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We all like to feel that there is something especially fascinating about our own fields of interest. Yet fascinating seems a peculiarly inadequate word when that field is the former Soviet Union. What words can encompass its unique juxtapositions - of idealism and terror, heroism and corruption, profundity and charlatanry? What kind of art could possibly flourish and how could it cope with the mendacity and wishful thinking enforced by Socialist Realism? What does the music composed in such conditions mean? Unanswerable questions, strictly speaking, though they may help to explain the fascination. But ask whether any worthwhile symphonies were composed in that unhappy land, other than by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and the answer has to be: yes, and how. Up to about seven years ago, admittedly, you would have had a hard time finding out. In 1989 there was virtually nothing to be had on CD. Almost the only sources were LPs and cassettes, either from Collett's bookshop in London, offering not very interesting material at absurdly low prices, or from specialist second-hand shops and mail order firms, offering tantalizing repertoire at absurdly high prices. Then came the boom, thanks to the small independent companies. Olympia issued CD transfers of Melodiya recordings, introducing us to Kancheli, Knipper and others; Marco Polo undertook fresh recordings of otherwise unavailable Miaskovsky; BIS began their monumental Schnittke project. More recently Russian Disc have been tapping still more esoteric sources. Other independents such as Chandos, ASV and Consonance have chipped in, and the big companies have just started to make a contribution. From a standing start, CD issues of the Soviet symphony are now well into three figures, and we now have comparative versions of Kancheli, Khachaturian, Lyatoshynsky, Miaskovsky, Pärt and Schnittke. On the debit side, some of the most valuable of the earlier issues are already starting to be deleted.

Why confine this survey to the symphony? Because composers in the former Soviet Union, in common with Scandinavians and Britons but unlike the central Europeans, continued to regard it as a vehicle for their most profound, idealistic and comprehensive musical statements. Why no Shostakovich or Prokofiev? Because there are upwards of 250 available recordings of their symphonies alone, and others deserve some attention. `Soviet symphony' is in itself an over-simplification. Of the 12 satellite republics which together with Russia made up the Soviet Union, some owed their symphonic beginnings to missionaries from Moscow, but others, notably Estonia and the Ukraine, already had fiercely independent traditions, which have reasserted themselves since the break-up of the Union around 1990. Moreover within Soviet Russia itself, especially after the Khrushchev `Thaw', the very term `Soviet symphony' implied a conformism that was anathema to many composers. In fact the proper title of this survey should be `Symphonies other than by Shostakovich and Prokofiev composed since 1917 in countries which for a significant part of that time formed part of what was known as the Soviet Union'. You can see why over-simplifications come in handy. Here are a couple more, for the sake of orientation. The Soviet symphony started from something like tabula rasa, because around the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution many prominent Russian symphonists either died (Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin), emigrated (Grechaninov, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Alexander Tcherepnin), or stopped composing symphonies (Glazunov, Gliere). In the early communist years, from 1917 to 1936, pluralism and factionalism reigned; the extreme proletarian wing of composers ignored the symphony altogether or castigated it as a bourgeois irrelevance, while the remainder either sought to evolve new types of symphony to express the new social order, or else maintained a milder academic style while paying lip-service to revolutionary content. From 1936 to the death of Stalin in 1953, Socialist Realist dogma prevailed, translating in ideological terms as The Party Line and in musical terms as Heroic-Patriotic Classicism. From 1953 to the present day that uniformity gradually faded as new styles emerged and old ones re-emerged, fed by renewed contact with the West and by drives for artistic and nationalistic freedom of expression.

