Record reviews

Reinhold Moritsevich Gliere died as recently as 1956; his musical style suggests a much earlier date. His memory is kept alive by two works, one tiny (a dance from his satiric ballet “The Red Poppy”)  the other huge (the Symphony No. 3, subtitled “Ilya Murometz”). Neither is what you’d call a masterpiece worthy of the inner circle, but now “Ilya” is back in circulation, via a new recording, the first in many years. If you were worried that the world was running out of big, noisy, gorgeously resounding Russian romantic orchestral nonsense, here is music to replenish the dwindling stock.
The work was first performed, in Moscow, in 1912. Its inspiration is a Slavic myth about — as if you hadn’t already guessed — a legendary Russian hero. Ilya is a mighty warrior who roams the landscape challenging all evildoers to mortal combat and chopping off their heads. Drunk with power  and victory, Ilya and his cohorts challenge a contingent of heavenly troops, who defeat the earthlings and turn them to stone. (Moral: lay off the hard stuff.)
As storybook symphonies go, “Ilya Murometz” has its own great stock of dimwitted fun. Gliere builds interestingly, devising a tangled skein of leitmotives for the various characters in his vast panorama, and coloring them to match the unfolding of the action. The result is a marvelously colored, rich tonal fresco, beautifully orchestrated. I would put it up against Tchaikovsky’s “Manfred” or Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Scheherazade” as an exemplar of good, lusty story-telling through imaginative musical means.
The work is long, over 90 minutes in this complete recording under Harold Farberman (with London’s Royal Philharmonic, the orchestra that happens to be visiting these parts this very week). Those of us who know the work at all probably learned it through the old Leopold Stokowski recording on 78’s, which was cut back to about half that length. Agreed, you have to love this kind of overstuffed fustian to endure Ilya’s less-than-heavenly lengths. I admit to a soft spot for the work, and have combed the catalogs for years, hoping for its return. Farberman, a journeyman conductor who once led the Oakland Symphony during some not particularly distinguished years, holds the work together and makes no egregious errors. The recording, on the British Unicorn-Kanchana label, does the work full justice.
Russian music on a far higher intellectual level comes on two recent releases on Sweden’s BIS label, both devoted to music of Alfred Schnittke. The belated discovery of Schnittke in the West, along with his astounding colleague Sofia Gubaidulina, can be ascribed to the current thaw in cultural relations with the Soviet Union, although in Schnittke’s case we have had a few inklings of his high qualities through the advocacy of the violinist Gidon Kremer. He is, in any case, an extraordinary creative artist, not easy to describe but unforgettable in the power of his music.
One record contains three Schnittke Concertos: for piano with string orchestra, for oboe and harp with string orchestra, and a Concerto Grosso that pits small ensemble against large orchestra. The scoring suggests modest, baroque-ish pieces, but the results are otherwise. For sheer violence, an onslaught of sound at once brutal and marvelously controlled, I know no recent new music the equal of this 1979 Piano Concerto. The performances, by the very young New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra under Ulf Forsberg, are full of the kind of life-force that evolves when young people take on young music.
The second BIS record includes music for larger ensemble: a work with two titles (Concerto Grosso No. 4, Symphony No. 5) lasting about 40 minutes, and a stupendous orchestral exercise, called “Pianissimo,” that lasts about 8 1/2. The Concerto/Symphony was completed only last year. Again, you are first dazzled by the sheer technique of the man, the mastery over startling musical ideas that borders on arrogance. The work is full of quotes and near-quotes; wisps of melody that could almost, but not quite, have come out of Handel come and go like passing puffs of smoke; now you hear it now you don’t. Schnittke has a great passion, apparently, for using his own music as a kind of critic’s notebook, crammed with wry and compelling observations on the past. (On another new record, a Kronos Quartet anthology on Nonesuch, there is Schnittke’s Third Quartet, an  exigesis on Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” with patches of the original work reworked and commented on until old and new composer seemingly function like close contemporaries. This, too, is an amazing work.)
“Pianissimo” dates from 1967/68; it bears its own amazement. More than an essay in quiet orchestration, it is a powerful, tightly packed emotional statement — composed, do not forget, in a far less beneficial creative climate in the Soviet Union than exists today. Performances on this second record are by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi. Both records are superbly recorded, further benefit to the performers and to the composer himself.
Schnittke turns 55 this year. His fame in the past year, thanks to his two East Coast visits, both to attend major presentations of his own music, has spread rapidly in this country; I don’t hesitate to rank him among the leading composers of his generation. The next good news is that all his symphonies, including the wildly eclectic First that was the show-stopper of the Soviet-music Festival in Boston last March are now being recorded on the Melodiya label, distributed here by Mobile Fidelity.
On two fat Erato albums the ebullient Slava — Mstislav Rostropovich to you — conducts music of his great friend Serge Prokofiev: all 7 symphonies on one album, the opera “War and Peace,” its four-hour expanse uncut, on another. The symphonies form a fascinating body of work, spread more or less evenly through the composer’s life, from the youthful cheekiness of the “Classical” Symphony to the Seventh, the work of a tired soldier who has apparently surrendered to Stalinist brainwashing and composes merely to keep his pen from rusting.
In between, there are amazing works: the ice-cold brilliance of Nos. 2, 3 and 4 (with No. 3 fashioned from parts of “The Fiery Angel”), the warm, accessible neo-romanticism of No. 5, the almost mystical passion of No. 6, as subtle a work as Prokofiev ever fashioned.
Rostropovich knows the music, and the performances he draws from the French National Orchestra are stylish and well-balanced. Perhaps he takes the “Classical” more seriously than its composer did; perhaps he could loosen a top button before taking on the finale of No. 5, where the element of humor is somewhat underplayed. On the whole, however, this is as distinguished a job of conducting as Slava has ever contributed too the record industry; these are records to cherish.
With some sense of relief I happily announce that the worst record of the current year has already been released, thus ending the suspense more than ten months early. The record is on CBS, and it contains songs from Walt Disney movies sung by — ready? — the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I mean…there are things in life that you immediately recognize as ultimate, definitive, and the sound of those close-to-400 voices raised to trace the  musical patterns of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” simply has to be one of them.

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