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Jonathan Woolf
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Nikolai Miaskovsky
A Survey of the Chamber Works, Orchestral Music and Concertos on Record

By Jonathan Woolf

Miaskovsky on Record
The First Recording; Prokofiev and Piano Rolls
Early Days; 78s
Some thoughts on CD recordings
Cello Sonata No. 1
Cello Sonata No. 2
Violin Sonata
Piano Sonatas
Violin Concerto
Cello Concerto
Orchestral Works


Born: Novogeorgiyevsk 20 April 1881
Died: Moscow 8 August 1950

Miaskovsky’s subsequent eminence and his position as the so-called Musical Conscience of Moscow have rather served to obscure his by no means easy ascent from Naval cadet to revered composer and teacher. If there was something dilettantish about his early struggles then they were properly reflective of his military background and Tsarist upbringing and of the struggle to reconcile duty – to his father, his country and to further the family’s established position in the military hierarchy – with well-established musical leanings ultimately irreconcilable with the life mapped out for him. The tensions and binary oppositions that would resurface through his life – duty and artistic freedom, the military and the musical, the journalist and the composer, teacher and artistic creator - were also ironically played out in his musico-political life where he was seen as both inheritor of the Russian Symphonic tradition and radical innovator, and subsequently as both modifier of that same tradition and irredeemable reactionary and as both Western formalist and rustic Soviet lickspittle. The truth, as ever, is always more complicated.

Nikolai Yakovlevich Miaskovsky (sometimes spelled Nikolay Myaskovsky) was born in Novogeorgiyevsk, a Russian garrison-cum-town near Warsaw on 20 April 1881. His father’s family had strong military links – tutors and specialists at various military academies – and Yakov, the composer’s father, was a fortification engineer. There were five children, of whom Nikolai was the second oldest. To the dislocations and fractures of a military upbringing was added the further trauma of his mother’s early death in 1890 which, given an effectively absent father, meant that the children were taken care of by their aunt, Yelikonida Konstantinovna, who had once sung in the chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre. An ambivalent picture surrounds his childhood; whilst spurred to musical understanding by his aunt she was apparently an agoraphobic and suffered from what has been called a religious mania; to what extent this was a genuine diagnosis or a conveniently post-facto political one is open to doubt though the composer did recollect the incidents in his later autobiographical writings.

At the age of twelve he entered the local Cadet College where he also studied music, snatching time to learn the piano when he could, and a subsequent move to St Petersburg saw him learn the violin well enough to play in the College’s amateur orchestra. His first compositions date from 1896 – some piano preludes – the same year that he was stunned by a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony conducted by the mesmerising Artur Nikisch. He subsequently attended the School of Military Engineering, for which he had a genuine distaste, before enrolling in the Second Reserve Sappers battalion in 1902. Around this time he approached Rimsky-Korsakov who recommended him to Taneyev who in turn passed him on to his own pupil, Gliere, himself only seven years Miaskovsky’s senior and a recent graduate of the Moscow Conservatoire. These private harmony studies with Gliere were interrupted by field manoeuvres that saw him transferred back to St Petersburg where, on Gliere’s advice, he continued studies with Krizhanovsky, something of a musical forward thinker and catalyser, and who was primarily responsible for the advances in Miaskovsky’s creativity – specifically counterpoint, fugal writing and orchestration in addition to composition - and which formed the bedrock of Miaskovsky’s subsequent development. Having come this far he needed to extract himself from the Army, to which end he enrolled in Law School thus avoiding manoeuvres and finally, in 1906, he set about renouncing his military career and enrolled in the St Petersburg Conservatoire. He was now twenty-five and a comparatively late starter, a feeling not helped when he had seen that his examining panel had consisted of Glazunov, Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov himself. The following year saw the conclusion of his military responsibilities and a widening of his musical friendships – it was here that he first met Prokofiev – and wrote piano sonatas and a large number of songs. In 1908 he wrote his First Symphony and had a succès d’estime with his Op. 4 Songs and graduated in 1911 working until the outbreak of the War as contributor to a new musical weekly, Muzyka, and seeing a few performances of his works in Moscow. Shell-shocked in the War – he spent two years at the Austrian Front (not far away was Ernst Toch fighting the Italians) – he served in the Red Army in 1917, though not out of any great political conviction, before being demobilized in 1921. Appointed professor of composition at Moscow Conservatory this was his first and last academic position and one he held for the rest of his life.

His students included many of the big names – Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Shebalin and many others and he was a thoughtful and rather traditional teacher. He was also centrally involved in the Moscow Composers’ Collective and the ASM, the Association for Contemporary Music, as well as writing frequently for Sovetskaya muzika, the journal of the Composers’ Union, in which many of his autobiographical reminiscences appeared. During the Second World War he was evacuated to the Caucasus with his old friend, Prokofiev (who enjoyed telling people that, compositionally speaking, Miaskovsky "never enjoyed winking at the audience") that led to a study of folk music and subsequent incorporation of some elements of it into his work – notably Symphony No. 23 and the Seventh Quartet. His return to Moscow was followed by another Stalin Prize (for the Cello Concerto, the first had been for the 21st Symphony) and a post-War title of People’s Artist (1946), which, of course, wasn’t to save him from the notorious charge of "formalism" during the 1948 purge. He disdained verbal reply. Knowing that he was dying of cancer he continued to compose and his much admired final symphony, No. 27, was only performed after his death.

Miaskovsky on Record

The First Recording; Prokofiev and Piano Rolls

Miaskovsky and Prokofiev first met at the Moscow Conservatory in 1906. Their friendship weathered Prokofiev’s wanderings and resumed warmly during their dual evacuation to the Caucasus during the Second World War. When, in about 1920, Prokofiev was invited to make a series of piano rolls he included, rather daringly, two pieces from Miaskovsky’s Op. 25 – Whimsies nos 1 and 6. Let’s hope that a good transfer, well engineered so as to do justice to this notoriously problematic system, will soon emerge. The rolls have appeared before, of course, on LP and are noted below.

Melodiya D 9887/8
Melodiya D011423-36

Early Days; 78s

Surveying the recorded legacy at about the time of the composer’s death in 1950 is by no means an unhappy occupation. Three Symphonies had been recorded, as had the Violin Concerto but not much else, though Miaskovsky was hardly unique in this respect. His vogue in America was reflected in the two recordings made there. But Miaskovsky’s outstanding advocate – some might say, Svetlanov not excluded, then and now – was Alexander Gauk. Odessa–born Gauk (1893-1963) was the dedicatee of two of Miaskovsky’s symphonies and a conductor of tremendous flair and conviction who conducted the premieres of Symphonies 21 and 26 and the Violin Concerto and in the course of his career he made recordings of five of the symphonies. During the 78 era he set down, in addition to the Concerto, with its dedicatee David Oistrakh, Symphonies 18 and 25, both deeply impressive. All were made with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. Swelling the symphonic literature from Russia was the 21st Symphony not, surprisingly, led by Gauk, but parcelled out to the brilliantly talented but ultimately uneven Nathan Rakhlin, (whilst Ormandy and the Philadelphia subsequently recorded a thrillingly luscious competitive version on an early American LP, now, happily available again and discussed in the section on available CD versions). Don’t overlook the Rakhlin though if you happen to come across it on 78 and can play it; on three 10" discs he leads a brazen and galvanizing performance with a magnetically Brucknerian luftpause of unforced depth and significance. He vests in the work, though rawly recorded, an involving solemnity. Oistrakh and Gauk’s Concerto recording will also be discussed later but the latter added the Pathetic overture Op. 60 to the catalogue as well. The other American recording was Frank Black’s traversal, with the Strings of the NBC Orchestra, of the Sinfonietta Op. 32 No. 2, another work popular at the time. Miaskovskians will always regret the prestige that the composer enjoyed there was not reflected in more recordings – Stock, Stokowski and Reiner as well as Ormandy and others led performances of the Symphonies – and that off-air recordings have not surfaced. A surviving broadcast transcription of the Reiner-led Symphony No. 6 is certainly a tantalizing thought if not, now, a very likely one. Nevertheless there is some evidence to believe that some American broadcast performances have been preserved. Undated and uncredited torsos of some works have certainly survived; a portion of the Op. 32 No. 1 Serenade exists on acetates believed to be from the early 1940s as has a quartet movement, similarly undated and uncredited. I suspect that other such examples will appear over the years. As it is though the 78 era ended with a reasonably healthy tally of three major symphonies, the Violin Concerto, one overture and a Sinfonietta.

