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Reinhold Glière
Symphony No. 3
In B Minor "Ilya Mourometz"

Review by Leonard Norwitz
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LP Numbers: Various, See Below 

 

  These recordings represent a nearly unique phenomenon in Euro-American concert music: the existence of just about as many viable editions of the score as there are recordings. Some advertise themselves as "complete" or "uncut," while others are in various states of abridgement. Ilya Mourometz requires three or four LP sides and some 75-80 minutes to accommodate its full score, as compared to two sides, or 40 to 60 minutes, for the abbreviated versions.  The extraordinary thing is how well most stand on their own, regardless of cuts.

There are interesting analogies in film.  While it's hard to imagine alternative "takes" of Citizen Kane, RKO didn't have to think very hard about cutting The Magnificent Ambersons. Then, what do you suppose was the devil's due when Coppola edited his first two Godfather films for television so that the events would unfold without time shifting?

Cinematic editing on a grand scale knows no better example than Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.  For many years, most American audiences knew this film only in its two hour and twenty minute version; yet it was widely acclaimed as one of the great films.  Our eyes must have changed color when we then saw the original three and half hour version with all it characters and subplots reinstated.

Ilya Mourometz is no Seven Samurai; and Glière is no Kurosawa — far from it. (I would argue that Ilya isn't really a symphony, either; but I'll get back to that later.) Yet in a not dissimilar way, Ilya Mourometz survives, even in vivisection, because its characters and plot elements are still evident in the abridgements.  And like Seven Samurai, restoring the cuts reveals a breadth and weight missing in the shorter versions.

Despite his German/French sounding name, Rheinhold Glière was Russian — born in Kiev in 1875, which places him between the important nineteenth-century Russian composers of large-scale music — Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Moussorgsky — and the twentieth-century generation — Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.  Less well known of this latter group is Alexander Scriabin, though it is his music that Glière's Ilya most clearly points to. (Historically speaking, Scriabin's music turned out to be something of a dead end, though we would all be the poorer if he hadn't been around.)

Ilya Mourometz was completed in 1910, the same year that Stravinsky's far more successful offspring, The Firebird, hit Paris. Stravinsky went off in quite a different direction, while Ilya would remain a kind of impressionistic bridge between Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" and the symphonies of Shostakovich — or, more precisely, between Borodin (especially Ilya's third movement) and Scriabin.

Ilya Mourometz presumes to be a deliberately programmatic score.  It describes, if that's the right word, important events in the life of the legendary medieval hero who, in the service of Prince Vladimir I, was instrumental in bringing Christianity to the Slavic peoples.

Except for the fact that Glière's symphony begins and ends in a dark primeval ooze, reminiscent of the way Shostakovich begins many of his symphonies, there isn't much that ties his four movements together. The Symphony in B minor might rightly be considered as four tone poems connected by a dramatic story line.  Symphonic, certainly -- but only in that no movement can truly stand by itself. Perhaps more than any work of its breath, Ilya Mourometz depends on the program that inspires it in order for us to follow its progress.  On the other hand, one of impressionism's objectives is to lose its audience in color, tone, dynamics, and scale — and from these elements a unique form emerges.

Glière's semi-static tableaux run the risk of stagnation in performance. Despite the fact that the composer's harmonic and melodic palette is in keeping with western European symphonic tradition, Ilya has potential for the same sort of morass that haunts some of the symphonic poems of Liszt and Richard Strauss: color and dynamic tension, yes; classical structure, not so much.

The challenge of the full-length version for any conductor is to keep things texturally clear, to maximize its impressionistic elements, while avoiding potential monotony due to its loose structure. The difficulty with any edited version of Ilya is that while attempting to trim the fat, so to speak, its epic qualiities are obscured. There's the rub. The more I listen to the Stokowski on Capitol, the more I become aware of this problem.

The solution is to — at all times and in keeping with the harmonic and melodic implications — attend to and discriminate between its background, middle ground and foreground. The relatively brief third movement has the trappings of a traditional scherzo, and is therefore structurally clear. The first, second and fourth movements provide programmatic guidelines, which is perhaps why they are the most impressionistically successful. But these movements also present the most difficulty, and it is the degree of success in their editing and performance that separates the pros from the also-rans.

It's too bad we can't do an objective experiment to determine for ourselves if the abridged piece seems truncated or the unexpurgated one feels obese. You have to listen to one or the other first, and that one will likely become your reference. Yet I've owned one recording of each for over forty years, and for the life of me I can't recall which one I got to know first. I seem to have always loved the one I'm with.