The first wave

Of the symphonists who bridge the gap between Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia, the most important is undoubtedly Nikolay Miaskovsky. Born a year before Stravinsky in 1881, but a later developer partly because of his military training and service, he became not only the most prolific of all Soviet symphonists but also a phenomenally energetic teacher. Practically every significant Muscovite composer passed through his hands from 1921 until his death in 1950. Miaskovsky completed three symphonies before the outbreak of the First World War, and these already show the two sides of his compositional make-up - the steady Rimsky-cum-Glazunov academic and the more adventurous Scriabin-ecstatic. The latter element was eventually to wither before the blast of ideological conformism, but academic solidity remained as a respectable fallback position, both for himself and for others who sought to continue composing symphonies without losing their dignity or credibility, and without having to resort to irony and mask-wearing in the process. From that conservative bastion Miaskovsky made a speciality of a gloomy but touching Baxian wistfulness, occasionally obscured by constipated Franckian chromaticism. His next two symphonies were sketched at the front. No. 5, completed in 1918, is an amiable, pastoral piece (coupled with the more adventurous No. 9 on Marco Polo). But it was No. 6 which was to be hailed as the first Soviet symphony, not least for the Revolutionary songs (French in origin) used in the finale. This is a splendidly fiery, memorable and ultimately moving work, which deserves a big-occasion performance such as a Royal Albert Hall Prom. By far the best of the three available recordings is the classic USSR SO/Kondrashin (on Russian Disc). Russian Disc have announced that all 27 of Miaskovsky's symphonies have recently been recorded by the State Symphony Orchestra of Russia; unfortunately the company is engaged in a major lawsuit and future plans are on ice. Meanwhile eight more of his symphonies are currently available. Of these No. 7 is interesting for its Scriabinesque aroma, No. 10 for its exceptional freedom of structure (both works come on a single Marco Polo disc), and No. 12 for its subtitle The Collective Farm, which has no detectable relevance to the musical content (Marco Polo). The most attractive of the later symphonies is the bluffly Waltonian single-movement No. 21, commissioned in 1941 by the Chicago Symphony, where Frederick Stock had kept Miaskovsky in the repertoire in the 1920s and 1930s. This is available on Unicorn-Kanchana with David Measham conducting the New Philharmonia. Quite unexpectedly, but to my great delight, a Ukrainian counterpart to Miaskovsky has suddenly leapt into the catalogue, with rival recordings for all five of his symphonies. Boris Lyatoshynsky was another revered and important pedagogue, and his symphonies span nearly 50 years, beginning with the manic Scriabinisms and Glierisms of No. 1 (1919), my personal favourite. Lyatoshynsky tried to retain the same sweltering intensity through the years of Stalinist freeze, but his Second and Third Symphonies got him into trouble at either end of that period, and by the time of his Fourth and Fifth, in the more permissive mid 1960s, some of the communicative urgency had drained away. This is emotionally tight-clenched, never predictable music, and it may well grow on you, as it has on me. My instinct is to go for the Marco Polo performances rather than their less well recorded Russian Disc and less idiomatically played CPO rivals. Incidentally, don't be tempted by the Mravinsky version of No. 3 on Russian Disc; it is abysmally played and recorded.

Contemporaries of Shostakovich

Three of Miaskovsky's most prominent pupils began their symphonic careers as Shostakovich did in the relatively liberal late 1920s and early 1930s, later becoming significant teachers in their own right. The most prominent as a teacher, but the least well known in the West as a composer, is Vissarion Shebalin, whose First and Third Symphonies have just appeared on Olympia. No. 1 is a near-contemporary of Shostakovich's First, and likewise a graduation piece, but it is earnest and regretful in the Miaskovsky manner, with none of Shostakovich's high jinks or capacity for surprise. The more tautly composed No. 3 (from 1935) still betrays the teacher's influence. Unfortunately Olympia have deleted Shebalin's unnumbered Lenin Symphony of 1931, an interesting representative of the oratorio/symphony hybrid; another valuable Olympia issue to have disappeared is the infamous Fourth Symphony of Lev Knipper, known as Poem of the Komsomol Fighter and by far the best example of the song-symphony which flourished briefly in the early 1930s. Two more graduation-piece symphonies from the Miaskovsky stable, both from the early 1930s, come from Dmitry Kabalevsky, later known for his sterling work in music education and for his less admirable repressive role in the Composers' Union, and from Aram Khachaturian, of Sabre Dance fame. Kabalevsky's First, coupled with his Second, sounds rather measly in a thin-toned Romanian recording on Olympia, and both works regress periodically into a kind of Soviet Boy Scouts' music. Khachaturian's symphonic debut is much more impressive, and it makes attractive use of the Armenian local colour which was to become his trademark. Even so, it does not prepare us for the massively enthusiastic wartime Second Symphony or the stentorian stupefaction of the post-war triumphalist Third, with its 15 obbligato trumpets and organ. This is an amazingly crude spectacle, the aural equivalent of multi-tiered gymnastic displays in Red Square, and as such it exerts a ghastly appeal. The Khachaturian symphonies are available on two CDs from the Armenian Philharmonic under Loris Tjeknavorian on ASV. Preferable in No. 2, however, is Neeme Jarvi, and vastly preferable in No. 3, not least for offering the work uncut, is Fyodor Glushchenko (both on Chandos). More radical than these three Miaskovsky pupils is the Leningrader Gavriil Popov. His Chamber Symphony of 1927 is just a retitling of his Septet, but its blend of Germanic neo-classicism and Petrushka, jazz and silent film, is individual and compelling, and the piece won him a reputation in Europe as well as Russia. His official First Symphony is a colossal and perplexing affair. Schizophrenic, prophetic of Schnittke in its stylistic collisions, it took six years to compose, was premiered in Leningrad in 1935 under Fritz Stiedry, then banned, then rehabilitated, then left on the shelf the following year. It proves to be a work bursting at the seams with invention, the only Soviet symphony of the early 1930s that can hold its head up beside Shostakovich's Fourth; these two are in fact Socialist Realist symphonies in the literal sense, in that they reflect the cataclysms of life under Stalin's collectivization of agriculture and industrial Five-Year Plans. Popov's Second, The Motherland, is a wartime piece, not unknown in the West (there was an old LP on the Urania label). Its compromise between his natural progressivism and the patriotic-heroic demands of the 1940s is not entirely happy; nor does Popov elevate his incongruities to ambivalence, as Shostakovich succeeded so wonderfully in doing. But Popov's first two symphonies still make a marvellous coupling (Olympia), while the intriguing Chamber Symphony comes with the supposedly Festive, but in fact still convulsive and disturbing, Sixth of 1969 (Olympia again). The most important pre-war Soviet symphonist not to have even a toehold in the catalogue is Vladimir Shcherbachov, the Leningrad-based teacher of Popov, whose massive Blok Symphony is one of the monuments of the 1920s. Another tantalizing example of the paths not taken is the Schoenbergian Chamber Symphony of Nikolai Roslavets, of which a Chant du Monde recording flashed in and out of the catalogue before most of us had noticed.

