Gliere: Symphony No. 3 "Il'ya Murometz" (CD review)

Leon Botstein, London Symphony Orchestra. Telarc CD-80609.

It's good to see a company pushing the sonic envelope, you know? It seemed there was a time that whenever I reviewed a new Telarc disc, the company always seemed to be doing just that, pushing the envelope. Not that I always heard much difference in sound for all their innovation, but in audiophile land I guess that's beside the point. Anyway, with this Gliere recording from 2002, they used Sony/Philips's then-new DSD recording system, Direct Stream Digital, which the two record companies introduced in 1999 for Super Audio CD's and which the companies asserted was better than sliced bread. More on the disc's sound in a minute. Let's talk about the music.

Russian composer (born in Ukraine) Rienhold Gliere (1875-1956), perhaps best known for his 1927 ballet The Red Poppy, wrote his massive Third Symphony some sixteen years earlier, but he had already attained a remarkable maturity, if not creativity. Gliere was one of those guys who took little heed of the Russian Revolution and fit right in with the new Stalinist regime that followed, being a rather conservative fellow by nature. His Third Symphony shows it. While much of the musical world was following the sweeping changes of Stravinsky, Gliere was content to do blends of Wagner and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Not to worry. The composer crammed his Third Symphony (subtitled "Il'ya Murometz" after a Russian folk hero) with charming, if sometimes repetitious bits and pieces of older tunes, legends, folk songs, and such, filling out over seventy-two minutes of music making on the present recording. And herein lies one of the problems with Maestro Leon Botstein's interpretation, which I tended to like better the first time I heard than during subsequent visits. Botstein takes things at a rather fast clip, you see, maybe losing a little something (or a big something, depending on your point of view) along the way, especially in terms of atmosphere. By comparison, conductors Harold Farberman and Edward Downes on their respective discs take the music at a more comfortable gait and they seem to do the music more justice in the process. This is not a piece of music I return to often, but when I have returned, I've found Farberman and Downes more accommodating. On the other hand, I heard JoAnne Falletta's recording not too long ago, and she also does justice to the score in a performance almost as fast as Botstein's. Maybe because hers is a little more exciting than Botstein's, though, is why I like it.

Anyway, the four movements that comprise the symphonic story are really miniature tone poems that tell episodes in the life of the hero, much as we observe in Gliere's older compatriot Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. The extended first movement of the Third Symphony ("Wandering Pilgrims," over twenty minutes even by Botstein's standards)--quiet and still at the beginning before rising to a persuasive climax--tells of Il'ya's introduction to the world of mighty heroes after sitting on a stove all his life (don't ask). The second movement, an Andante of equally prodigious length, tells of the hero's adventures with Solovei, a brigand. The third movement, a relatively short Scherzo, continues Il'ya's exploits "At the Court of Vladimir the Mighty Sun." Then the work concludes with a long Finale (about as long as the first movement) that tells of the hero's death and petrification.

Although none of this is particularly thrilling, some of it is fun, having as it does its moments of light repose and scheduled moments of climactic grandeur. Maestro Leon Botstein and the London Symphony Orchestra present all of it in a certain staid, academic style, to be sure, yet with at least a modicum of fizz as well. The performance may be more than a tad zippy, yet it's also expressive and even expansive when it needs to be. Know, however, that Farberman and Downes capture a little more of the work's temperament and mood, while Falletta captures more of its excitement and adventure.

Leon Botstein
Bolstein and Telarc's major claim to fame is that they contend their version is the first recording of the complete, revised, 1911 score. How true that is, I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that even at Botstein's speedy pace, the thing is long and seems to use practically every instrument known to exist in 1911.

As to the sound, Telarc offer the DSD sonics two ways, depending on which disc you buy: on a hybrid multichannel/two-channel SACD and on a regular two-channel CD to which I listened. On the CD, the sound is fine, but for all the world I could not tell why Telarc advertised it as so very revolutionary. The Telarc packaging claims the system is capable of sampling at 2.8224 MHz, resulting in a frequency response of 0 to over 100 kHz and a dynamic range in excess of 120 dB. Well, that's probably true; the DSD engineering no doubt can capture such a response. However, nothing like that comes across on the standard Red Book CD, and it's probably a good thing, too, because if it did reproduce 120 decibels of dynamic range, it could fry one's speakers, scorch one's furniture, and permanently damage one's ears. What this Telarc CD does do is appear somewhat soft and low in the beginning until you realize its initial output is a lot less than that of most CDs, so one has to crank up the volume. Naturally, there's always the suspense, then, of wondering if, in fact, you are actually going to get that advertised 120 dB and blow out your speaker cones; fortunately, it never happens. The loudest passages on this disc should not play havoc with anyone's system.

Whatever, I had no objection to the sound; it's all fairly realistic and represents a concert hall reasonably well. But I could never get over the feeling as I was listening to it that it every minute wanted to break loose from its confines, that it wasn't quite opening up the way it should. Nor did I find the bass particularly impressive as so many of Telarc's bass drums have impressed me in the past. Nor did I think the high end had the sheen necessary to set it apart from the ordinary. Oh, well. For comparison I played a couple of old EMI recordings of the London Symphony from the Seventies and found those recordings more revealing, with a wider stereo spread, greater stage depth, and more transparency. Not that they sounded more real, mind you, just more pleasing to my ear, which seems to me all one can hope for in a home music system unless the record companies have deluded one into believing that their home sound can truly reproduce the sound of a live concert hall, with or without five-point-one speakers. Let's just say the CD sound is OK, without all the hype, and that the SACD in multichannel might sound even better.

Despite my reservations, this is an interesting version of Gliere's Third Symphony. If one has any interest in the music at all, one should test Botstein's version along with those from other conductors like Downes (Chandos), Falletta (Naxos), and Farberman (Musical Concepts). Just remember that Telarc's use of DSD to record it may or may not be the final answer in audio reproduction, and in regular stereo the other discs sound pretty good, too.


To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa