Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Glinka's "Russlan" Overture packs a way more pungent wallop than you'd guess from "Mom"


"The Father of Russian Music": Mikhail Glinka (1804-1867)

GLINKA: Ruslan and Ludmila: Overture

Kirov Orchestra (St. Petersburg), Valery Gergiev, cond. Philips, recorded February 1995

New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Oct. 14, 1963

Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Alessandro Siciliani, cond. CSO Showcase, recorded February 2001

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded Mar. 14, 1959

by Ken

As I've mentioned occasionally in my occasional TV Watch reports, I occasionally try to watch Mom. And each a time I get a jolt when I hear the rousing strains of Glinka's Rusland and Ludmila Overture -- at least the couple of bars' worth that are all we get, for cheap 'n' cheesy effect. Whereas the piece itself is one of the glories of musical civilization, uniquely rousing but also soaring.

This week I got farther than usual into the episode, with that fine actress Allison Janney (who plays, you know, Mom) finally getting an opportunity to do something other than make herself look foolish, with the current plotline that has her sinking toward rock bottom in her pills and booze abuse. (Whether she has actually hit rock bottom remains to be seen. Or whether she in fact has a rock bottom.)

It happens too that the Ruslan Overture is one of the pieces I thought of when I was thinking recently about music that, as best I recall, we've never heard in Sunday Classics asI plan for the shutdown. So let's consider today's snapshot a gap-plugger -- and a perennial delight.

The opera it introduces is a delight too, but such a genre-bending farrago of story-telling modes -- fairy tale, heroic epic, romance -- that it makes almost impossible demands on the resources, not least of the imaginative kind, of an opera company.


I've placed Valery Gergiev's performance first because it's different from the others -- lickety-split fast. Maybe he has something in mind, perhaps related to the fact that this performance was part of a recording of the complete Ruslan and Ludmila, which in theory should give him some sort of contextual advantage, but I can't say I hear it.

I can't help thinking that it comes down to the theory that "fast" music needs to be "played fast." In reality, of course, "fast" music will tend to sound fast almost however fast you play it, giving the performer the opportunity to hear a little deeper into the music. Certainly I don't hear any lack of exuberance in the performances by Leonard Bernstein and Alessandro Siciliani (I still remember the exuberance the latter brought to his early New York City Opera performances, starting with Puccini's La Rondine). Fritz Reiner, meanwhile, looks for a more grandly scaled emotional range.

I absorbed the piece into my musical bloodstream via a two-LP Columbia Masterworks set called The Magnificent Sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra, drawn from 16 early-stereo LPs made by Eugene Ormandy and the orchestra, most if not all of them produced by Tom Frost -- still to my mind a goodly clump of the best-sounding orchestral recordings ever made, capturing performances of vitality and polish which sprang seemingly effortlessly from Ormandy's rock-solid basic musicianship. So for this post I made a quick mp3 dub of my much-played LP copy.

GLINKA: Ruslan and Ludmila: Overture

Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded 1959

And you know what? This is still the performance I would most want to hear.

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