Conformism and Conflictlessness

Conformism in the Socialist Realist era is not necessarily accompanied by incompetence, as is proved by the D minor Symphony by Khachaturian's wife Nina Makarova (Russian Disc), and the Second by Tikhon Khrennikov, later to be the all-powerful Secretary of the Composers' Union from 1948 to 1992 (Mobile Fidelity (MFCD 907). But a lowpoint was certainly reached after the 1948 Zhdanov crackdown, when the `conflictless' symphony was one of the only ways composers had of coping. At this time Shostakovich broke off symphonic composition altogether, and Prokofiev's Seventh is the only example of such a symphony which nevertheless manages to be emotionally convincing, by dint of escapism. The 1950 First Symphony of the Ukrainian Mykola Kolessa could have been written in 1880 and is utterly inoffensive (ASV). As such it is a good representative of the conflictless symphony. That phase ended with the death of Stalin in 1953, and Shostakovich's Tenth, which appeared later that year, re-established the viability of expressive depth and range. Another catching-up process with Western developments began, similar to the early 1920s, and by the early 1960s something close to the old pluralism was back in place. Some composers continued with the old stale heroics, however One of the most abject examples is the Fourth Symphony by Akhmed Gadzhiev, an Azerbaijani Shostakovich pupil; this is another unfortunate Olympia deletion. Little better are the two symphonies by the Armenian Boris Parsadanian. Evgeni Svetlanov's First suggests that, like most other conductor-symphonists, he was wise not to give up the day job, while the Second and Third of Rostislav Boiko are mainly for connoisseurs of Soviet kitsch (all these works are available on Russian Disc). One step up from all of these is Kabalevsky's Fourth; the performance conducted by the composer on Olympia carries far more conviction than those of his first two symphonies.

Thaw; Stagnation

The Khrushchev Thaw years either side of 1960 enabled middle-of-the-road symphonists to find more individual and rewarding paths, and their achievements could not be undone by the Brezhnev Stagnation which followed. Honourable cases here are Boris Klyuzner in his Second Symphony, available on Russian Disc, Vadim Salmanov in his Second and Fourth (Russian Disc and Olympia, both conducted by Mravinsky), Andrey Eshpay in his Fourth and Fifth and Moysey Vainberg, most powerfully in his Fifth (both on Russian Disc, the latter in a blistering performance by Kondrashin) but also creditably in his Sixth and Tenth and Seventh and Twelfth (on Olympia). The best of such symphonies awaiting CD issue are those of Rodion Shchedrin. Among Shostakovich's pupils, the finest symphonies came a little later. Boris Chaykovsky, who, like Vainberg, died in February this year, produced a masterly and controlled Second Symphony in 1967, anticipating the enigmatic quotations of Shostakovch's Fifteenth (Russian Disc). Slightly disappointing, however, is the Fifth Symphony by Shostakovich's reputedly favourite pupil Boris Tishchenko (Olympia) - a dodgy performance of a piece which is no match for his superb Second Violin Concerto (OCD 123).