Violin concerto Oistrakh/USSR State Symphony orchestra/Gauk
USSR 09660/3, 09676/81; Supraphon 40050/4; Decca DX 272/6
Pathetic overture Op. 60 USSR State Symphony orchestra/Gauk
USSR 15236/9
Sinfonietta Op. 32 No. 2 NBC String Orchestra/Black
Victor 12091/4
Symphony No. 18 USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Gauk
USSR 07773/4 and 05884/7
Symphony No. 21 USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Rakhlin
USSR 1093/6 and 10910/1;Supraphon 40047/9
Symphony No. 25 USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Gauk
UH 23915/9


The 78 recordings reflected Miaskovsky’s later following in the Soviet Union and the West. They were of his contemporary output, a not unfamiliar situation, and ignored entirely the first seventeen symphonies and all chamber works but with his death his effacement grew almost total, reflective both in concert performances and recordings. The almost inevitable graph of ascent and descent following a composer’s death was true in Miaskovsky’s case as in most others. What follows, whilst not claiming to be in any way comprehensive, is a brief discussion and listing of LP performances from the time of Ormandy’s 21st Symphony to Turovsky and Edlina’s recording of the Second Cello Sonata, issued by Chandos in 1988. Some, of course, thankfully like the two mentioned, have been transferred to CD. Some LPs may never be transferred to CD – the arrival of the Svetlanov set on Olympia (see below under Symphonies) will probably mean that much admired traversals by, say, Gauk, Ivanov and Kovalev will remain where they are – on collectors’ shelves and in the Melodiya vaults. A pity.

After Ormandy there was a conspicuous lull until the arrival of the famous Rostropovich Cello Concerto recording, released in 1957 – though he also recorded the Second Cello Sonata with partner Alexander Dedyukhin, first performers of a work dedicated to the cellist. Over those many years eighteen of the symphonies were recorded – it would be clogging the text here but I’ve listed them below – prominent among them however being some magnificent performances. Ivanov’s Fifth, for example, still easily the greatest performances yet put on disc; and the same conductor’s Twenty-First; the fabled Kondrashin Six, Ginsburg’s gritty Seventh, Gauk and his infallible control in 17, 21 – at last recorded by him – and 27; Morton Gould resurrecting the Chicago tradition in 21 and Measham’s powerfully effective New Philharmonia traversal; Svetlanov in the later symphonies, 24 and 25. Then there was the long awaited and much admired Feigin Violin Concerto, a locus classicus of later Miaskovsky. The Quartets began to be recorded – though hardly with a fervour commensurate with their standing in the canon (which, truth to tell, has always been significantly lower than the Symphonies); which, given that they reflect many of the dualities and complexities the Symphonies expound is a matter of real regret. The Bolshoi Theatre Quartet chipped in with No. 9 and the great Beethoven Quartet shared with the Borodin Quartet discographic hegemony in the Thirteenth, the last of the cycle. Finally in the early eighties the Taneyev Quartet recorded the lot. To add to Rostropovich’s Second Cello Sonata was added the First, played by the first performer and dedicatee of the Cello Concerto, the ever-impressive Knushevitsky. Piano sonatas were recorded – Nos 2 and 4 multiply - and Melodiya released albums containing that rara avis, certainly in the West, the Miaskovsky song. The LP era saw the inevitable expansion of recorded repertoire that ensued after the trough of the fifties; investigation of Soviet symphonic literature was now well under way, Melodiya was releasing unexpectedly welcome things and collectors finding themselves in Colletts, in London, will well and fondly remember the thrill of the flimsy record cover and the adhesive plastic sleeve and the startling appearance of a newly recorded Symphony. And another one to tick off the list.

Cello Sonatas

No. 1

Melodiya D3350
Melodiya C10 19715
Melodiya C10 20029
Finnadar SR 9022
No. 2

Melodiya D35455; EMI SXLP 30155; Monitor MCS 2145
HMV-Melodiya CM 03199/200
Finnadar SR 9022
Melodiya C10 19715
Melodiya C10 20029
Chandos ABRD 1233; ABTD 1233 tape

String Quartets

1-13 Taneyev Quartet
Melodiya. See CD re-releases for details

9 Bolshoi Theatre String Quartet
Melodiya D15335
13 Beethoven Quartet
Westminster XWN 18423
13 Borodin Quartet
Melodiya D09269


2 USSR Ministry of Culture SO/Rozhdestvensky
DKC 48002 – tape only
3 USSR State SO/Svetlanov
Melodiya D16145; C01015/6
5 USSR Radio SO/Ivanov
Melodiya D01446; C1008829
6 USSR State SO/Kondrashin
Melodiya MK D05472/5
7 USSR Radio SO/Ginsburg
Melodiya D024003/4; C1029937
11 Moscow SO/Dudarova
Melodiya C10 09483; HMV-Melodiya ASD 3879
15 Moscow State Philharmonic/Kondrashin
Melodiya D13225/6; C0801
16 USSR State SO/Ivanov
Melodiya D09415/6
17 USSR Radio SO/Gauk
Melodiya D07395/6
18 Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gauk
Melodiya D03854
19 USSR State Wind O/Petrov
Monitor MC 2038
19 USSR Ministry of Defence Orchestra/Mikailov
Melodiya C10 20129
21 Philadelphia/Ormandy
CBS P 14155
21 USSR Radio SO/Gauk
Melodiya M10 4793
21 USSR State SO/Ivanov
Melodiya D488; D09415/6
21 Chicago SO/Gould
RCA SB 6783
21 New Philharmonia/Measham
Unicorn RHS 346; HNH 4054
22 USSR SO/Svetlanov
Melodiya CM03157/8; HMV-Melodiya ASD 3062
23 USSR Radio SO/Kovalev
Melodiya C463; HMV-Melodiya ASD 2927
25 Moscow Radio PO/Svetlanov
Melodiya D4670/1
26 Moscow Radio SO/Nikolayev
DKC 49171 – tape only
27 USSR Radio SO/Gauk
Melodiya D0496/7
27 USSR Academic SO/Svetlanov
Melodiya C10 14677
Violin Concerto

Grigory Feigin/USSR Radio SO/Dmitriev
Melodiya O5161/2; HMV-Melodiya ASD 3237

Cello Concerto

Mstislav Rostropovich/Philharmonia/Sargent
HMV ALP 1427; SXLP 30155
Mstislav Rostropovich/Moscow PO/Faktorovich
Melodiya D5096; D35455
F Luzanov/USSR State SO/Svetlanov
Melodiya C10 11573
Natalia Gutman/USSR State SO/Svetlanov
Melodiya C10 29937

Some thoughts on CD recordings

Cello Sonata No. 1

First composed in 1911 but heavily and substantially revised during 1929-31 and again in 1945 the first sonata’s status seems to have been rising recently. For many years the Second’s position as a mature summary of Miaskovsky’s sonata style relegated the earlier work to a kind of Rachmaninovian backwater in which the effusive and rhetorical romanticisms seemed never formally compressed into a structure capable of sustaining them. That view seems to have changed and the sheer wealth of melodic invention and lyricism seems to be more popularly welcomed in concert and on record. Over tolling bass notes in the piano, a keening cello solo begins its recitative and we can immediately contrast two approaches; Marina Tarasova is forwardly recorded and has a deep baritonally burnished tone with some occasional lower string rasps whilst Kyrill Rodin has been given a recessed acoustic and has a more limited dynamic range than Tarasova (their programmes incidentally are the same – both sonatas and the concerto). Rodin’s is a less assertive opening, less leonine, fleeter, and less inclined to declamatory gesture. His sonata partner, Andrei Pisarev, doesn’t emphasise the tolling bell motif in the left hand but seems throughout a somewhat more lyrical player, instinctively, than his cellist though he shares a less variegated tonal profile with him in relation to Tarasova and her partner, Alexander Polezhaev. The latter stretch the legato line more, constructing a compelling narrative and when it comes to the staccato piano incident, we find that Pisarev is ominous, forceful, increasingly clangourous and loud whereas Polezhaev is slower, more contained, with gradation and chordal spacing well observed – he relates the episode to the opening bars of the piece – and one feels with the older pairing of Tarasova and Polezhaev a greater maturity of architectural awareness and understanding. There is something in reserve, tonally and rhythmically, which is beyond the young team of Pisarev and Rodin. For example in the ensuing passagework Pisarev sometimes drowns his cellist and their tensile approach, coupled with a poor acoustic, adds an air of constriction to their performance hard to escape - drama without flexibility. Whereas I like the way the older players take their time to articulate without cloying the melodic line – they are in fact a minute and a half slower than the younger pair – and Tarasova is especially convincing in her ascent to the musical peak of a phrase, beautifully big of tone but never predictable whereas Rodin is more tonally starved, less moving and more emotionally opaque.

