing full justice. The myth of the music’s awkward gigantism and formal diffuseness has been debunked, with the perhaps paradoxical result that the symphony’s true stature has grown proportionately.

– David Hurwitz,


GLIÈRE Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets” JoAnn Falletta, cond; Buffalo PO NAXOS 8.573161 (71:41)

At the end of my feature article on the making of this recording (“It Starts from Nowhere,” Fanfare 37:3), I confidently predicted that, when it came out, it would be “ the Il’ya recording of the past half-century.” Was I being rash? Perhaps—my prediction was surely influenced by the adrenalin rush of living through the rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions last May. Still, listening again now with a little more objective distance, I’d say that my prediction was, if anything, too moderate. I’d included the “past half-century” caveat because of my enduring love for the highly personal, but extremely scrappy, Scherchen reading. I have to say, though, that Falletta’s new CD is even better—and no other recording of the piece I know (and I believe I’ve heard all but the Fricsay), complete or abridged, comes close. This release is beyond excellent.

What makes it so successful? First, there’s the quality of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Paradoxically, given the current collapse of our orchestral culture, the standards of playing are higher than ever, in large cities and small. Still, even by contemporary criteria, this disc will knock you over. The Buffalo Philharmonic doesn’t simply play better than Scherchen’s Vienna outfit or Stokowski’s Houston—they outplay Botstein’s London Symphony and the fabled Philadelphians on Stokowski’s first recording, too. Ensemble? One example can stand for many: About four minutes into the first movement (rehearsal 7), we are introduced to a chant that serves as one of the thematic strands that holds the potentially rambling piece together. It’s played first by bass clarinet and English horn—and despite the constantly shifting meters, they play with a unanimity of phrasing and a melding of color that will simply take your breath away, offering a unity of purpose you associate with the best chamber groups, a virtue that remains when the color is takes on a new shade 15 measures later as the first clarinet and bassoon join in. Color? The orchestra is remarkably adept, especially when it comes to bringing out the more unconventional sonorities of the piece, like the percussion groans in the second movement. Sheer bravura? Listen to the glorious kick as the nine horns shout out in unison at end of the first movement. Simply put, you couldn’t ask for this music to be better executed. Given the uniform excellence of the playing from top to bottom, it seems unfair to single anyone out. Still, concert-master Michael Ludwig deserves mention; and as for Martha Malkiewicz’s miraculously flexible and highly characterized contributions on the all-important contrabassoon part—they are beyond praise.

Even without such orchestral proficiency, however, this performance would still stand at the top of the list because of Falletta’s unparalleled ability to convince us of its architectural logic. It’s not simply that most competing conductors can’t convey this logic—a lot of them appear not even to recognize it. That’s especially true of those (and there are many) who slice out chunks of the music. Take Stokowski. His choices of what to cut are not quite the same on his Philadelphia and Houston recordings, but on both of them he distorts the music’s proportions, severs thematic links, and makes a hash of its narrative line. He may have been one of the symphony’s greatest advocates—but he either didn’t understand how the piece works as a totality or (even worse) simply didn’t respect it enough to care. To him, it was a buffet table of effects that could be added to his plate at will. (And he didn’t even always choose the best effects: How could he have lopped off the last fifth of the first movement, choosing to ending with the ominous percussion solo passage at rehearsal 92 rather than the confident and overwhelming conclusion, one of the symphony’s most exciting moments?)

But I think it’s fair to say that even conductors ostensibly committed to the work as an entirety rarely convince us that it that its length is really justified. Sitting through the Downes recording, for instance, you might reasonably wonder whether a few cuts might not be helpful after all. Falletta, however, has both the work’s overall arc and its smaller narrative units firmly in her grip. Her control of dynamics means that the music doesn’t peak too early (a common problem in performances of this work). More important, her unfailing control over the music’s numerous variations in tempo, coupled with her acute shaping of rhythmic gestures (especially those derived from chant), means both that momentum never stalls and that the movements never fall into disparate sections. She also has excellent sense of vertical balances: episodes that seem sludgy in other hands make perfect sense in hers, and her ability to highlight key elements, even in the thickest passages, keeps us fixed on the music’s underlying unity, much of which hinges radically on hearing thematic links. Simply put, more than in any other recording, everything fits. The music never seems to sprawl—and the long coda to the finale seems an inevitable conclusion to what has preceded.

