Reinhold Glière's Third Symphony, Ilya Mourometz, is a powerful mystic
work that has developed a cult following ever since its premiere complete
recording in the early '50s. This was on the Westminster label with
Hermann Scherchen conducting the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, a 2-LP set
that also included a suite from the same composer's Red Poppy
ballet. Mourometz is a massive symphony, almost as lengthy as
Mahler's longest, scored for a huge orchestra, sumptuously rich in
orchestration, describing heroic adventures of a legendary folk hero.
Seldom presented in the concert hall primarily perhaps because of its
length, there were few opportunities to hear it; on the occasions when it
was played the score was cut extensively. But record collectors, courtesy
of Westminster, had the opportunity to hear the work in its entirety.
Ilya Mourometz, legendary Russian folk hero and last of the bogatyrs, is the
subject of Reinhold Glière's monumental Symphony No. 3
Curiosity had been piqued in earlier years by the first recording, a version that cut about a third of the score, made for RCA Victor in 1940 by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but the full splendor and scope of the score wasn't apparent until the Scherchen recording. There have been a number of recordings since then, but frustration continues for those who love this music. There's no recording currently available that does full justice to the entire score from an interpretive standpoint and also has sonic quality that conveys its rich orchestral textures.
Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) was a Soviet composer of Belgian-Jewish descent. He was born in Kiev into a musical family, son of a maker of wind instruments. He studied at both the Kiev and Moscow Conservatories, violin and composition with Alexander Taneyev, composition with Anton Arensky, and orchestration with Ippolitov-Ivanov. After completion of his studies he became a teacher, and his students included a very young Serge Prokofiev whom Glière encouraged to concentrate on his composing career. Eventually, Glière became director of the Kiev Conservatory, also teaching composition at the Moscow Conservatory. He went along with political trends of the time making no waves, and was rewarded with various important positions in the Russian hierarchy. His music was recognized by a number of state awards including the title of People's Artist in 1938, as well as three Orders of Lenin and three first-degree Stalin prizes. Because of his non-confrontational attitude he never suffered political problems endured by Shostakovich. His willingness to ride with the tide is reflected in a number of "political" works including The Red Army March and Solemn Overture for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution.
Glière's music includes six operas, concertos for various instruments (including one for soprano voice, and the first major cello concerto by a Russian composer), many chamber works, vocal pieces, incidental music to seven plays, and six ballets, which include his two best-known works, The Red Poppy and The Bronze Horseman. He also composed three symphonies. The first, in E Flat, Op. 8, was written in 1890, the second, in C Minor, Op. 25, in 1908; both are well-written, but prosaic, hardly preparing audiences for the imagination and grandeur of his third effort in the genre, the massive Symphony No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 42, subtitled Ilya Mourometz. Composition on Ilya began in 1909 and took two years to complete. Dedicated to Glazounov, the work had its premiere in Moscow in 1912. The symphony was inspired by the Russian folk hero, Ilya Mourometz, who existed during the 10th or 11th century and was a bogatyr ("warrior") in the service of Prince Vladimir, the last Scandinavian to rule Kiev near the end of the 10th century. Rather like a Paul Bunyan figure, Ilya had many adventures in the service of Prince Vladimir (called "The Sun"), who was the first to consolidate Russia, built many fortresses to protect it and then needed warriors to defend his domain. Vladimir converted to Christianity for convenience, a major sacrifice as he then had to give up six wives and countless concubines. But Vladimir is incidental in this story; the focus here is on Ilya and his exploits. Glière's symphony is an exciting, dramatic musical tapestry of the richest orchestration, program music equal to anything by Richard Strauss. The huge orchestra includes 3 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, side-drum, bass drum, tam-tam, glockenspiel, celeste, and 2 harps plus the usual strings.
In the legend, Mourometz was the son of a peasant. He began life as a weakling, apparently amounting to little. According to the story he sat motionless for thirty years until two gods gave him a drought of magic honey transforming him into the tenth-century equivalent of Conan the Barbarian, and inspiring him to search for Svyatogar, the greatest of the bogatyrs. Once found by Ilya, the Svyatogar dies leaving all of his considerable powers to Mourometz. Some of Mourometz's exploits in the service of Vladimir are depicted in Glière's sprawling symphony. Mourometz's escapades are the product of the Russian bylina, which is a secular folk song passed through the years as oral poetry. These expand on actuality; thus achievements are exaggerated, but a folk hero can do no wrong! Glière took certain episodes from the Mourometz stories, describing them in music that includes folk and religious melodies. There is a very specific, if confusing, story line for the symphony. Glière provided a detailed description for each of the four movements.