It’s interesting to compare and contrast a version not yet transferred to CD, that by Rudin and Ginsburg, to place some Miaskovskian structural considerations in context. They are quicker even than Rudin and Pisarev and are clearly determined to limit the perceived structural weaknesses of the composer’s writing by rushing to the climaxes. Their performance emerges, as a result, sectional, breathless, vehement and unrelieved. It is heavily accented; the imitative cello-piano pizzicato passage is po-faced. There is therefore none of the plasticity of line, of feeling and phrase that Miaskovsky needs and the performance soon becomes impossibly wearying and aggressive. The solution to the somewhat discursive nature of the second movement is decidedly not to be frenetic and frantic; when this pairing do relax it can be very attractive but, again, it seems to emerge in spite of the score not because of it – an imposition upon it and not an organic development from it. Their dilemma is one that has also concerned conductors of the symphonies (see below in discussion of the Fifth) and this recording is a warning of the disastrous effect structural and tempo-related decisions can have on Miaskovsky interpretations.

Truls Mork and Jean-Yves Thibaudet have also recorded the First Sonata, as Mork has the concerto. At a fastish but flexible tempo, with Mork’s characteristically inward yet variegated tonal resources, this is an attractive performance. I find some over-emotive playing from the cellist in the opening movement, though, a worrying need to over-vibrate in an attempt to engage in a level of emotional expressivity incompatible with the thematic material at that point. Mork and Thibaudet also have what I can only call salon moments – little crises of phrasal triviality – that rather reduce the musical narrative. Throughout I do find them not making the most of the frequently rhapsodic nature of the music and also find them rushing their fences dramatically in a quasi-Rudin/Ginsburg way, which is, to my ears at least, decisively not to the music’s advantage. That said, I much enjoyed their mastery of the rise and fall of the music – their control of dynamics is admirable here – and Mork’s upper string playing is indisputably of a higher quality than his rivals; they are flexible and pliant when need be. Later on Thibaudet, a thoroughly engaging presence, and a suavely nonchalant one, allows some garbled passagework to impede the line but he is otherwise sympathetic to his partner.

Back to Tarasova/Polezhaev and Rodin/Pisarev. Plenty of fire from the latter pair (rumbling bass reasonably well caught by the engineers) as they catch the freshness and vigour of the writing but they slow dramatically for the ensuing reflective section. At a steadier tempo the transition the older pair make is much more convincing and, in addition, it serves to make them sound more purposeful. The sense of struggle which leads to a final reprise of the noble Delian melody is, in Tarasova’s hands, not simply a cyclical recapitulation but the logical completion of a narrative; she and her partner play up the unison quicksand theme - getting nowhere, sinking fast – rather better than the other pair. At the end more dualities emerge. Pisarev is good at conveying the left hand piano misgivings – whilst Polezhaev is adept at coolly disclosing the harmonic ambivalence.

Tarasova and Polezhaev are a clear first choice, more mature than Rodin and Pisarev and more idiomatic than the much better known pairing of Mork and Thibaudet. That their CD also contains the Second Sonata – marginally less successful, see below, and the Concerto – a good performance – is certainly an advantage. If you want a complete conspectus of the works for cello start with Tarasova.

Melodiya LP C10 20029
Olympia OCD 530
Virgin Classics VC 5 25119-2
Arte Nova 74321 54464-2

Cello Sonata No. 2

Better known than the earlier work, not least because of Rostropovich’s involvement in it, the second sonata is cast in one of the composer’s favoured three movement forms. It was however originally intended for viola, or viola d’amore - and this version, not by the composer, is still extant. It has been noted that one of Miaskovsky’s great champions, the cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky – who, with Lev Oborin recorded the First Sonata and was part, with Oborin and David Oistrakh, of one of the world’s great piano trios - once asked the composer why he hadn’t written faster music in the sonatas. To which Miaskovsky apparently replied that he’d intended to include a minuet in the second movement but had decided against it. Listening to contemporaneous String Quartets rather makes one regret he didn’t. Tarasova and Rodin have both, of course, recorded the work; added to them are Yuri Turovsky, on Chandos, with Edlina (his second recording – the earlier LP was with Sadovskaya) and a positive glut of recordings I’ve not heard, by Himo and Himo, Williencourt and Armengaud, Hinon and Hinon, Ferschtmann and Baslawskaya and Wiek and Rhee. Rostropovich and Dedyukhin are still in the catalogue and are a tough act to follow.

Both Rodin and Tarasova open at a broadly similar tempo – she is slightly quicker – but her greater tone colours and adduced shades of narrative meaning soon begin to tell. Polezhaev, as in the First Sonata, elicits greater depth of pianistic shading as well, against which Pisarev sounds somewhat monochrome. Turovsky and Edlina are affectionately lyrical. He employs subtle portamentos and at the same basic tempo some imaginative rubato to fleck the opening with motion and meaning. He has a more concentrated core sound than Tarasova – it’s nowhere near as boomy in the lower strings – and can be more plangent in a sympathetic acoustic. He employs great flexibility of tone in the upper register, which is sometimes more dependable than hers. She is inclined to be more viola-toned in the upper two strings. Rostropovich is more muddily recorded of course but his characteristically effortless tonal production and beauty of sound are indestructibly present – added to which he and Dedyukhin are structurally on a sure footing and evince splendid instrumental rapport. In the slow movement Tarasova is some thirty seconds quicker than Rodin and Turovsky. The last is especially inward and reflective, harbouring tonal contrasts with practised mastery but no sense of manipulation - he plays it as a song without words and at a sustained tempo it is a winning performance. The declamatory second subject, however, is best brought out by Tarasova – graded with precision and unfailing insight. Rodin is attractive here, but crucially lacks Turovsky’s range of subtlety and Tarasova’s depth of tone – though his leaner, more sparing artistry is attractive in its way and his cantabile phrasing here is much more convincing than in the earlier Sonata. Characteristically both he and Pisarev really play up the contrasts in this movement where I find the pianist tiring above forte. Turovsky is fractionally slower than Rodin but still flowing and gracious and eloquently shaped, opening his tone with rapture, excellently supported by Edlina’s shrewd choice of dynamics. Rostropovich meanwhile has a perfect sense of momentum and of the give and take, the pull and motion of the music – his is a very special understanding and an essential purchase in this work, as in the Concerto. In the third movement we can hear more of Tarasova’s characteristically dark tone; she nicely articulates the dancing themes; with his less uningratiating and more muffled tone Rodin is quicker and more con spirito, as marked, than she, though they are not nearly as quick as the LP version by Rudin and Ginsburg and even they, in turn, are outpaced by the stunning Rostropovich and Dedyukhin who are a positive whirlwind in this movement crucially managing to accent and articulate at speed whilst never collapsing into gabble. Devilish playing. How they manage to vest the playing with such a wealth of tonal resources at this speed is a wonder – his keening of the second subject especially and don’t overlook Dedyukhin’s accented bass notes to galvanize the rhythm. Turovsky is fleet and bustling, never too fast for precise articulation, crisp accenting – but not in Rostropovich’s class – and nicely focused tone. Tarasova is somewhat disappointingly earthbound here – her clarity and steadiness do tend to wither a little in the glare of the Rostropovich fire.

A difficult choice then; the impecunious will stick with Tarasova – and so will the discerning as she is an outstanding player. You must have the Rostropovich but it’s currently part of a 13 CD set. The Rodin/Pisarev has many good moments – at its very cheap price it’s a fair bargain and you get the First Sonata and a very, very slow Concerto – but Turovsky’s is a more mature and attractive performance, though sadly he hasn’t recorded the First Sonata – and you’ll have to buy the Rachmaninov Sonata with it, no bad thing. In the end the Miaskovskian will probably go for Rostropovich and Tarasova – with the First Sonata and Concerto in the set - and save up for Turovsky.

Chandos CHAN 8523
Arte Nova 74321 54464-2
Olympia OCD 530
EMI CD CZS5 72016-2

Arcobaleno SBCD 1508
Circe 87127 LD
Discover International DICD 920407
Globe GLO 5041
MD GL 3397

Violin Sonata

No recordings, alas, of the 1946 Op. 70 Violin Sonata but I’d like to put in a plea for one. There has only been one broadcast on British radio in the last twenty years that I’m aware of, and that was by Nona Liddell, ever-questing musician, and Daphne Ibbott. David Oistrakh went to Prokofiev’s dacha outside Moscow in 1946 to find not only the laconic Prokofiev but also the pensive Miaskovsky both clutching manuscripts of new works for him to try out. And this was one of them, the elusive, lyrical violin sonata. It’s songful, expressive with some clotted piano writing in the first movement, double-stopping and G string intensity; in the second movement beautiful tumbling leaf violin writing and a muted section and fascinating trilling over the piano’s rolled chords; in the finale propulsive, energetic and emphatic, reminiscent of Franck and Grieg. Light-headed, light-hearted, never simple-minded. Surely there’s a record company and violinist out there prepared to end 55 plus years of discographic silence?


