The prestigious international art magazine New York Arts has published a review on the occasion of a CD of the monumental symphony “Ilya Muromets” by Reinhold Glière, recorded by the Belgrade Philharmonic and Chief Conductor Gabriel Feltz. This first CD by the Belgrade Philharmonic and its chief conductor was recorded for the German publishing house Dreyer Gaido.
We are transmitting the entire review. The published article is available on this link. The critic is Steven Kruger.
Reinhold Glière was fortunate to thrive under Soviet Communism. A long-limbed bardic style, featuring haunting melodies evoking the Russian ecclesiastical past, ruffled no political feathers. Nor did velvety explorations of Scriabin-influenced chromaticism. He was never purged. But Glière paid a price for fame in the world of democracy and commerce, it would seem. His greatest work, the 1912 Mahler-length Symphony No. 3, “Il’ya Muromets”, was deemed “too long” for the concert hall in America. To ensure its presentation, Leopold Stokowski persuaded the composer to pare it down drastically, and it was in this incomplete condition that the work took root in Philadelphia and in American ears.
It’s possible that Stokowski reduced the score even further as the years passed. By the time he recorded the symphony in stereo with the Houston Symphony in the late 1960s, a performance still available, “Il’ya Muromets” was down to 38 minutes. In its natural state, with a pedantic conductor like Harold Farberman, the piece comes in at 93 minutes! As someone who frequently experienced Stokowski live and noticed how much he cared for chromaticism, I have to laugh when I consider that Stokowski’s Houston recording of the slow movement features all the Scriabinesque windswept string filigree Glière wrote at the beginning and at the end, but leaves out entirely the main meat and melody of the movement! I would argue as well, that only the scherzo escaped Stokowski’s way with a medieval sword. The outer movements are hopelessly unbalanced. Arms and legs have been hacked off. Meanwhile John Cleese of the Pythons, it would seem, is telling us it’s “just a flesh wound”!
Eugene Ormandy, fortunately, took up the Philadelphia Glière tradition, too, and recorded “Il’ya Muromets” twice. I know the later RCA LP well, with good sound from 1972 and still available from ArkivMusic as a CD-R. In Ormandy’s reduction, the work comes in at just under an hour and at least makes sense. Ormandy’s lush strings and splendiferous brass sound quite Russian, and Ormandy’s swift but supple tempos create real excitement.
In the digital era, I am happy to say that we now have three quite wonderful versions of the full work. Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic create the lushest sound world–but not much edge–for Chandos. JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, for Naxos, are intense and swift, like Ormandy, but a touch rigid and tight. George Szell is lurking in there somewhere, but Falletta’s performance is definitely exciting. And you get from her performance the sense that the work makes for good structural logic in the concert hall. Lastly, and I would say best, we have this remarkably authentic-sounding new performance from Gabriel Feltz and the Belgrade Philharmonic, evocatively and powerfully recorded by Dreyer Gaido.
Glière’s music sprawls for the same reason Bruckner and Shostakovich symphonies do. Glière is an annunciatory composer. This means great tremolo-supported brass declarations followed by silences, and that’s where conductors like Farberman can get stuck going too slowly, carried away with the import of each proclamation. Gabriel Feltz is assisted by the authentic Eastern European sound of his brass section. It’s heavy and rich and yet slightly blunt and raw and funereal. Feltz manages to summon almost unbelievable weight. His fast tempos are nearly as swift as Falletta’s, but Feltz’s evocation of the sense of legend is somehow deeper and truer. This is memorable music, unforgettably good music, emotional with not a hint of neurosis. It emerges from gloom and doom, celebrates joyously like Borodin along the way, and then devolves to despair and mystery once again. Though the symphony sports a heroic title, it would seem the hero has a hard time. The legend of Il’ya Muromets would give one nightmares. It’s one of those lovely pre-Freudian tales involving decapitation, eye-stabbing, defeat by the enemy and the turning of the hero to stone. It’s not exactly the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But then, well, it’s Russia and the Balkans, no happier in 1912 than now, it would seem. Fortunately, in Glière’s hands, inspiration does not stop, and this candidate for “world’s longest symphony”, as conducted by Gabriel Feltz, almost ends too soon.