In the first, Ilya is approached by
two gods who order him to rise up and become a bogatyr; he meets Svyatogor
and begins his many adventures. The principal "Ilya theme"
appears, to be heard on numerous occasions later in the symphony. The
second movement, "Solovei, The Brigand," or "Nightingale
the Robber," is the one movement that seems to have little
relationship to the prescribed plot. In a dark, frightening forest,
Nightingale (nothing to do with the bird!) fells mortal men with his
"Nightingale whistles like a nightingale,
He screeches, the dog, like a wild beast."
In this movement Glière's mastery of orchestration is extraordinary. To achieve the mysterious sounds of the forest he has all of the strings play sul ponticello (playing near the bridge of the instrument), a magic effect used for the first few minutes of the movement, returning briefly at the end. There are countless nature sounds/bird calls to enhance the rich atmosphere. Nightingale also has three beautiful maidens to further entice those who enter the forest. This is an opportunity for Glière to write some incredibly sensuous, exotic music, which reaches a frenzied, voluptuous climax. According to the plot, Ilya shoots an arrow of glowing iron into Solovei's right eye and drags him towards Vladimir's palace, thus ending the scene.
The third movement, shortest of all (about 7 minutes), is rather like a scherzo for the symphony, high-spirited music representing a colorful feast in Vladimir's palace. It, too, has a climax of considerable grandeur.
Then follows the mammoth fourth movement, which begins mysteriously with guttural rumblings in the low strings assisted by soft tam-tam roars. This movement describes "The Feats of Valor and the Petrification of Ilya Mourometz," as Ilya successfully battles Batygha the Wicked and his pagan army. After emerging triumphantly from this battle, Ilya boasts of his victory, asking for more enemies to annihilate. At this point the unfortunate Ilya and his men are confronted by heavenly warriors who, when struck down, multiply, ˆ la Mickey Mouse's broom in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and prove to be an insurmountable force. Ilya and his bogatyrs are defeated and as they retreat are turned into stone. For this battle scene Glière has provided music of incredible impact, introduced by seventeen bars of majestic horn calls after which we hear massive treatment on massed brass of Russian religious chants interspersed with Ilya's theme. After the cataclysmic climax for full orchestra assisted by a mighty tam-tam smash, Glière recalls, in the most sensitive fashion, episodes from Ilya's happier past, bringing this remarkable work to a quiet conclusion. A highlight of these closing pages is a descending chromatic scale in the strings starting with high violins continuing through violas and cellos to the lowest double-bass rumble.
Leopold Stokowski's 1940 Victor recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra was
the first ever made, but with about a half-hour of the score excised.
Ilya Mourometz is a challenge for orchestras, conductors and audiences. Leopold Stokowski was attracted to the score but realized that its length was a problem. He met Glière who agreed to many cuts (did he have a choice?), doubtless realizing that his symphony would then be performed by one of America's greatest orchestras and conductors. Stokowski presented the work to great success, recording it for Victor in 1940, a magic performance now on CD in a fine transfer by Ward Marston. In 1957 Stokowski made another recording, this time with the Houston Symphony for Capitol, even shorter than the first (38:10 compared with 45:04 for the Philadelphia version). This, too, is admirable, with many moments of Stokowski magic, but it is unfortunate it is so truncated. In the 1940 recording Stokowski plays only the first horn call in the finale (three bars); in his 1956 version he omits the horn calls completely! Stokowski performed this symphony often. I have heard airchecks of concerts with the Chicago, Cleveland and Hollywood Bowl orchestras. All are slightly different and more complete than the Houston recording. The Hollywood recording has particular magic and deserves to be issued on silver disc. Ilya also was a favorite of Frederick Stock who performed it in 15 of his 24 seasons as conductor of the Chicago Symphony; it is not known how much he cut the score but we can be certain that he did. In 1941 Stock even recorded the brief third movement of the symphony for Columbia. Another "historic" recording is the 1949 performance by the St. Cecilia Academy of Rome Orchestra conducted by Jacques Rachmilovich, which has been issued on EMI Classics. It is an admirable attempt, but Ilya demands more than these forces can provide. Eugene Ormandy also championed Ilya. His mid-fifties mono Columbia recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra is magnificent, as is his 1972 RCA version. The later recording is more expansive (59:06 compared with 54:48) and in stereo. The RCA stereo LP (LSC 3246) was poorly mastered, with distortion and a lack of bass - all rectified in a new (July 2002) transfer from an open-reel tape with sound quality that does justice to the performance (this is available [budget price] from: firstname.lastname@example.org). Spahr also has released a fine transfer of the 1956 Ormandy/Philadelhia performance. Ferenc Fricsay made a Deutsche Grammophon recording with the RIAS Berlin Orchestra issued in the early '50s in the U.S. on American Decca (DL 9819). Although considerably cut, this is a passionate performance and deserves reissue. It is remarkable that DGG didn't include this in their series of Fricsay reissues some years ago; it was available briefly on CD in an issue by French DGG.