There is no competition for the Quartets at present. They are available in performances by the Taneyev Quartet recorded between 1982-84. As we have seen both the Bolshoi, Borodin and the Beethoven Quartets made isolated recordings of the Quartets on LP (the two more famous groups both taped No. 13). It’s not too wishful to hope that the Beethoven’s performances may have been taped for future release – as one of the great post-war Quartets and much associated, of course, with Shostakovich they were also the dedicatees and first performers of that last, 1949, quartet (they first performed it in the following year) and No. 6, as well as first performers of Nos 8, 9, and 11.

The Taneyev are an experienced and tonally expressive quartet and long standing proponents of the literature. In its CD reincarnation RDCD 11013 and 11031/4, on five discs, all available separately, the last two quartets are missing at present – an unaccountable misjudgement that I hope has been rectified. The Quartets are considerably less well known than the Symphonies by which Miaskovsky’s reputation principally rests. Nevertheless both were informed by the same struggles and disappointments, by the same radical explorations and retrenchments, by the same modifications and appropriations - and the trajectory of his symphonic thought is invariably reflected in the Quartets as well.

Where does one start? Firstly by sorting out the order of composition. Start by playing the first four quartets in the order 4, 3, 1, 2. And then carry on. These first four quartets comprise Op33 and it was around this time – Op. 31-33 – that he grouped large numbers of pieces under a single opus number. Three of the Op. 33 Quartets received performance in 1930 and when they were printed Miaskovsky added a fourth; clearly there was an opportunistic element at work – he took perfectly reasonable advantage of some success to stick in two unpublished bottom drawer works dating from 1909-10 to add to the two quartets he’d just written. Naturally he had called the newer works 1 and 2, hence the confusion.

The Fourth opens with a slow introduction – a black cello and some violin and viola exchanges - before a conclusive dialogue between cello and violin propels the argument forward before drying up. Narrative is collectively reasserted in a songful, rather withdrawn way. In the second movement we can hear first violin, Vladimir Ovcharek’s very distinctive vibrato not entirely matched by second violinist Grigori Lutsky. As so often Miaskovsky is tempted to fugal development here, before a stomping allegretto leads to a veiled and pizzicato pulsating song with decorative violin line over a bass drone. The third movement lacks distinction until a lightning peasant dance frolics in the middle section; a disappointing movement though, with a certain failure of imagination and application. The finale has scurrying passagework for a hard-pressed viola, Vissarion Solovyov – excellent - whilst the violins sing high; much rhythmic impetus leads to a sudden draining of dramatic tension in the violins over shuddering lower strings. There is some increasingly emphatic unison writing leading to a decisive and very briefly dissonant conclusion.

No. 3 is the Liadov-Grieg Joke Quartet, in which Miaskovsky secreted a set of variations on Grieg’s Cradle Song, Op. 66 No. 7 as a riposte to Liadov, his composition teacher, who was well known for his dislike of Grieg. Apparently Liadov never noticed. After a short, pensive introduction there is some emphatic attacking material before the cello carves out an independent line for itself (Josef Levinzon, on fine form). Tunes are threaded through the individual voices until fist the dominant cello and then the two violins triumphantly return with the first theme. Here embrionically can be seen some of Miaskovsky’s compositional tropes – pensive, melancholy, lyrical, full of cogent development, cyclical, with an emphatic return to the initial statement. The second movement opens with a Tchaikovskian theme before those Grieg Variations begin. It compels a lighter style of performance than he generally cultivated – energetic and withdrawn by turns, certainly – but the impulse is purposefully toward the generic and the salon. Even here though he can’t refuse the temptation of fugato writing which leads to a ghostly reminiscence with tremolo strings (those conjunctions and abrupt changes of his later symphonic work developed early and were always part of his thinking; it’s tempting to split his compositional life into convenient parcels and to insist on development and change – some of this is true but for all the disruptive change there also a solidly unchanging face to his work even if it emerges in a different form. Disjunctive writing – even if, as here, benign – was one of those traits). The work ends in cyclical melancholy after something of a quiet triumph of variation form writing. No wonder Liadov was fooled.
No. 1 of the Op. 33 set was actually the third to be written. It’s an intensely chromatic, slithering and complex work entirely characteristic of his mid to late 1920s techniques. It abounds in fierce contrastive material and tension-sapping dissonance – listen to the cello’s winding line through the thickets of the texture or the ambiguous lightening of that same density. There is some instructive use of the Miaskovskian full stop, a narrative device by which he makes some dramatic-paragraphal points before moving on thematically. The newly introduced conciliatory melody is soon infected by harmonic discomfort and we return to the now mutated cello line with a sense of abstract winding down. The second movement is notable for some real rhythmic licence and metrical flexibility whilst the third features an expressive violin melody –the Taneyev Quartet are remarkably fine here in their control of dynamics and attack – and a remarkable sense of the rotary; memorable writing. The jagged and angular introduction of the fourth movement leads to a folk-like tune, which threatens to go into full fugal overdrive but then relapses to a slithering hothouse, Schoenbergian atmosphere. There is a delayed climax before some motoric writing, crisp and bright and full of nervous energy leads rapidly to a fake-ending ending.

The final set of the group of the four Op. 33 Quartets is No. 2. Less quixotic and immediately fascinating than No1 it begins sternly with an abrupt opening that coalesces through easy pizzicatos to launch a more reflective and lyrical theme. The stern figure reappears but is now transformed into a more benign one and it is put through some fugal paces. The figure keeps reappearing getting more and more superbly woven into the fabric of the movement. As ever there’s a big part for the cello, in the second movement – but whilst the line is reflective and nostalgic (key Miaskovskian adjectives) it never properly settles. The third and final movement is skittish, a kind of nursery song, full of naughty skittering unison violins and chundering lower strings and, unusually for Miaskovsky, unambiguously – at least to these ears – happy. The Quartet is a study in change - a movement from uncompromising severity through transformation and assimilation leading to reflection and a studied understanding before the heart takes flight in song. It’s a compelling narrative, a journey well spent and a fine introduction to his less abrasive style of the period.

No. 5 - we can follow in sequence now – dates from 1937-8 and received its first performance in 1939. The Quartet has great clarity and ease; flowing, lyrical the first movement is unsparingly simple with the lower strings, viola and cello, providing a cushion for the upper to float. There is much rustling and rushing in the second movement leading to the use of two songs. At the end of the second song the violin does a little filigree dance around the melody with superfine traceries and the cello’s arabesques add a winsome touch – like leaping dolphins - before the rushing figures return. Charmingly apposite pizzicato ending. The third movement is reflective and light – but with hints of a greater depth at its centre - whilst the fourth is the most harmonically adventurous of the movements and somewhat reminiscent of the compositional middle period. Violin and succeeding cello strands lead to a conclusive sense of compression, of cyclic journeying and lower string rumbles presage the quiet ending.

The Sixth Quartet dates from 1939-40. Opening with a series of lyrical melodies it is explicitly Russian in character, profoundly elegiac, and there is a controlled but light touch, tonally and expressively, and the means and technique to support it. There is also the unavoidable question of the diminishment of explicit complexity in Miaskovsky’s music. The second movement Burlesque is not the Mahlerian kind; rather it’s an animated and skittishly fast march, devoid of ambiguity whereas the third movement finds the heart of the quartet. Melancholy and affecting an implicitly striving theme is soon established - unsettled, full of motion – reinforced by some determined unison writing which might in the past have seemed alien to the syntax of the writing but has now become effortlessly woven into the fabric of the argument. This soon relapses to a shivering reminiscence of the opening theme – cyclical, transformative, of harmonic and expressive complexity. The fourth and final movement begins with a rather aggressive unison attack which soon develops into a folk tune, rippling and underpinned by propulsive pizzicatos; it’s a measure of the composer’s increased instrumental mastery that these motoric and other devices now seem seamlessly and logically integrated rather than extraneously grafted as could, sometimes, be the case with his earlier works.

The Op. 55 Quartet, No. 7, was written in 1941 in the Caucasus where he had been sent and where he made a thorough study of local folk music (indeed incorporating a local Kabarda folk song into the slow movement). Lyrical with a few pleasing harmonic quirks it has an opening movement that perhaps over quotes, to its ultimate structural damage, an opening theme incapable of sustaining fully subsequent developmental potential. The second movement is an engagingly swinging affair; I can certainly imagine it being played at a somewhat faster tempo than the Taneyev Quartet essay even at the slight risk of rushed articulation – the risks may well be outweighed by the musical benefits of contrast and vigorous accenting at speed. A scurrying figure nicely winds down the compass until it finally reaches the cello line where it expires. The third movement includes that North Caucasus folk song and also a little pepper, musically speaking, to the slow movement. It is beautifully harmonised and flows in a slow incremental ascent, dynamically, its line and texture unimpeded and inevitable. The fourth is a fast movement, reflective but resilient, harmonically somewhat piquant. A unison call to arms announces the cello’s succeeding frisky foray followed by the other strings leading to a triumphantly untroubled conclusion. Marking no especial advance on the previous quartets the Seventh is something of a reminiscence, harking back to Taneyev and Glazunov, an absorbent rather than innovatory work – indeed something perhaps less even than absorbent in its simplicity and nostalgia.

