Nikolai MIASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Symphony No. 6 (1923)
Slovak National Opera
Czecho-Slovak Radio SO/Robert Stankovsky
rec The Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, 25-30 Mar 1991
MARCO POLO 8.223301
The experience of listening to this
disc has re-emphasised an old time lesson: that received wisdoms are
potentially misleading things. We all imbibe other people's judgements,
prejudices, biases and bigotry. How much of this material we slot away
and adopt as part of our own 'values' and how much we slough off is
up to us but we should guard against shortcuts to a complete critical
array. That facile approach, even as a 'self-protection' reaction to
the sledloads of art now available as never before, can lead to the
overlooking of highly deserving recordings. Whoever the writer, keep
your own counsel and never allow your pleasure in a prized recording
or work to be dampened by the dismissals or encomiums of the 'knowledgeable'.
Yes ... and that applies to me as well .. especially to me!
I have listed the three recorded versions
of this Symphony. There is at least one other which is issued as part
of Jeff Joneikis's and Records International's collaboration with Melodiya
in the production of a limited edition CD box of ALL the Miaskovsky
symphonies (I can provide full details if wished). For years Kondrashin's
version held sway (mostly in absentia and by connoisseur-carried reputation
so far as the UK market was concerned) circa 1960-1990. It was always
difficult to track down as an LP. In the early 1990s Olympia issued
the Dudarova version as the 'New Composer's 1947 Edition' and 'First
The Symphony No. 6 was premiered in
Moscow by the Bolshoi Orchestra and Chorus on 4 May 1924. The conductor
was Nikolai Golovanov. The Fifth Symphony, which bids to be Miaskovsky's
most popular epic-style symphony, was a product of the war (WW1) years
and is best heard in the Downes version on Marco Polo or, better still,
if you can find it, on a deleted Olympia conducted by Konstantin Ivanov.
There is also a very creditable, though difficult to find, Balkanton
CD. The Sixth is a noticeable descendant of the Fifth but it is tougher
and more enigmatic. It was welcomed by critics and audiences and received
performances in Philadelphia (Stokowski was one of the composer's great
advocates) and London. Vienna's Universal Edition snapped it up and
produced the score in a de luxe engraving.
The Sixth was a year in the writing
prompted by the demagoguery of the times, by revolutionary fervour,
by his reading of the poetry of Emile Verhaeren (whose writings were
also the source of inspiration for Elgar and Goossens), by the death
of his aunt who had been a second mother to him and by the French revolutionary
songs Ça Ira and Carmagnole (once the subject of
a set of variations by Paganini). Also subsumed into the music is the
Dies Irae which can be heard clearly in last the three (of four)
The chorus can be dispensed with and
its lines assigned to the orchestra but it is used in all three recordings.
There is little for it to sing and what there is is in the finale where
it has some vocalising. The chorus must sing the six lines of the hymn
of the Russian raskolniks (religious dissenters). These describe, in
the awed tone of the returning Enkidu in Martinu's Epic of Gilgamesh,
the experience of seeing the soul leaving a dead body.
The contrasts in this epic symphony
are not entirely assimilated. The jaunty jollity of the Allegro Vivace
sits incongruously with the consistent air of catastrophe and nostalgia
that dominate the 45 minutes of the first three movements. Miaskovsky
seems to stand in line of succession to the Tchaikovsky of neurosis
and splendid depression. Think in terms of the darker pages of Manfred,
of Francesca and of the Pathétique and then add
the twentieth century corrosives of disillusion and war. One can readily
trace much later voices such as Shostakovich in the Razliv movement
and the great trumpet-lofted adagios of Khachaturyan.
Stankovsky's recording was rather dismissed
by reviewers when the Marco Polo was released a decade or so ago. I
passed over it at the time trying the far too languid though extremely
well recorded Dudarova (Olympia) and then the fabled Kondrashin. Kondrashin
on Russian Disc sounds pale and as if heard through two layers
of gauze and viewed through frosted glass. The mono recording does not
help. Also Kondrashin takes the music at a disturbingly rapid clip.
Stankovsky is very well recorded and
his orchestra is on song. Listen in the first movement to the horns
and trombones call out in anguished and crippled splendour (10.10 and
5.44). Robert Layton has, before now, referred to parallels between
Bax and Miaskovsky. This is perceptive and in the heroic gymnastics
of the symphony we glimpse the same striving amid romantic wreckage
- heard with even more concentrated impact in Bax's masterly symphonic
Piano Quintet of almost a decade previously. Woven into the sound-picture
are two other elements. The first is the deliriously exotic tunefulness
of Rimsky's Antar, Russian Easter Festival and Sheherazade
and of Mussorgsky's Dawn on the River Moskva. One of the
great moments in classical music is the flute song that unwinds over
an ostinato derived from shards of Dies Irae. While Stankovsky's
flautist does not quite exploit it for all it is worth this is a time-slowing
moment and very well conveyed. Dudarova's soloist manages better but
her reading (the best recording of the three) lacks tension.
The finale's use of La Carmagnole
has a tangible portrayal of blustering wind fluttering revolutionary
flags. The toy soldierish Ça Ira rings somewhat incongruously.
The Dies Irae is used candidly rather than as obliquely as in
the second and third movements. The implication of catastrophe returns
(it was to be developed even further in the Seventh Symphony) but is
dispelled by the contentment into which the brief sphinx-like choral
leads the listener.
Keith Anderson's notes are helpful though
not as full as those with the Kondrashin disc or with the Dudarova.
The latter which are easily the best of the three are by Robert Matthew-Walker.
The Marco Polo CD is the preferred route
for coming to terms with this Symphony which stands unblushing in the
company of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique, Rachmaninov 2 and
Janis Ivanovs' 4 Atlantis. As the valuable Marco Polo Miaskovsky
series is moved by Mr Heyman into the budget Naxos listings (as he is
doing with Rubinstein and Raff) we must hope for two things: that he
will go to Stankovsky to record Miaskovsky symphonies 4, 14 and 20 -
the great unknowns; and that Marco Polo will start to record the symphonies
of Lev Knipper, Yuri Shaporin and Maximilian Steinburg.
Until then do not let this convincing
and idiosyncratic symphony elude you.
COMPARATOR RECORDINGS of Miaskovsky Symphony No. 6
I II III IV
Kondrashin (1959) 22.19 9.00 16.09 17.36
Stankovsky (1991) 22.19 9.28 14.14 17.18
Dudarova (1992) 24.56 8.27 15.56 20.51
Anima Moscow Chamber Choir
Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Veronika Dudarova
rec July 1992, Moscow, stereo, DDD
OLYMPIA OCD510 [70.10]
Yurlov Russian Choir
rec 7 Feb 1959
RUSSIAN DISC RD CD 15 008 [65.18]