Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – 4th April

Orient and Occident [UK premiere]
Symphony No. 3, Op.42 ’Ilya Muromets’

BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 April, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Some works survive largely by reputation. Gliere’s ’Ilya Muromets’ symphony is one such. Completed in 1911, his third and last work in the genre is very much of its time – scored for a large (though not excessive) late-romantic orchestra and lasting a shade under 80 minutes. It has received several recordings over the years, but tonight was being heard for the first time in a UK concert hall in its uncut form.

A 10th-century mythical hero of the Kiev-Rus empire, Ilya Muromets led an eventful life progressing from three decades of immobility, to a brief period of mighty and heroic deeds, to being turned to stone for daring to take on the Heavenly Army. It is all depicted in Gliere’s symphony: an extended sonata opening movement of gradual emergence and triumphal action for the hero and his sparring partner Svyatogor; an ’Andante’ of Scriabinesque allure and emotional expansiveness, apt for the Nightingale Robber whose charms are overcome by Muromets; a brief but scintillating ’Scherzo’, where the Court of Vladimir the Mighty Sun is overcome in one fell swoop; and a complex – indeed prolix – ’Finale’, in which Muromets and his cohorts allow their heroic deeds to get disastrously out of hand, before a return to stasis as the work reaches its conclusion.

Martyn Brabbins, replacing the indisposed Neeme Järvi, gave his all in a work (might he have studied it in St Petersburg with the late Ilya Musin?) whose derivativeness – Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Strauss, even Debussy all get their stylistic due – is part of its attraction. The often-teeming textures of the outer movements, harmonic sequences working overtime, and broadly cumulative waves of the ’Andante’ were guided with a sure hand, yet there was no sense in which the music was emotionally underplayed. The BBCSO responded with relish, such flaws as there were of little consequence in the overall panoply of sonic richness. The only real criticism must be the lengthy pause between the second and third movements – allowing the Radio 3 announcer to ’catch up’ with the narrative, which broke up the overall impact of the work in the process. (It just proves there’s too much chat on Radio 3! – Ed.)

Famous as a teacher for much of his career, Gliere (1875-1956) had the distinction of moving unscathed through the Soviet era: that his later music formalised the opulence of his earlier work down to a safe formula is undeniable, but for a brief period in the 1900s, he synthesised the competing Russian traditions of symphonic and programme writing to powerful effect. It was good to hear the culmination of that synthesis so convincingly realised at this concert.

Beforehand (though after the National Anthem, in tribute to HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother), a new string orchestra piece by Arvo Pärt. As its title implies, Orient and Occident draws on Western and Orthodox liturgical chant in its fervent alternation of the incisive and the ethereal. Eight minutes passed thoughtfully, if without a sense that Pärt has a major non-vocal work in the making.

  • The BBCSO continue this Russian theme at the Barbican on Friday, 19 April, with Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony and Rachmaninov’s The Bells conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. Live relay on BBC Radio 3 Click here to Listen on-line
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