The Eighth Quartet was completed in the following year and dedicated to the memory of a friend. Elegiac therefore in outline it still contains more than its fair share of formal surprises. The opening movement’s lyricism – note the second violin’s distinctive scrap of melody – is wistful and more than somewhat reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. The slow movement’s beautiful melody is accompanied by thrummed lower strings and as the violin arches its song the other voices play a winding counterpoint; the more insistent, contrastive, middle section inflects that lyricism with increased levels of meaning before the return of the opening theme of the movement. The finale is determined and robust with a second subject like a flecked folk song with some enchanting shards of song shared out between the four voices – and its final appearance is transferred to the viola, the solo becoming healthily withdrawn as Miaskovsky, in time-honoured cyclical fashion, brings finally a return of the first movement’s opening theme and a sense of evolution and inevitability to the syntax and musical argument.

The next quartet, Op. 62, is also a product of the War years though it’s hard to extrapolate much of his experience directly from it, as was often the case in works that derived from, but were not explicitly representative of, his First War experiences when he was injured and shell-shocked. The Ninth opens with an unsettled theme later opening out lyrically – the Taneyev Quartet are especially successful in their hushed playing here observing with meticulous intelligence and instrumental excellence the precise gradations of Miaskovsky’s dynamics. The slow movement is a species of adagio and scherzo; the melody winds affectingly but in true Miaskovskian fashion fails to burst into unambiguously simple life – in fact I feel it lacks the melodic distinction to sustain the imposed mood. The middle section is of propulsive speed and then he fuses a keening cello tune with the scherzo, a real example of his stylistic flexibility and astute use of material for development – both thematic and rhythmic. The final movement begins as a quasi-march, solid with contrastive slower, more ruminative section and a constant, almost obsessive return to the pompous march tune followed by more developmental material. The ending – maybe a little forced – is of a mildly dissonant kind.

No. 10 was written in 1907 but radically overhauled during the Second World War and finished in 1945. A dramatic unison flourish opens the piece, giving way to a skittish folk-inflected passage with a deliciously insouciant upwards and downwards walking cello pizzicato whilst the violins answer antiphonally. There is some more playful pizzicato in the upper strings before a second cousin of a waltz theme takes us to a drone passage. Here Miaskovsky can’t resist some fugal developmentvery brief – before the movement resumes some almost Dvořák-like momentum and the movement gently and with beautiful simplicity winds down. The second movement is an off beat rhythmically lively scherzando and has a genuinely involving and evolving power with its entwining theme for the violins and his characteristically propulsive cello pizzicatos, an ever constant device to drive his quartets onwards. The middle section of the movement is one of wistful introspection almost as if it was impossible to sustain the original impetus – before the return of that same rhythmic material which scoops up the scherzando to a conclusion. The third movement opens with much cello eloquence and contrastive material with a spinning violin line gradually lightening and flecking the texture. However a motoric section of creeping desolation floods the material causing a slowing down and fracturing, an enervation and a not unambiguous return to the opening cello solo, eloquent but not mournful. The finale is decisive and bustling. Delightfully duetting violins join a chugging and wheezing cello with a fretfully lugubrious viola steering harmonic direction. Miaskovsky then throws in another fugal section, one which becomes increasingly frantic, before a violin led song takes the chugging lower strings with it – listen to the viola’s desperate motor as the tune is repeated in flourishing triumph before a triumphant gallop to the conclusion.

The penultimate Twelfth Quartet was dedicated to the composer’s pupil Kabalevsky and written in 1947 though not performed, I believe, until 1977 by the Beethoven Quartet. It’s in four movements. A slow adagio opening gives way to equably flowing tunes, some songful and vocalised in impress. Impressive is the unison shuddering theme and subsequent contrastive passages. The coda slowly ascends into silence, the violins playing high up. The second movement is full of quixotic, exotic rhythms and tone colours. A central panel is withdrawn, lugubrious, black hued with a rising and falling ominous outline (muted strings add to the desolation and unease) that impels a veiled tone – one of strain and indistinct direction. This is a conspicuously successful passage, complex and atmospheric. In the succeeding movement we can feel Miaskovsky hearkening back to his earlier stylistic imperatives – it is chromatic, some of the sequences utilise harmonic violence and jagged juxtaposition but in terms of craft and integration we now find that there is an added plangency and equable resolution to the chromaticisms that weave them into the quartet’s fabric. They are integral to the narrative and are not used for rhetorical purposes or mere contrastive effects. This is a summit of his developmental assurance – to pick up, subsume and redeploy technical devices entirely in the service of a work’s inner meaning and wholly harmonious with its outer shell. The finale is decisively Russian in character; the unison theme soon breaks down into some investigative development of a resolutely Tchaikovskian stamp before some eventful and rather knowing writing leads to one of the clever fake endings at which he was so adept. It might seem a cautiously indistinct ending for such an intriguing work but I don’t think so. Miaskovsky was a master of pacing and knew the constraints of classical form as well as the freedoms, harmonic and rhythmic, in which he could indulge. The Twelfth is an altogether admirable work.

The last of the canon, the Thirteenth, is the A minor Op. 86 of 1949. Again it is cast in four movements; the first is lyrical and bathed in sunlight with the early establishment of a beloved fugal section. It is a sonata and rondo movement with elegantly and effortlessly deployed lyrical lines, beautifully proportioned and contoured. The second movement is an increasingly frisky one with the cello doubling the tempo, which leads to a provocative onrush and angular but controlled writing. A tolling bell is announced via cello pizzicato (for whom?) and again the initial mood becomes unsustainable as a more lyrical theme takes over and leads back to the thrumming and propulsively assertive return of the opening frisky tune; the cyclic journeying, having passed through disjunction and melodrama and intimations of mortality, is now over. The slow movement, over a steadily moving cello bass whilst the violin winds a rather abstruse line, never descends to bathos. Instead the violins’ high lying writing and lower string bass notes lend a striving and nobility to the movement, whilst never coalescing into the easy simplicities of abstract lyricism for its own sake, There is even something never quite "formed" about Miaskovsky’s lyrical impulse here, as there can often seem to be; a sense that the melodic impulse never quite coheres to a single point, a decisive impulse – instead that there is almost a existent parallel line that prohibits full bourgeoning out into effortless and unimpeded light. This is often taken to be defective writing, evidence that Miaskovsky’s lyricism was ultimately compromised; I prefer to see it as a rather more unsettled response by the composer to the issue of material and form. The finale is one, by contrast, of unclouded and fervent lyricism; free uniform pizzicatos and melodies bandied around freely amongst the instruments. The whole is affectionately done, balancing intimacy and assertion without bombast, a hallmark of Miaskovsky’s greatest writing and a fitting end to a cycle of still underestimated power and conviction.

The Quartets were first recorded on LP and these performances have subsequently appeared on CD, although, as noted earlier, Nos 12 and 13 seem to be missing from the catalogue. I would recommend getting to know Nos 2, 3, 10 and 12 as core purchases but that will involve multiple choices – I’ve listed the release details below;

Russian Disc

Quartets 1 and 4
RDCD 11013

Quartets 2, 6 and 10
RDCD 11031

Quartets 3 and 5
RDCD 11032

Quartets 7 and 8
RDCD 11033

Quartets 9 and 11
RDCD 11034

Piano Sonatas

The Editor has written a full and compelling comparison of the virtues of the two sets of the Sonatas, by Murray McLachlan and by Endre Hegedus. I strongly recommend readers consult it in conjunction with this article. All CD details, release numbers will be found there.


Violin Concerto

Despite its supposed superiority of composition, its thematic integration and formal mastery for many Miaskovskians the Cello Concerto has to yield to that for the Violin. It’s a once-heard never-forgotten work of compelling beauty with a lyrical outline I find superior to the Cello Concerto, albeit that the later work has a gravity and introspection that seems incomparably right, not just for the times in which it was written but for the forces Miaskovsky uses. Nevertheless the Violin Concerto is a work that serves well as an introduction to the latter Miaskovskian style and as a mid-century masterpiece that deserves concert performances and recordings. Rumours of a Vadim Repin recording have surfaced; true or not let’s hope that young questing violinists will explore this work in conjunction with others from the undeservedly neglected catalogue of concertos.