Originally, my idea was to review only the Stokowski and the Scherchen recordings, but in researching the article I discovered a number of versions I had little or no acquaintance with. I recommend this procedure for anyone who really wants to know how a piece of music works (not necessarily with the Glière.) It's quite a revelation.

The recordings reviewed below (deliberately out of chronological order), plus a number of others, are more or less available on CD, including a most interesting (and less abridged than the Houston) performance by Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra from 1940.

 

 

Leopold Stokowski conducting the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Capitol FDS P8402 (mono) & Capitol FDS SP8402 (stereo)

Considering how rarely this piece, in any form, receives concert performance, there is a surprising number of recordings — at least four of them more or less uncut.  As nearly as I can make out, no two of the others are similarly edited.  At the time of this record's release, much was made of Stokowski collaboration with the composer in the present abridgement, even though Glière was always under some pressure to shorten the piece.

This recording with the Huston Symphony and Scherchen’s complete recording with the VSOO represent the extremes in scope and approach.  They are so different from each other that it is no waste of money to have both, if your taste happens to run to Russian hyper-romanticism.

Partly due to the cuts, partly to Stokowski's choice of tempi, there is a sense of urgency about this performance that cheats it of mystery and darkness, but not of its beauty. Stokowski, in all of his conducting, is conscious of orchestral color — often to the detriment of line and structure, his critics would argue. In Ilya, he has found an ideal repository for his proclivity.

 

Performance:

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Hermann Scherchen conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. [2 LPs]; with The Red Poppy Suite.  Westminster XWN 2212.

The Scherchen performance exists in two box formats; the earlier one being the old 15-inch long box with permanently installed sleeves that turn like the pages of a book — a holdover from the 78-rpm days. Its records have a red label and generally less quiet vinyl, but sound as good as or better than the slightly later, more easily obtainable blue label records.  On balance, I would recommend opting for the blue with the standard-size box, with cover shown above.

The weakness in this set is not the sound nor the vintage, but the playing, which compared to the Philadelphians or the Russians, is good, but less than stellar (the same state of affairs that haunted Rafael Kubelik's otherwise brilliant Mahler series with the Bavarian Radio on DGG.)  Ilya is not easy music to play in ensemble; so it's amazing what can happen when everyone has the same idea about pitch and tone production.

Scherchen pretty much takes the music as it comes.  We may not readily see where he's going in each movement until a few pages in; then we slip into his world without having realized it. Scherchen is never revelatory in this music (unusually for him), but except for the first couple of minutes of the third movement, is always assured. I think it is only the VSOO's playing that gets in the way of consistent emotional connection.

Even so, Scherchen's performance remains a kind of benchmark. Not only complete — and the first recording to be so--it is an enthusiastic endorsement of the work. Scherchen may not search out deeper truths in Ilya Mourometz, but then arguably there aren't any.

 

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Jacques Rachmilovich conducting the Symphony Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome. Capitol Classics P8047 (mono).

A decade before the popular LP recording with Leopold Stokowski came this one, also for Capitol, from 1949.  An anonymous editor prepared the abridgement, most likely the conductor with the unlikely name. Since there is no acknowledgement to this effect on the jacket, the unsuspecting record buyer of the day would not have had a clue that the work was at all edited (and probably couldn't have cared less).

Most unhappily, the second movement of the LP is interrupted by a side break (a defect corrected on the CD; see below). Despite a presumably extended movement, Rachmilovich manages to eschew the bird-screeching climax that is one of its signal features. However, the conductor achieves the requisite magical lyricism, even above the others in this survey, that makes it is the best reason for hearing this performance.

Rachmilovich's performance varies considerably in mood from movement to movement, emphasizing the concept of Ilya as four related but not much integrated tone poems. The first movement especially, so brooding in the Rakhlin discussed below, is energetic and vigorous, almost buoyant. On the other hand, the last several minutes of the final movement are positively — and aptly — somber.

The sound quality of my LP copy is pretty dismal, but it could be that it's just worn. I imagine the CD is more reliable in any event.

 

Performance:

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Eugene Ormandy conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra. Columbia ML-5189 mono.