Inevitable—and poignant. Praise of a musician’s sense of architecture and logic can sometimes be a code-word for over-intellectuality, even coldness. But that’s hardly the case with this supremely emotional reading. In part, its intensity comes from the sheer electricity of its high points. The feral launch of the finale’s fugue (taken at a terrific clip), the blood-racing call on the horns later on at rehearsal 67—there’s plenty of high-voltage playing. But it’s more than that. Start with Falletta’s ability to build pressure over long spans (listen, as but one example, to how she shapes the long pedal point, from rehearsal 105 to rehearsal 111, in the finale). Throw in her even rarer ability to resist the tyranny of the bar lines (an issue that arose often in the discussions that served as the basis for that feature article). Top it off with generally brisk (sometimes startlingly quick) tempos and superb shaping of the thematic material, and it’s no surprise that this performance draws you in and keeps you in its grasp from first page to last.

But it’s more than just sheer grip, sheer dynamism. Il’ya is one of those pieces—like Wozzeck or Debussy’s Pelléas , to mention two near-contemporaries—that has a distinctive atmosphere, one of those pieces that so inhabits its own sound world that you can recognize it in a minute. And no one, not even Stokowski, better conjures up its atmosphere than Falletta does.

At first, that claim about the distinctiveness of its flavor might seem a bit hyperbolic. After all, on the surface, Il’ya seems a fairly eclectic score dotted with plentiful evocations of more familiar composers, including Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky ( Francesca is nearly quoted in the finale), Mussorgsky, Scriabin, and especially Wagner—evocations that are treated with complete sympathy here. Still, there are also passages that don’t sound like anything else. Listen, for instance, to the second movement. The conventions (fluttering strings, bird-calls in the winds) make it obvious that we’re in a forest—but the striking complexity of the musical fabric (strings divided into up to 13 parts) makes it clear that you’ve never been in a forest quite like this; and the sense of menace (to which the contrabassoon contributes significantly) makes it clear that you never want to be.

But Il’ya ’s distinctive flavor goes well beyond Glière’s sound palate, imaginative as it often is. More important is Glière’s creation of what would, in a work of literature, be called its story-world. When I talk about story-world, I’m not thinking about its plot—although Il’ya , a program symphony if there ever was one, does have a plot, the details of which Falletta brings out clearly. Rather, I was thinking about the scenery against which that plot is set. Perhaps I can best explain what I mean by holding Il’ya up to Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben , another score of roughly the same late-Romantic vintage, scored for roughly the same post-Wagnerian instrumental forces, and similarly conveying the life and death of a hero, with a reflective coda marked by thematic reminiscences. I love Heldenleben , but Strauss’s “hero” is oddly abstract. When and where does Ein Heldenleben take place? Nowhere and no time, really; Ein Heldenleben has plenty of glorious melody and virtuoso orchestration, but the time and place it evokes (in contrast to those of Salome ) are vague and generic. Glière, in contrast, conjures up an actual hero, one far more flawed than Strauss’s self-congratulatory self-portrait (which gives the ending—where Il’ya’s hubris is punished—a far richer resonance), and one whose story is played out against a specific (if mythic) time and place. And from the vast spaces opened up by the rumblings of the eerie opening pages, through that menacing forest and the joyous celebration at the court of Vladimir on to the ghostly aftermath of Il’ya’s petrification (for recklessly throwing out a blasphemous challenge to the forces of Heaven), Falletta catches that mythic time and place, and the mysterious distance (both temporal and geographic) that surrounds them, better than anyone else.

I could go on—but the best way to appreciate the stellar quality of this release is to listen to it. The sound on the CD is good—but you might want to wait just a bit for the Blu-ray, expected for release in September, which should be better yet. One way or another, this belongs on your shelf.

FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz
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