David Oistrakh first performed Miaskovsky’s music in 1928 when he played as orchestral leader in Odessa in a performance, under the redoubtable Miaskovsky admirer, Nikolai Malko, of the Fifth Symphony. It was the year of his solo debut, also engineered by Malko, and the beginnings of a youthful ascent up the Soviet Violinists’ ladder. Many years later, in August 1938, Miaskovsky wrote to the now much more widely celebrated violinist that he was grateful that Oistrakh had "taken on" the first performance of the new work. In the interim the violinist had famously come second to Ginette Neveu in the Warsaw Wieniawski Competition of 1935 but won the Ysaye in Brussels in 1937. As the young rising star – he was now 29 – he would have been a natural candidate to perform the new concerto by one of the Soviet Union’s most distinguished composers – and there seems to have been none of the unseemly messing about that bedevilled 1937’s unveiling of the Schumann Concerto when, for personal and/or political reasons, Menuhin, D’Aranyi and Kulenkampff all fought for the privilege of playing it first. There was nevertheless a veritable arsenal of domestic violinists more than qualified to play the Miaskovsky – Myron Poliakin most prominently – but Oistrakh’s recent international success must have tipped the balance and accordingly Miaskovsky must have been informed in late July or early August that Oistrakh had been chosen.

He wrote to the violinist that he was concerned about triads, the length of the cadenzas and matters of bowing, which he considered a real weakness. Oistrakh then went several times to Miaskovsky’s dacha near Moscow to meet him and discuss technical considerations. The first performance was in January 1939 but before that Oistrakh and the composer had taken the sensible precaution of private performances and also played it through to violin professors at Moscow Conservatoire. That premiere was attended by Oistrakh’s great later rival, Leonid Kogan, who always remembered the event with fascination. The extent of Oistrakh’s editing of the solo part is seemingly unknown. What is true is that Rena Moisenko in her study Realist Music noted that Oistrakh found fault with the finale, labelling it disjunctive; whether she had that from the violinist himself or through an intermediary remains unclear. Oistrakh himself told his son, Igor that he had had to edit the whole violin part, drastically reducing the length of the first movement cadenza in the process. Presumably he’d had his say to the composer on the finale as well.

There are only two recordings on CD; one is Oistrakh’s and the other is the transfer from LP of a long admired traversal by Gregory Feigin – now alas unavailable. Oistrakh was recorded in 1939 and Feigin in 1976. Oistrakh’s conductor, the still-unsurpassed Alexander Gauk, begins with inexorable tread; his separated string notes immediately prior to the violinist’s entry are heavy – comparison here with Alexander Dmitriev, Feigin’s conductor, is instructive. Oistrakh enters much more inwardly than Feigin, more withdrawn, more inclined to intensify lyric notes (even with a slightly sour sounding woodwind behind him). Feigin doesn’t possess the older player’s big or multi-variegated tone or his unerring ascent to the climax of a phrase – but he is nonetheless a considerable player. Listen especially to the trilled passage with bassoon obbligato – most beautifully played by Feigin with a quiet and expressive rapture. Oistrakh’s dynamic sweep, like a swallow in flight, is awesome; his double-stopping immaculate, his tone never strained or starved at the top of the register. The recording, perhaps inevitably, doesn’t really catch the trilling episode as it does with Feigin, at 6’02 – but we can explicitly hear Gauk giving ample life to the calming woodwind passage and rather aggressive bass pizzicatos, which act as a bridge to further development. The woodwinds are a little distant in the balance here for Oistrakh, who is forwardly placed in the aural perspective. In that famous first movement cadenza we can hear in the Oistrakh recording some unfortunate echo and pre-echo. This seems problematically endemic to the recording and is duly noted by Pearl’s engineers. Even here though we can hear the violinist’s narrative gifts at full stretch as he leans on notes and vests others with vibrato-intensified immediacy, all the while flooding the music with optimum expressive potential. In the final assault of the first movement Oistrakh is simply more mesmerisingly motoric than Feigin and Gauk more gimlet-determined than Dmitriev.

The lyrical-nostalgic impulses Miaskovsky always possessed show most clearly in the affecting second movement, Adagio molto cantabile. Beautiful woodwind traceries fleck and drape the score. Gauk brings out the woodwind writing as well as Dmitriev but the string lines are obviously clearer on the newer recording. We can also appreciate the apposite subtlety of Feigin’s vibrato usage; his effortless pirouetting around the clarinet theme is a highlight of his playing here; attentive to dynamics, well shaped, with vibrato speeds well employed this is distinguished playing from Feigin, worthy to be bracketed with Oistrakh. Feigin’s control of rhythm is equally admirable as is his understanding of Miaskovsky’s melodic line and though his trill is not as electric as the older violinist’s it’s really of small account. In the beautiful second subject Oistrakh phrases more vocally with the result that the flux of the line is more nuanced in his hands. In the G string episode he is also richer, more demonstrative and deep lying than the younger man imparting greater gradations of expressivity to his part. Feigin, by comparison, and as reflective of the broad differences between the two – though Feigin was one of Oistrakh’s pupils – is full of clarity and a more obviously affectionate simplicity. There’s also some rather muddy sound in Oistrakh’s disc, from 7’00 onwards.

The finale is Brahmsian and, as we’ve seen, Oistrakh had reservations about it. There is a great deal of virtuoso rhetoric here leading on to a more Russian hue textually, essentially of a light-hearted late nineteenth century stamp. Miaskovsky makes demands on the performer that test inter alia his bowing and pizzicato playing. The winding bassoon in the finale receives due prominence on the Feigin recording; by comparison it’s much more weakly audible with Gauk and much less so in comparison with the following piping woodwind passage. Here Oistrakh’s ricocheting around in the foreground is drama itself, with Feigin only slightly behind him. The pizzicato toting soloist then embarks on another series of scherzoso demands, stomping and rushing toward the finale in a clever delayed-action passage. Gauk, experienced to the end, never relaxes his grip; Dmitriev is perhaps slightly too loose here. Gauk gives a capricious kick at the end and the work ends resoundingly; with Dmitriev there’s a slight let down at the end though nothing so drastic as to impair the very real pleasures he and his soloist afford.

Given that Feigin’s account is not in the current catalogues you have perforce to be directed to Oistrakh. If you do find that later disc, however, coupled with Svetlanov’s recording of the 22nd Symphony don’t hesitate. It’s a tremendously vital and affectionate traversal lacking nothing in the fire of Miaskovsky’s passagework or in the elucidation of his lyrical contours. It dates from 1976 and is in perfectly serviceable sound. It’s therefore something of a luxury to be able to point to the 1939 Oistrakh and to declare it one of the great Miaskovsky recordings. With Gauk in charge it could hardly fail to be incisive, architecturally cogent and expressively understanding. With Oistrakh the work found its - perhaps somewhat reluctant and unbelieving - champion, but champion he was and sovereign he remains to this day. He continued to perform the Concerto, playing it in Vienna after the War and in his famous Moscow Concerto cycles, which also included the Walton and Elgar. Elsewhere Mischel Piastro added it to his repertoire and performed and broadcast it with the New York Philharmonic, whose leader he was, circa 1940-1. But it remained Oistrakh’s work and it’s to that great artist that we turn for the greatest, most lasting and truest understanding of this great Concerto.

Violin Concerto /Khachaturian Violin Concerto/ Khachaturian Dance in B flat
David Oistrakh/USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Gauk with Abram Makarov, piano
Pearl GEMM CD 9295

Violin Concerto/Miaskovsky Symphony No. 22
Gregory Feigin/USSR radio Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Dmitriev with USSR Symphony Orchestra/ Yevgeni Svetlanov
Olympia OCD134


Cello Concerto

The Cello Concerto is now Miaskovsky’s most popular work. It was composed between 1944-45 and dedicated to Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, the leading Soviet cellist and a soloist and chamber player of renown who premiered it in Moscow on 17 March 1945. As with the two Cello Sonatas so with the two Concertos - there is, in a sense, far less to say about the Cello Concerto than the earlier work. Its pervasively elegiac qualities were never in dispute, its compositional date fed the sense of reflection and loss, its emotional similarity with the Elgar Concerto has often been remarked upon (at least by British critics) and the existence of Rostropovich’s pioneering recording all fused to promote the work as a valedictory summation of Miaskovsky’s compositional life and a peak of his late style stripped of fanfare and grandiosity.

That so many cellists have taken it up to record – Rostropovich himself, multiply, Tarasova, Rodin, Lloyd Webber, Maisky, Mørk - and with increasingly regularity only deepens its tangible hold on the periphery (the recorded periphery at least – who ever plays it in concert now?) of the repertoire. That being so and the circumstances of its composition being more clear cut than many of his works – revisions, youthful works reconsidered and conscripted etc – it remains only to suggest that of the eight CD performances one strikes me as too laboured to bother with, another too inclined to the stasis-as-profundity theory of music making and two are embedded in CD sets. Which halves the obviously available options, at least in theory.