The oft-underrated Ormandy programmed Ilya Mourometz in various truncated versions over the years. This LP features outstanding playing and expressive and perceptive interpretation. It's of goodly length, especially in comparison to Stokowski; but knowing what is excised, I longed for this conductor to have given us the whole piece. (N.B. Ormandy's 1971 stereo recording, never issued on LP, available through Locked in the Vault Reissues on CD, is almost 60 minutes, half again as long as the Stokowski.)

More than any other performance under review, Ormandy's conveys the effect of a sleeping giant in its opening pages. The breathing is just that palpable.  (Rakhlin almost gets it right — I'm certain he means to — but misses the pause in the breath.)  Ormandy plays the first movement as if it were part of a symphony, despite its programmatic source.  It really seems to be going somewhere. Again we sense that same athleticism heard in Rachmilovich, but partly because of the fine playing of the Philadelphians there is a conviction the Italians lack. We even hear echoes of Borodin's Second Symphony, usually apparent only in the third movement.

The Ormandy abridgement makes the piece sound completely fresh, especially the second movement, which, frankly, trounces the Stokowski. Ormandy has at his disposal that stunning string section, and he makes bloody good use of it. In the climax I'd swear Ormandy thinks he's conducting Tristan.

I'm not as convinced by Ormandy's efforts in the third movement to tie in music from the second movement, thereby attempting an overarching structure. I see and admire what he's trying to do, but the results are mixed. The Finale, on the other hand, is positively frantic. Here the vigorous energy works to bring matters to a head, and makes the following denouement that much more noble and poignant.

Recorded in 1956, at the beginning of the stereo era but in mono, Columbia's sound is first-rate.  With its large sound stage and full bass, it sounds better even than the Capitol stereo.

 

Enjoyment: side 1 // side 2

Sound Quality: side 1 // side 2

Performance:

Historical Significance:

 

 

Nathan Rakhlin conducting the Moscow Radio & Television Large Symphony Orchestra. Columbia/Melodiya MG 33832 (stereo).

The loveliest in sound, but among the more compressed in texture. How odd. How disconcerting. Rakhlin displays control, but not much passion. Letting in little air, he freezes the action, especially in the outer movements. Not unlike a Russian medieval painting, his performance remains two-dimensional, firmly rooted to the ground.  Perhaps that was his objective, given the subject. The problem is that Glière is not a twelfth-century composer. He writes using the most extravagant of nineteenth-century palettes.

When Disney chose to realize Mulan in the style of ancient Chinese visual art, his artists eschewed their pioneering three-dimensional style. The question is what is inherent in Glière's score? Are Glière's block structures the aural equivalent of the elimination of perspective and shadow? If so, would not other conductors be unable to separate out back-, middle- and foregrounds without forcing the issue?  Perhaps Rakhlin requires more patience than I was willing to bring to it. Yet I would have thought that sitting through Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev would have prepared me for the experience.

Tarkovsky is the perfect analog demonstrating the ability for perspective to inhabit static temporal images. Without perspective Tarkovsky would be unendurable. Seeing how he does it, feeling the effect of it, Tarkovsky is revealed as not only a magician, but also a mystic. This, I think, is what Glière, with far less talent at his call, intended; and which, by and large, Rakhlin, despite the excellence of his band of players, fails to discover.

 

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Ilya Mourometz On CD

Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski  (with works of Ippolitov-Ivanov and Stravinsky). Biddulph WHL 005. (1940, mono)

Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen, cond. Rediscovery RD 025 (1952, mono)

RIAS Symphony Orchestra of Berlin/ Ferenc Fricsay. (1956, mono)

Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy. Locked in the Vault Reissue #49 (1956, mono)

Houston Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski (with Loeffler's A Pagan Poem). EMI Classics 65074 (1957, stereo)

Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy. Locked in the Vault Reissue #32 (1971, stereo)

USSR Radio and Television Large Symphony Orchestra, Nathan Rakhlin. Russian Disc CD 15 025 (1974, stereo)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Harold Farberman. Unicorn-Kanchana 2014/15 (2 CDs; 1978, stereo)

Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Donald Johanos,  Marco Polo 8.223358 (1991, stereo)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Edward Downes. Chandos 9041 (1991, stereo)

State Symphony Orchestra, Igor Golovchin. Russian Disc CD 11 358 (1993, stereo)

San Diego Symphony Orchestra, Yoav Talmi. Pro Arte CDS 589 (stereo)

London Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein. Telarc 80609 & SACD-60609 (2 & 6 channel, 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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