Nikolai Myaskovsky: Complete Symphonic Works

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OLYMPIA OCD 731 [77’ 51”]
Volume 1
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.3
Symphony No.25 in D flat, Op.69

OLYMPIA OCD 732 [71’ 46”]
Volume 2
Symphony No.2 in C sharp minor, Op.11
Symphony No.18 in C, Op.42

OLYMPIA OCD 733 [67’ 52”]
Volume 3
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.15
Symphony No.13 in B flat minor, Op.36

OLYMPIA OCD 734 [76’ 48”]
Volume 4
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.17
Symphony No.11 in B flat minor, Op.34

OLYMPIA OCD 735 [77’ 34”]
Volume 5
Symphony No.5 in D, Op.18
Symphony No.12 in G minor, Op.35

Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: April 2002

Half a century after his death, Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) is often acknowledged but little heard. An esteemed teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire for many years, his influence on a whole generation of composers makes him a crucial link between the Russian and Soviet eras.

Stylistically, his music was rooted in the ’silver age’ of Russian music centred around the poles of Glazunov and Scriabin – never aspiring to the innovative tendencies of Prokofiev or Shostakovich, while avoiding the conformism that befell many of his contemporaries. Indeed, Myaskovsky remained as aloof from cultural upheaval as was possible in the Soviet Union of the inter-war years.

Ever since Rostropovich revived the Cello Concerto in the late 1950s, and Symphony No.21 enjoyed a brief vogue during the 1960s, Myaskovsky recordings have surfaced intermittently in the West. Even in the CD era, however, a cycle of all 27 symphonies seemed unlikely. Enter Evgeny Svetlanov, doyen of Russian symphonic conductors, who between 1991 and 1993 put together such a cycle, only for state subsidy to dry up before it appeared. Undaunted, Svetlanov put his own money into a limited-edition set on Russian Disc – Olympia has now acquired the rights, issuing the first five of what will be a 17-CD series.

These are stylishly presented with themed booklet designs – note too the letter at the bottom of each CD spine that will eventually spell out the composer’s name – with authoritative notes from Per Skans.

Those who cut their teeth on Svetlanov’s USSR Symphony Orchestra recordings will find its post-Soviet equivalent an able if far from world-class outfit, strong in its quality of string playing but with woodwind and brass whose intonation is no longer the result of a differing tradition. Little matter, as this is music that calls less on orchestral virtuosity than on interpretative perseverance – a quality that Svetlanov reveals as possessing in abundance. The recordings, if hardly state-of-the-art, convey the richness of Myaskovsky’s orchestration in fair measure. Each ofthese first five discs pairs an early and later symphony, leading to some intriguing juxtapositions.

Volume 1: Symphonic alpha and near-omega. Symphony No.1 (1908, rev. 1921) combines Glazunovian solidity with Scriabinesque fervour. After an impressively cumulative introduction, the opening ’Allegro’ forces its material into an awkward sonata movement whose faster music sounds at bestdutiful. The second movement is a well-shaped ternary structure, its sombre expression staying with Myaskovsky throughout his career. The ’Finale’ sounds tacked on rather than inevitable, while cuts made during the revision may have unbalanced whatever symphonic equilibrium existed. Not a major First Symphony then, but a likeable and often assured one.

Apparently Myaskovsky felt unhappy with his Symphony No.25 (1946, rev. 1949), though whether with its intrinsic quality or formal thinking is unclear. What is certain is that the opening ’Adagio’ captures a vein of nostalgia real and affecting, the main theme reaching an expressive apex as the movement turns almost imperceptibly from major to minor. The following’Moderato’ is an intermezzo of Brahmsian wistfulness, and though the main portion of the ’Allegro impetuoso’ injects greater dynamism, the climactic return of the opening theme has a moving inevitability. A work of impressive unity and humanity, this first digital recording has been too long in coming.

Volume 2: Symphony No.2 (1911) has a slightly longer duration than its predecessor, but greater flair and impact. True, the agitated opening ’Allegro’ suggests rather than attains coherence, but the central movement skilfully absorbs the aura of Rachmaninov into an impressively-sustained design, while the ’Finale’ develops into a ’quasi una fantasia’ whose thematiceconomy ties together threads from earlier in the work with satisfyingly audible logic. An uneven but often absorbing work, worth getting to know.

