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Nikolai MIASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 44 (1938)
Mieczyslaw VAINBERG (1919-1996)

Violin Concerto in G minor, Opus 67 (1961)
Ilya Grubert (violin)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Yablonsky
Rec 27 February-5 March 2003, Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House
NAXOS 8.557194 [66.49]


Both Miaskovsky and Vainberg were significant figures in Soviet musical life, though in the case of the latter (see below) his career was somewhat more extensive and cosmopolitan. This enterprising Naxos issue brings their skilfully written violin concertos into contention, and the enterprise proves thoroughly worthwhile.

Miaskovsky is best known as the composer of 27 symphonies. They are works of substance in every sense of that word. So too the Violin Concerto he wrote for the great David Oistrakh in 1938. With a playing time of some forty minutes the real challenge in performing this piece is to sustain the music’s scope and scale, of justifying the vision. It is a challenge that this recorded performance manages, if only just. It is dangerous, admittedly, to be really sure about this without studying the work carefully and closely, but it does seem to be the case.

The approach of Miaskovsky the symphonist is mirrored in this concerto, particularly so in the twenty-minute first movement. There is a sure sense of lyrical line from the collaboration of Ilya Grubert and Dmitry Yablonsky, the soloist and conductor. The booklet proclaims the recording to be the product of the ‘Merging Technologies Pyramix’ system, no less, but the sound is not particularly strong, vivid, or atmospheric. If anything the acoustic is wanting in presence. What is more successful is the balancing of solo and ensemble, which for once in a concerto recording affords the violin a realistic perspective and size.

Ilya Grubert is a young player of impeccable credentials, with a most pleasing lyrical line and tone. If there is not a strong priority of virtuosity that is because for Miaskovsky the development of the musical material is always paramount. For this reason, perhaps, it is the central slow movement, a beautifully eloquent Adagio molto cantabile, that makes the most pleasing impression.

As for more instant impressions, the Vainberg Concerto starts imposingly, with a striking rhythmic impact. Shostakovich was an early admirer of the piece, describing it as ‘a magnificent work’. In fact he admired Vainberg as a musician and as a man, and even interceded on the latter’s behalf when he was arrested as ‘an enemy of the people’ by the Communist authorities in 1953. Per Skans, in his excellent insert note, suggests that Vainberg might not have survived had it not been for the death of Stalin that year. Vainberg was of Polish-Jewish descent, as his name reveals, and came to Russia at the end of the 1930s when he fled the Nazi threat. He lived on into the post-Glasnost era.

The back cover of this Naxos issue proclaims the Vainberg Concerto as ‘a large-scale work’, and so it is, though it must be said that its four movements turn out to be a good ten minutes shorter than Miaskovsky’s three movements. But the Vainberg Concerto is a fine composition that justifies its thirty-minute span most convincingly. The stirring opening bars set the tone and there is always an imaginative relationship between solo and orchestra. The development of the material reveals a composer steeped in classical procedures, and possessed of a sure technique, an important consideration in a concerto. There are some telling orchestral touches, such as the distinctive roles accorded to harp and celesta, but as in the Miaskovsky Concerto one has the feeling that more rehearsal time might have paid dividends. This is hardly music that the orchestra will have known intimately.

The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra is another case of the creation of a new ensemble for the purposes of recording, but an ensemble who regularly work together. The Russians have always had a tendency for creating new ensembles as and when required, and these days the standard of the playing is high even if the results do not sound as distinctively Russian as they once did.

Despite these various caveats this is another appealing bargain from Naxos, with typically useful accompanying documentation. Vainberg in particular is a composer we seldom get the chance to hear, and his Violin Concerto is undoubtedly worth hearing. Shostakovich, for one, thought so.

Terry Barfoot

Another appealing bargain from Naxos … the Vainberg Violin Concerto is undoubtedly worth hearing. … see Full Review


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