The term "symphony" has covered a multitude of sounds, sizes and shapes since it was first used, well before Haydn's time.
The examples left us by William Boyce (1711-1779) and Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956) are about as different from each other as any works in the same general category could be, though both Gliere's sprawling Third Smphony (better known by its subtitle, "Illya Murometz") and the eight tiny symphonies of Boyce might be regarded as "theatrical" in one sense or another -- the Gliere being a graphically descriptive epic drama in music, the Boyce having been derived from material in that composer's stage works. Something else these miniature and gigantic symphonies have in common is that they have just appeared on open-reel tapes from Barclay-Crocker.
The Two-reel set of Gliere's "Ilya Murometz," performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Harold Farberman (UNC M 0500), represents a rare instance of a tape's reaching us before the corresponding disc edition. In this case, the recording was originated by Unicorn, an English company that just now appears to be in the process of seeking a new disc outlet in this country. Unicorn discs have been imported now and then, and the material also has been released on various U.S. labels. The most recent importer, HNH, began pressing a domestic Unicorn series a few years ago; one of its last such releases was the unprecedentedly complete two-disc "Peer Gynt," which appeared simultaneously on a Barclay-Crocker reel.
Since that Grieg recording, which plays for 102 minutes, was contained on a single reel, one might have expected the 92-minute "Ilya Murometz" to be similarly accommodated. However, while "Peer Gynt" is made up of 32 brief episodes, each of the first two movements of "Ilya Murometz" runs a little longer than 28 minutes; their combined playing time is just a bit too long for a single side, and there is no decent spot for a break in the second movement. So the two-reel format was indicated -- and, with it, an interruption in the final movement.
While the four-sided layout presented no problems on discs, putting the eight-minute scherzo by itself on one side of a reel would have required a delay in order to spin out the rest of that side before turning over to play the 28-minute finale. The break in the last movement comes at a very well-chosen spot, but I wish Barclay-Crocker had put these two movements on a single 36-minute side and either left side four blank or filled it with material from another Unicorn release. The brief Symphony No. 21 of Miaskovsky (a Gliere pupil) and Symphony No. 2 of Kabalevsky (a Miaskovsky pupil), paired on a Unicorn dics (issued here as HNH 4054), would have done nicely, and collectors would probably have been happy to pay a bit more for the additional works and the convience of an uninterrupted finale.
Once we accept the layout, though, there is nothing to do with this release but marvel over it, wallow in it and enjoy it thoroughly. As the timings must suggest, the performance is absolutely uncut; this is in fact the first uncut "Ilya Murometz" to be recorded since Hermann Scherchen's Westminister mono version of 1952. (Nathan Rachlin, in Columbia Mg-33832, throws in some repeats, but does make cuts.) Farberman, late of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, must have been preparing for this assignment all his life, for the performance fairly glows with authority and conviction; the RPO is at the top of its form, and the sound is simply gorgeous.
Unicorn recorded this performance digitally, using the Sony PCM system. I have a copy of the disc set (PCM 500/1), and find it a good deal less impressive than the best of the Denon PCM series and some of the soundstream digital recordings released lately on Chalfont, RCA and Telarc. The Barclay-Crocker tapes were dubbed from analog master tapes, but are generally superior to the digitally master discs.
The Boyce symphonies, of course, present no layout problem. Some two centuries before the fact, the composer would seem to have designed these eight delicious little works to fit snugly on an LP disc, and the performances by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-fields under Neville Marriner fit just as snugly on a Barclay-Crocker reel (ARG F 874). As handsome as these performances sound on the Argo disc (ZRG 874) and on Argo's own cassette (KZRC 874), there is just that much more openness and richness on the reel; there is also some pre-echo, but it does not get in the way of the outstanding liveness that makes the performances themselves more attractive than they seemed before. The sound of the drums and harpsichord behind the brilliant trumpets in the opening of the Symphony No. 5 in D major, which opens side two, is only one of the more obvious examples.
In the Gliere set, Barclay-Crocker picked up Unicorn's misspelling of the name of Ilya's mentor, Svyatogor, as "Svyagotor"; with the Boyce reel, Argo's failure to list the movements of the symphonies has been repeated.These documentary lapses -- and the above noted pre-echo -- are the only complaints I can register. In its own way, the Boyce reel is every bit as stunning as the larger-scaled Gliere; either release should win more than a few new enthusiasts for the open-reel medium, and exposure to both may well lead to on-the-spot tape deck purchases.