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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Nikolai MIASKOVSKY (1881-1950)

Symphony No. 6 (1923)
Slovak National Opera Choir
Czecho-Slovak Radio SO/Robert Stankovsky
rec The Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, 25-30 Mar 1991
MARCO POLO 8.223301 [63.28]

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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 Digital Recording'.

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) movements.

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.

Rob Barnett

COMPARATOR RECORDINGS of Miaskovsky Symphony No. 6

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
USSRSO/Kirill Kondrashin
rec 7 Feb 1959
RUSSIAN DISC RD CD 15 008 [65.18]


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