Nikolai Myaskovsky – Complete Symphonic Works, Volumes 8 and 9

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Myaskovsky [Volume 8]

Symphony No.8 in A major, Op.26
Symphony No.10 in F minor, Op.30



Myaskovsky [Volume 9]

Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.28
Symphony No.20 in E major, Op.50



Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra
Evgeny Svetlanov

Recorded in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory between 1991-1993

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: April 2003
CD No: See below

Composed during 1924-5, Symphony No. 8 is a return to late-Romantic symphonism with a vengeance.

The intention had been to write a programmatic symphony around folk hero Stenka Razin, but confusion over sources led to a work in which folk music – authentic and invented – instead defined content. Poised between Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, this is Myaskovsky’s stylistically most conventional symphony since No.2. Coming after the metaphysical range of No.6 and taut Expressionism of No.7, the Eighth’s opening movement, with its solemn introduction and ambling sonata structure, can only be thought backward looking. The Scherzo is lively and undemanding, though the Trio’s glinting sonorities and becalmed atmosphere evince deeper emotions.

The highlight is the ’Adagio’ – its evocative cor anglais melody among the composer’s finest inspirations, and a persuasive instance of how the Russian melding of Occident and Orient could still yield something fresh. If the ’Allegro deciso’ is all too Finale-like, juxtaposing well-contrasted ideas a little predictably, at least the curiously unresolved chordal sequences of the coda avoid the expected apotheosis. Svetlanov clearly has an affection for the work, and if he places more expressive weight on the ’Adagio’ than it can reasonably bear, his performance overall is well attuned to the idiom.

Strange to imagine No.10 taking shape even while the Ninth Symphony was being composed. Completed late in 1927, the F minor is a taut single movement of violent contrasts and fervid expression that, along with the equally compressed but emotionally very different Thirteenth, stands as Myaskovsky’s most radical symphonic statement. Written for Persimfans, the conductor-less orchestra whose activities typified the relative iconoclasm of mid-1920s’ Soviet culture, the work took as its starting-point Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman, and a sense of catastrophe is never far away. The main ideas – starkly heroic and emotionally doomladen – alternate to a heightened degree, yet without reaching any real conclusiveness.

Taken up by Leopold Stokowski in the USA, the work stood little chance once Socialist Realism began to kick in, though its legacy can be perceived in the First Symphony of Popov and the Fourth of Shostakovich – both completed in the mid-1930s. Despite a rather constricted dynamic range, Svetlanov’s account gets as close to the music’s turbulent core as can be expected in a recording.

When Symphony No.9 began to take shape in 1926, Myaskovsky was unsure as to whether the piece constituted a suite or a symphony. Indeed, the sustained (overly so in Svetlanov’s hands) opening ’Andante’ could almost be a bleak, Soviet successor to that from Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite. The sombre mood is impressively maintained – to the extent that the Scherzo, for all its vivid scoring, seems jarring in its vigour and panache.

Once again, the slow movement pulls the work back into focus – a finely proportioned elegy of wistful intimacy. The Finale begins amiably (anticipating Myaskovsky’s ’serenade’ pieces of the 1930s), but its more solemn second main theme provides emotional ballast and makes possible the movement’s build-up to an affirmative, though never needlessly triumphal conclusion. Less ambitious than its predecessor, the work achieves more by risking less.

Composed in tandem with its successor, No.20 was premiered late in 1940 – a time, coming between the ’great terror’ and the ’great patriotic war’, of relative calm in Soviet society. Like several others of Myaskovsky’s symphonic works from the 1930s, the overall character is direct and uncomplicated; music that aims to please, and with no falling-off of compositional craft. The opening ’Allegro’ is among the composer’s tautest sonata movements, its driving momentum a telling contrast to the gentle and touching ’Adagio’ which follows. The ’unquiet’ initial mood of the finale then helps sustain an episodic sequence of ideas – climaxing in an unexpectedly jubilant coda.

Svetlanov has the measure of the piece in its first recording – reinforcing the sense that, while hardly among the more radical or intense of Myaskovsky’s symphonies, its palpable sincerity makes it worth returning to.

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