Leopold Stokowski's 1957 Capitol recording, his second
of the score, is superb but severely cut.
The symphony has been recorded complete twice, first, as mentioned above, in the early '50s for Westminster with Hermann Scherchen and the Vienna State Opera orchestra, a performance considered by many Ilya aficionados to be definitive although it is not without its flaws -- obviously there wasn't time for retakes as there are a few orchestral blurps. And the mono sound, although well-balanced, really cannot convey the score's sonorities. But this performance, with its magic and commitment, will always hold a special place for those who love this symphony. Fortunately this performance is available in a magnificent transfer from a mint-condition set of LPs; you can get it from Rediscovery Classics. There is a possibility it might be included in the recent Universal Classics Westminster series, which would be remastered from original tapes. In 1978 Harold Farberman and the Royal Philharmonic recorded a complete Ilya for Unicorn-Kanchana, one of the first digital recordings using the then-new Sony-PCM-1 equipment, now out-of-date. This recording was issued on a twin-LP set, later on a 2-CD set, now deleted. Rumor has it that this, like the Scherchen, was a "rush job" with limited rehearsal. Farberman is prosaic at best; the numerous repetitive passages sound just like that instead of building towards appropriate climaxes. Farberman's performance is an unbelievable 93 minutes as he plods his way through this score, more than 12 minutes longer than the Scherchen! Engineering, by Bob Auger, is superb.
Harold Farberman's 1978 version was a pioneering digital recording, totally
uncut - a leisurely performance that misses much of the score's grandeur.
More than a quarter-century ago Columbia issued in their Melodiya series a 1974 recording by the USSR Large Radio and Television Orchestra directed by Nathan Rakhlin, a magnificent performance, not totally complete although everything important is there (75:11). Rakhlin is imaginative to the extreme. He obviously knows and loves this score, effectively adding soft bells in the first and last movements. This is one of Melodiya's finest sonic achievements, impressively capturing the huge sound of a large orchestra in a resonant hall. The Russian sound of the orchestra is particularly appropriate for this music, and it is one of the few recordings that vividly captures the low brass sounds of the orchestra. Several years ago this performance was issued on CD (Russian Disc 15 025). Alas! Either the tapes deteriorated drastically or the transfer to CD was done improperly. The warmth and brilliance of the original recording are absent as is just about all of the low bass. Good news! This recording has been issued in a perfect transfer on a private label but currently is unavailable (see REVIEW). This is the finest stereo recording of the "complete" Ilya but keep in mind that the Russian Disc CD is a major disappointment.
Edward Downes conducts the BBC Philharmonic in a nearly complete Ilya on Chandos. Downes studied with Scherchen (who made the first complete recording of the work), and he does a fine job in capturing the score's mystery, but magic moments are few. As expected, the Chandos sound is superb but for some reason the ponticello effects in the second movement are too distant. But no one can question the impact of climaxes of the second and fourth movements.