The concerto is in two movements, the first a Lento ma non troppo, the second a complex Allegro vivace. Kyrill Rodin, accompanied by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Konstantin Krimets, is by far the slowest on record. He takes a skin-crawlingly 36.49 to get through the Concerto, in such stark contradistinction to his waspishly fast performances of the Cello Sonatas that I was tempted to disbelieve my own ears. He is capable of excellently expressive playing, though at such excessively slow tempi that his performance as a whole is quite unable to sustain the weight. He begins with inwardly reflective playing, some thin sounding strings behind him but buoyed by eloquent woodwind choirs. Marina Tarasova is flexible with warm lower strings and unlike Rodin the orchestra’s counter and subsidiary themes do not get smoothed out by too slow a tempo; in comparison Rodin emerges as directionless and discursive, one of the besetting sins of unconsidered Miaskovsky interpretation. Rostropovich and Sargent allow the rise and fall of the narrative to emerge unselfconsciously, the important woodwind contributions emerge proportionate to the solo passages. In Rostropovich’s hands – and he takes a standard 28 minutes – the ensuing cadenza is cogent, one of active rumination and integration of tempi; nowhere is the cadenza allowed to disrupt the momentum of the argument as it potentially could in the first movement cadenza of the Violin Concerto. Lloyd Webber employs an attractively smooth legato and soft subtly variegated tone whereas Mischa Maisky keeps, for once, a firm reign on the architecture, allowing the gorgeous string tune effortlessly to unwind underpinned by the throb of pizzicato bass. His is a consistently involving performance, perceptive and controlled, and not prone to the kind of unnecessary idiosyncrasies that have bedevilled other performances of his in recent years. In both Lloyd Webber and Maisky’s cases I did feel a slight sag at the cadenza – eloquent though both are here and firm of technical address. Truls Mørk meanwhile has an inwardness of inflexion, a satisfying blend of the active and the withdrawn (both in architectural profile and tonal resources) that enables him to surmount the pitfalls of blandness and sentimentality. As a result his cadenza is both apposite and successful.

The second movement finds Tarasova contending with an orchestra not really opulent enough for the material. It can’t be faulted for lack of energy but the last ounces of finesse are in somewhat short supply. In the immediately following section she is an active agent in the argument immediately understanding the peaks and plateaus of the writing with unerring insight. Rodin here fails once more to join the dots of the writing; a congealing, rather aimless traversal. Rostropovich with Sargent is commanding here; I’ve not heard his Moscow performance with Svetlanov, currently housed in a 13 disc set devoted to Russian recordings from 1950-74 but his 1959 reading, again in Moscow with Faktorovich, is broadly in alignment with the Sargent performance if, on LP, somewhat vitiated by some glassy string tone and shallow sounding acoustic. Mørk and Maisky are equally persuasive in this sonata form movement both relishing the contrastive implications of the writing; Lloyd Webber’s is a viable alternative, though at 32 minutes in length he is slower by some four minutes than the average established by Rostropovich and maintained by Tarasova. In truth, for all his affectionate insight, I would hesitate to recommend him over his rivals – in the end his is not the commanding lyrico-architectural approach of Tarasova and he doesn’t match Maisky in logical flexibility and nor does his tone have the subtlety of variation of the Russian; his is the recording which I suggested contained elements of stasis and whilst these are never as blatant as Rodin’s this excessive legato-freedom does compromise the shell of Miaskovsky’s Concerto, weakening it through lack of contrast.

The alternatives are complicated. Take the Rostropovich/Sargent and you must buy a three CD set which contains a poor Dvořák Concerto with Giulini, the classic Brahms Double with Oistrakh and Szell in Cleveland, a Karajaned Don Quixote, the two Haydn Concertos and Bloch’s Schelomo with Bernstein. If you want the Rostropovich/Svetlanov you will need that 13 CD set of Russian recordings – an amazing variety of riches; Britten, Prokofiev, Honegger, Vainberg, Tischenko – the list is endless and astounding and includes the world premiere of the Prokofiev Sonata with Richter in 1950 and maybe (I believe there’s some doubt) the world premiere of Shostakovich No. 2 - as well as so much else. Tarasova’s as we’ve seen is an all-Miaskovsky CD – as is Rodin’s. Maisky and Pletnev couple the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante as do Mørk and Paavo Järvi whereas Lloyd Webber and Maxim Shostakovich give us the Rococo Variations and Shostakovich’s adagio from the Op. 39 Limpid Stream.

Marina Tarasova
Moscow New Opera Orchestra/Yevgeni Samoilov
Regis RRC 1050

Kyrill Rodin
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Konstantin Krimets
Arte Nova 74321 54464-2

Truls Mørk
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Jarvi
Virgin Classics VC5 45310-2

Julian Lloyd Webber
London Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich
Phillips CD 434 106-2PH

Mischa Maisky
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
DG 449 821-2GH

Mstislav Rostropovich
Philharmonia/Malcolm Sargent
EMI CMS5 65709-2 3 CD set

Mstislav Rostropovich
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Yevgeni Svetlanov
EMI CZS5 72016-2 13 CD set

Orchestral Works

The appearance of Svetlanov’s Complete Symphonic Works on Olympia has changed the Miaskovskian landscape. A significant value of the set will be the appearance, in uniform performances, of his other orchestral works – Overtures, Serenades, Sinfoniettas and the like. Many other performances have made CD appearances – and some have been and gone - and though not all these works are charged with Miaskovsky’s greatest fires none is without interest. The confirmed admirer or casual listener will scrutinize the catalogue for the most helpful and intelligent coupling.

I would begin with the Two Pieces for String orchestra Op. 46A, a string transcription of the Andante serioso and Moderato of the Nineteenth Symphony. This was his brass symphony but the transcription is entirely sympathetic and idiomatic and I suspect that the reason is that he was thinking pianistically – his usual creative procedure – when he composed it (Miaskovsky’s tendency to think in terms of the piano has been remarked on before and is frequently perceived as a compositional weakness, attributing to the composer a lack of fluency and flexibility).

The ASV disc with Roland Melia conducting the St Petersburg Chamber Ensemble selects the superior Sinfonietta, the Op. 32/2 B minor, the Two pieces for String Orchestra, the little and inconsequential Napeve and the noble Theme and Variations. A rival disc comes from Claves that couples both the Sinfoniettas with the Two Pieces for String Orchestra. Conducted by Misha Rachlevsky this is a disc I’ve not heard but the Editor thinks quite well of it as he does of the ASV – as with many of the orchestral and Symphonic works I strongly urge you to read his reviews in conjunction with this article. My own preference would be for the ASV – the second Sinfonietta is a disappointingly weak work – and the advantages of completeness in this respect are outweighed by the potential loss of the Theme and Variations. The only other recording of the Two Pieces comes from Veronika Dudarova and was originally coupled on LP with her Eleventh Symphony recording. Dudarova can be a frustrating conductor – expressive and capable of sonorous depths but also sometimes afflicted by orchestral lethargy. Here I find her impressive and affecting with an unforced eloquence I find very touching.

The Lyric Concertino in G, Op. 32/3, from that famous Op. 32 grouping which includes the Serenade, the first Sinfonietta, this Concertino and three four hand piano transcriptions, is a work that belies its name. Much more than congenial pastoralism, somewhat less than abrasive introspection it is imbued with a determined and rather fascinating profile, one that resists easy categorisation. Listen, anyway, to Verbitzky’s Olympia CD if you can find it – it was coupled with Svetlanov’s Third Symphony traversal – or to the Samoilov Olympia rival - or wait to buy the last in the projected Svetlanov cycle when it will be coupled with Alastor, the Byronic tone poem and a must-have purchase, and the less demanding second Sinfonietta. (If you wait for the First Sinfonietta in the Svetlanov edition you will find it coupled with the Serenade and that magnificent mini-masterpiece Links).

It is now very much a question of waiting for Svetlanov. The final three volumes of the edition will contain the bulk of these works – OCD 745-747 – with the Pathetique Overture coupled with the Sixth Symphony and Miaskovskians will certainly await that release with anticipation. Otherwise the Salutation Overture, recorded by Samoilov, will be found on a disc devoted to the 17th and 21st symphonies. In the meantime – and assuming that Olympia’s extraordinary ambition is maintained – I would concentrate on the ASV (but try at least to hear Dudarova’s Two Pieces) and Samoilov’s Lyric Concertino (you’ll get the Serenade and the Salutation – sometimes called Greetings – Overture as well).