Symphony No.18 (1937) might seem to throw in the towel so far as symphonic thinking is concerned. The brusque vigour and short-winded celebration of the outer movements certainly suggest this, though Myaskovsky at least avoids celebratory overkill. The ’Lento’ is an attractive if meandering folk miscellany. This first digital recording makes a decent case for the work, but the knowledge that Shostakovich had completed his FifthSymphony only months before, in this 20th-anniversary year of the ’Glorious October Revolution’, is impossible to forget.

Volume 3: Symphony No. 3 (1914) appears in a 1965 recording that Svetlanov clearly thought worth reviving. Rightly so, as the conviction of the performance is never in doubt, with sound that is hardly less acceptable than that elsewhere. Musically the work is a further significant stride forward. A terse motto theme governs the purposeful forward motion of the opening movement, with a limpid and affecting coda, as it does its more ’al fresco’ successor. Here, grating alternations of character resolve into a funereal coda of some pathos – a likely premonition of war, and anembodiment of the pessimism that Myaskovsky had felt up to this time.

A pity that Symphony No.13 (1933) had to wait until now for its first recording, as this single-movement ’Andante moderato’ powerfully distils Myaskovsky’s melancholy within the sparer textures of his Soviet music. Formally it might be thought free-form, in the unforced intensification of its sombre recitative-like gestures and passionless melancholy. Alfred Schnittke apparently rated the work highly, and in the context of his last three symphonies, it’s easy to hear the precedent. A symphonic stream of consciousness, and an original and unsettling experience.

Volume 4: Symphony No.4 (1918), here in its first recording, demonstrates how experience of war and revolution seems not only to have lightened the mood but also simplified the harmonic thinking of Myaskovsky’s symphonism. Formally, the accelerating velocity of the first movement, expressive calm of the central ’Largo’, and trenchancy leading to triumph of the ’Finale’ allgrow from a simple germinal motif. Moreover, the virtual three-in-one design gives the work an overall sweep that compensates for the lack of easily identifiable themes.

Symphony No.11 (1931) marks the point where Socialist Realistprinciples began to bite; though its thematic unity prevents any dilution of coherence. The slow introduction to the first movement indicates the pared-down textures of Myaskovsky’s symphonies from now on, reinforced by the incisive austerity of its main ’Allegro’, and the methodical follow-through of the ’Andante’. The final ’Precipitato’ binds thematic elements together in variations whose closing triumph is hard-won at best.

Volume 5: Symphony No.5 (1918) marks in essence the beginning of Soviet symphonism, and its success in Western Europe and the USA raised Myaskovsky’s profile to an unprecedented degree. The opening ’Allegretto amabile’ effortlessly combines ingenuity with atmosphere, while the ’Lento’intertwines its soulful melodies in an intriguing fugato. For the first time in a Myaskovsky symphony, a ’Scherzo’ provides light relief – courtesy of a Ukrainian folk melody – before the ’Finale’ recalls earlier ideas, culminating in the triumphal reappearance of the first movement’s hymn-like theme. The Glazunov model had been successfully refashioned for a new era.

By the time Symphony No.12 (1931-2) appeared, Soviet symphonism had rather to be fitted for Soviet politics. Myaskovsky almost gets round this in the Glazunov-like melodic flow of the rhapsodic opening ’Andante’, and in the driving vigour of the ’Presto’ that follows. The ’Allegro festivo’ depicts a very ’pre-Soviet’ folk-gathering, bringing in references from the previousmovements to inject a degree of unity into the all-out jubilation at the close.

Where to start? Volume 3 as an introduction to the best of Myaskovsky’s work, and Volume 1 for the heart-warming Symphony No.25. Whatever the shortcomings in performance and recording, this is a cycle that needed to happen. All credit to Svetlanov for seeing it through against no doubt heavyodds, and to Olympia for making it widely available. Further volumes are keenly awaited.

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