Sir Edward Downes' BBC Philharmonic recording is superb in many ways
and beautifully recorded, but misses the magic of the best other interpretations (Stokowski, Rakhlin, Scherchen)
More hearings of Pro Arte's San Diego Symphony performance with Yoav Talmi conducting has raised my opinion of it at least sonically; there are many cuts, although it does contain more of the score than either of Stokowski's recordings. When heard in "Digital Surround Sound" on appropriate equipment, sonic quality is much improved over regular two-track stereo. Igor Golovchin conducts the "State Symphony Orchestra" on a Russian Disc CD, a performance recorded in October 1993. Orchestral playing is uninspired and, inexcusably, Golovchin totally omits the horn calls in the finale. Marco Polo's recording with Donald Johanos directing the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra is tentatively played and surprisingly unimaginative. It's a nothing performance, with equally unimpressive sound.
The last Schwann/Opus
lists only the Downes, Johanos, Stokowski 1940 Philadelphia (the Houston
recording, unfortunately, has been deleted), and Talmi recordings; some of
the others listed below might be available as well. Collectors surely will
wish to have at least one of the Stokowski recordings. The Chandos Downes
recording is the obvious first choice of what is currently available -
simply because the Russian Disc issue with Nathan Rakhlin is poor sonically. Although it does have sonic shortcomings compared
with the Columbia/Melodiya LP issue, it is a performance that should be in
the collection of all those who love Ilya. Of course Scherchen's recording is
essential in an Ilya
collection and is available on Rediscovery
Classics. Is it too much to hope for a new recording of Ilya
Mourometz? How about Yuri Temirkanov or Valery Gergiev to conduct,
perhaps with the Royal Concertgebouw or the St. Petersburg Philharmonic?
We can dream!
There is a 1958 Russian film called The Sword and the Dragon, about the exploits of Ilya Mourometz, directed by Alexander Ptushko, starring Boris Andreyev and Andrei Abrikosov. An "updated" version of this can be seen in a film with the same name issued in 1987 by Majestic International Pictures, produced and directed by Elston Leonard. This amateur production begins with a young boy going into the library and finding a book on Ilya Mourometz. As he reads it, the scene changes and we see it all happen, in color, taken from the earlier Russian film. To be kind, acting is sophomoric with dubbed-in English. It seems the original was wide-screen as often half of the screen seems to be missing. Some of the battle scenes have lots of scrubby-looking soldiers who fall before they are wounded. The story is changed as well; Ilya here is married and has a child, and is not petrified -- that will happen to you if you watch this stultifying treatment of the Ilya legend. There is a musical score, not by Glière.
RECORDINGS OF ILYA MOUROMETZ ON CD:
Vienna State Opera Orch/ Hermann Scherchen (recorded 1952) (79:56) (Rediscovery RD 025)(mono)
Philadelphia Orch/ Leopold
Stokowski (recorded 1940) (45:04) coupled with other works of Glière,
Ippolitov-Ivanov and Stravinsky
Biddulph WHL 005 ) (mono)
Houston Symphony Orch/ Leopold
Stokowski (recorded 1957)(38:10) coupled with Loeffler's A Pagan
EMI Classics 65074 (stereo)
St. Cecilia Academy of Rome Orch/
Jacques Rachmilovich (recorded 1949) (48:05) coupled with Kabalevsky's
Symphony No. 2 and Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture
EMI Classics 66886 (mono)
BBC Philharmonic Orch/ Sir Edward
Downes (recorded 1991) (78:08)
Chandos 9041 (stereo)
State Symphony Orch/ Igor
Golovchin (recorded 1993)(75:21)
Russian Disc CD 11 358 (stereo)
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orch/
Donald Johanos (recorded 1991) (75:33)
Marco Polo 8.223358 (stereo)
San Diego Symphony Orch/ Yoav
Talmi (no recording date given) (66:25)
Pro Arte CDS 589 (stereo)
Royal Philharmonic Orch/ Harold
Farberman (recorded 1978) (93:00)
Unicorn-Kanchana 2014/15 (2 CDs)(NLA)(also issued on 2 LPs, NLA)(stereo)
USSR Radio and Television Large
Symphony Orch/ Nathan Rakhlin (recorded 1974) (75:09)
Russian Disc CD 15 025 (stereo)
RIAS Symphony Orch. of Berlin/
Ferenc Fricsay (1956) (44:52)
American Decca DL 9819 (LP, NLA) (mono)
Philadelphia Orch/Eugene Ormandy
(rec. 1971) (59:13)
Private label, no longer available (stereo)
R.E.B. (rev. July 2002)