Lyric Concertino in G Op. 32/3
Moscow New Opera Orchestra conducted by Yevgeni Samoilov
Olympia OCD528
USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Verbitzky
Olympia OCD 177

St Petersburg Chamber Ensemble conducted by Roland Melia

Salutation Overture Op. 48
Moscow New Opera Orchestra conducted by Yevgeni Samoilov
Olympia OCD528

Serenade in E Flat Op. 32/1
Moscow New Opera Orchestra conducted by Yevgeni Samoilov
Olympia OCD528
USSR Ministry of Defence Orchestra conducted by Nikolai Mikailov
ZYX-Melodiya MEL 46024-2
USSR Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Verbitzky
Olympia OCD 105

Silence – Symphonic Poem Op. 9
Bratislava Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Stankovsky
Marco Polo 8.223302

Sinfonietta B Minor Op. 32/2
Moscow New Opera Orchestra conducted by Yevgeni Samoilov
Olympia OCD528
St Petersburg Chamber Ensemble conducted by Roland Melia
Chamber Orchestra Kremlin conducted by Misha Rachlevsky
Claves CD 50-9415
USSR Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Verbitzky
Olympia OCD 105
Musici de Montreal conducted by Yuri Turovsky
Chandos CHAN 9891

Sinfonietta A Minor Op. 68/2
Dalgat String Ensemble conducted by Roland Melia
Naxos 8.550953
Chamber Orchestra Kremlin conducted by Misha Rachlevsky
Claves CD 50-9415

Theme and Variations
St Petersburg Chamber Orchestra conducted by Roland Melia

Two Pieces for String Orchestra Op. 46 A
Chamber Orchestra Kremlin conducted by Misha Rachlevsky
Claves CD 50-9415
St Petersburg Chamber Ensemble conducted by Roland Melia
Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by Veronika Dudarova
Olympia OCD 170


The announcement that all 27 Symphonies should soon be available on Olympia is the news that Miaskovskians have wanted to hear for years. The company acquired the rights after a remarkable sequence of events. During 1991-93 the bulk of the Symphonies were recorded by Evgeny Svetlanov conducting the Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra (formerly known as the USSR State Symphony Orchestra and as the Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra). It should be noted that Symphony No. 3 was recorded in 1965 and Nos 19 and 22 in 1970. The rest are from the early nineties. Svetlanov himself paid for a limited edition of c300 copies to be made available (the rumour is that neither he nor the orchestra were paid for the recordings) and in 2001 copies began circulation, albeit they were few and expensive. Olympia’s acquisition is the most important and comprehensive series imaginable and, ironically, means that this section of the article is of less significance than it might otherwise be.

I would again start by directing readers to the Editor’s remarkable review of the first five volumes of the Svetlanov series, and his current reviews of Volumes 6-9 which no Miaskovskian should overlook. I would assume that admirers of the composer will purchase some, many or even all of Svetlanov’s edition – not least to acquire those much talked about, never previously recorded Symphonies 4, 14 and 20. My discussion will be a modest one, selecting and analysing certain recordings and drawing some conclusions about performance practise and stylistic matters generally. I have heard none of the new Svetlanov discs and will instead concentrate on the otherwise available symphonic masterpieces – the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Tenth and Twenty First, with reference also- sometimes brief - to the First, Second, Third, Eighth, Ninth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Nineteenth and Twenty Second.

The Fifth Symphony in D major, Op. 18, was completed in 1918. He always maintained that it was not a War Symphony and that it was rather a relaxation from writing the Fourth. The Fourth, which we will soon be able to hear in Svetlanov’s traversal, was a far more likely candidate for the superscription of ‘War Symphony’ though the composer’s reticence to ascribe specificities extended even here and he merely noted a general psychological reaction to the War and not a particular series of events. Nevertheless in temporal terms at any rate the Fifth’s genesis was rooted in impressions gained during war service and come from the Przemysl forests in 1915 whilst elements of the scherzo came to the composer whilst he was stationed near Dvinsk in 1916. A year later, now in Revel, themes from the finale insinuated themselves into the compositional fabric. It has been conjectured by Alexei Ikonnikov that the War in some ways liberated Miaskovsky from the formalities and constraints within which he had lived and which led to an increased vitality in his writing. What remains true is that the Fifth is his first great symphonic achievement.

There are three contenders; Ivanov, transferred from LP, Rozhdestvensky, from 1982, and Edward Downes, the most recent of the recordings. A beautifully flowing clarinet line over string chords opens the Fifth and in Downes’ hands, in a generous yet clear acoustic, it is shaped with care and finesse. There is not however the same sense of monumental inevitability or architectural linearity as there is to be found in Konstantin Ivanov’s recording from 1977. Ivanov, a student of Miaskovsky’s most consistently inspired and inspiring conductor, Alexander Gauk, is in turn more measured than Rozhdestvensky who, in a stale acoustic with a poorly defined bass line, gets off to a thoroughly bad start. These are the essential qualities that distinguish the readings; over geniality from Downes, pointless impetuosity from Rozhdestvensky and consummate understanding from Ivanov. It is, in fact, instructive to see how and why a Miaskovsky performance fails to work. In Rozhdestvensky’s case his recording is an incidental liability. We’ve noted the ill-defined bass line but there is also the indistinct string tone and the raucously blaring trumpets at 2’52 in the First Movement. True the conductor captures something of the second Movement’s ambiguities – those scurrying strings, that uneasy recapitulation but in the Allegro burlando the compositional material seems stretched very thinly and you rather wish Miaskovsky had written a Mahlerian Burlesque. And that’s not something one feels in better performances or should be allowed to feel. Balance is awry in the finale and the ending is distinctly unconvincing. Throughout, in fact, the conductor strains to make sense of the syntax, and doesn’t seem to trust Miaskovsky’s writing, preferring instead a somewhat forced and crude reading that rushes paragraphal points in an attempt to limit perceived structural limitations. Downes, by contrast, encourages pliantly fluent woodwind playing from the very fist bars. It was only in the first movement’s fugal section that worries began to creep in, beyond those of tempo. The orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, plays well – as it did in the live broadcast of the work made at around the same time as this recording – but there is a real lack of a luminous sense of direction and vague hints of menace. The reprise is again forceful but never thrilling though I did very much admire the "settling down" of string sonorities – weight of tone excellently judged – at the end of the first movement. In the second movement Downes is again an advocate of directness and simplicity and I liked the way the ominous horns and lowering wind are nicely untangled in the orchestral texture – he is an expert unstitcher of orchestral tapestries to the betterment of the musical argument. And yet isn’t there something undercooked about those striving strings in the fugato of the second movement? And when the rocking opening figure returns why does it seem simply a reprise – why does it feel as if the material has been untouched, the argument unmoved, by the preceding depths? Downes’ third movement is excellent bringing out the composer’s subordinate use of the first movement melody. Excellently balanced pizzicatos as well with attractive woodwind blending and a sheen on the instrumentation. The Finale is again "straight" and enjoyable. The peroration is grandly achieved and not muffed as it is with Rozhdestvensky; it’s only when one turns to Ivanov, from the good to the inspired, that we begin to understand what we have been missing.

It’s no use pretending that Ivanov enjoys a superior recording – it’s palpably inferior to Downes’ – but the gains are obvious. The measured opening with woodwind forward in the balance leads to emphasis on the clarity of upper strings. Ivanov evinces a palpable sense of developmental movement as he does of dynamic acuity – listen to the way he balances clarinet with horn in the first movement and the beautifully shaped string "replies" he encourages. His level of architectural and acoustic subtlety operates on a consistently higher level than his rivals – indeed there aren’t many Miaskovsky conductors who demonstrate Ivanov’s command – and it is typical of him that the fugal episode that in Downes’ hands was so benign and in Rozhdestvensky’s was so nondescript should be with Ivanov so full of clarity and menace. There is a thrilling return to the grandiose theme of the first movement, gradations delineated, textures excellent. The folk-waltz theme here is more properly and completely integrated and it’s also better articulated and has a peak and a natural rise and fall. In the Lento Ivanov seems to explore the more obsessively repeated aspects of the writing in greater depth. You feel the lullaby in this movement is poisoned, you feel the impress of Fate in the rocking figure and the real meaning of the movement evolving in consequential inevitability. Listen to the violins’ dying away at and after the end of the woodwind passage and before the insistent horn and admire the way Ivanov makes sense of this otherwise fractured music, how he unfolds the unresolved resolution of the movement’s close. Ivanov takes a much, much steadier tempo than Rozhdestvensky in the Allegro burlando; the solo violin emerges naturally from the texture and there is nothing simple-minded about the movement as there can be with his rivals. The playfulness Ivanov encourages is consistent with the symphonic argument. In the finale Ivanov is again steadier than his rivals. The effect is to heighten the risoluto marking with the baleful lower brass and the gallantly uplifting string line. The resolution is here never properly achieved – the sense of struggle is palpable, the sense too of a decisive collapse never entirely absent until the final triumphantly augmented tune returns. Here is great Miaskovsky conducting - constantly alive to balance, both orchestral and musical; presenting a symphonic argument.

© Jonathan Woolf, October 2002
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