National traditions

The various nationalities had complex balances to strike between folk and art traditions, between native and Russian influences. The Baltic states had mixed fortunes. Latvia produced prolific conformists such as Ivanovs and Skulte who have not yet been taken up on CD. Lithuania had its "Secretarial symphonists" too (Edison Denisov's description), but two more interesting voices have emerged recently with Peteris Vasks (his luminously Goreckian Stimmen Symphony is on Wergo) and the more modernist Osvaldas Balakauskas (his Ostrobothnian Symphony is coupled with a different performance of Vasks's Stimmen on Finlandia). Estonia has had a more flourishing symphonic tradition, thanks partly to the teaching of Heino Eller. Eduard Tubin is the most famous of his pupils, and although his last six symphonies were composed in Sweden, the Slavonic accent remained as important as the Nordic; Nos. 3 and 8 from Neeme Järvi's superb BIS cycle make a good starting-point. The three symphonies of Arvo Pärt, another Eller pupil, are a microcosm of the most advanced trends in 1960s and 1970s - from 12- note to polystylistic to archaic-spiritual. All three can be found on a single BIS disc. If Pärt's preoccupations reflect Estonia's proximity to Poland, 'the pale minimalism of Lepo Sumera suggests the landscapes of nearby Finland (four symphonies are available on BIS), as in a coarser way does Erkki-Sven Tüür (his Second Symphony is on Finlandia). Going to the West of Russia, Olympia's Belo-Russian series has turned up nothing more than sturdy provincialism (from figures such as Glebov, Smolsky and Soltan). But one significant Ukrainian has materialized in the form of Evgeny Stankovych. A pupil of Lyatoshynsky, he manages to combine the hair-raising intensity and battering-ram rhythms of the hardest-hitting post-Shostakovich tradition with modernist textures and effects imported from Poland. It may be that Stankovych lacks the control of a great symphonist, but there is a passionate communicative directness here which is rewarding to encounter (Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 4 can be found on Marco Polo, the Symphony of Pastorals and Chamber Symphony No. 2 on Consonance). Meanwhile another Lyatoshynsky pupil, Valentin Silvestrov, has entered the catalogue with his avant-garde-sounding Second Symphony and his Meditation Symphony for cello and orchestra which heralds an extraordinary stylistic mellowing (Olympia). Sony Classical are preparing a new recording of his Fifth Symphony. If the performance captures the profoundly meditative beauty of the piece, this should be a sensational issue. On the South side in the Balkans, Armenia is represented by the elegantly post-Honeggerian Symphony for strings and timpani by Edvard Mirzoyan (ASV); stronger representatives would be the brutalist symphonies of Mirzoyan's pupil Avet Terteryan. Azerbaijan boasts the attractive Symphony for Strings by Fikret Amirov (Olympia). All these works from Russia's satellite nations are good to have for the sake of a rounded picture, and many are pleasant to encounter once in a while. But the symphonist who stakes the most serious claim to a permanent place in the repertoire is the Georgian Giya Kancheli. His slow-moving single-movement meditations have an uncanny ability to draw meaning from the tiniest melodic cells, yet they are unashamed of confronting life-and-death issues head-on. A fine new version of No. 3 is on the way from EMI, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. This usefully supplements the Olympia issue (coupled with No. 6) which was unfortunately transferred a whole tone too high by Melodiya engineers. Meanwhile Nos. 4 and 5 on Olympia and Nos. 6 and 7 on Sony Classical, all with a Georgian orchestra and conductor, are the top priorities.

The Russian avant-garde

Back in the mainstream, through the 1970s and 1980s a new wave of composers was doing its best to re-invent the symphony, grafting freshly learned techniques from the West on to inherited Russian intensity and directness of expression. Sofia Gubaidulina, whose massive symphony, Stimmen ... verstummen, based on Golden Section proportions, awaits a more satisfactory recording than Rozhdestvensky's on Chandos, and Vyacheslav Artyomov in his Symphony of Elegies (Olympia). Edison Denisov's equally ambitious Symphony of 1988 is less than ideally conducted by Barenboim on Erato. He is better represented by his Chamber Symphony of 1982, the most Western-sounding of all Russian avant-garde symphonies (Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga). Examples of the unwieldy `Spiritual Symphonies' of Alemdar Karamanov, recently heard in London, are promised at some point. Artyomov's Way to Olympus is one of the only Soviet symphonies on CD to incorporate jazz; it is coupled with In memoriam, a symphony with solo violin which typifies the infiltration of concerto elements into the symphony (Olympia). These are trends traceable in many other recent Soviet symphonies, but the only masterpiece they have produced is Schnittke's Fifth, which is simultaneously his Fourth Concerto grosso. Firmly in the `miscellaneous' file are Yuri Kasparov's Genesis: micro-symphony (recorded by Olympia) which at 6'09" holds the record for brevity and on the same label Yuri Khanin's presumably amusingly intended Middle Symphony. For purposes of completeness if nothing else it would be nice to have CDs of some of the quainter late-Socialist Realist symphonies those celebrating the first Sputnik or Gagarin's spaceflight, for instance. But there are other cases more deserving of rescue from obscurity, such as Balanchivadze, Lokshin, Shcherbachov, Shteynberg and Shchedrin, not to mention the remaining symphonies of Popov and Vainberg. Maybe readers have other nominations - I'd be delighted to hear them. This is no train-spotting game. It's a process of re-evaluating a huge and important body of works that has never had a chance in the West and that was blighted by circumstances in its homeland.

David Fanning

From: Gramophone, May 1996

CMOTW is grateful for David Fanning's permission to reproduce his article here.

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