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Nikolai MIASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Symphony No. 24 (1943) [35.08]
Symphony No. 25 (1946) [30.58]
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Rec. 18, 22-23 Oct 2000, Radio House, Moscow, DDD
NAXOS 8.555376 [66.07]

Two splendid symphonies by the finest of all Russian symphonists, Nikolai Yakovlevich Myaskovsky who lived from 1881 to 1950.

I have been collecting recordings and broadcasts of his symphonies for many years since I fell in love with his last symphony, the Symphony no. 27 in C minor, Opus 87, on an old Melodiya LP conducted by Alexander Gauk. Chandos have a better sounding version of that glorious piece with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under Valeri Polyansky on Chandos CHAN 10025.

My friend Bryden Thomson gave the British premiere of the Symphony no 1 in C minor about a decade ago. The massive Symphony no. 6 in E flat minor is a towering masterpiece and is available on Marco Polo 8.223301. That company has also coupled symphonies 5 and 9 together in performances conducted by the redoubtable Edward Downes, numbers 7 and 10 are on 8.223113, number 8 on 8.223297 and number 12 on 8.223302. These performances are by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Robert Stankovsky. Marco Polo have also recorded all the piano sonatas played by Endre Hegedus.

Olympia has recorded many of the symphonies. We were promised seventeen discs. The first ten volumes appeared and the trail has now come to an abrupt end.

What makes Myaskovsky so special? After all, his symphonies have never really taken off. This is primarily because people selfishly want Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich to have all the attention. Not even Prokofiev's finest symphonies are that frequently played and, curiously, it is the best of his symphonies which are played the least: the Second Symphony, ‘the symphony of iron and steel’ as the composer called it, and the magnificent Symphony no. 6. Myaskovsky's Symphony no 6, is also in E flat minor.

The Symphony no. 24 in F minor is a tribute to Myaskovsky’s friend Vladimir Derzhanovsky who had died in 1942. He began the symphony in March 1943. Then he learned of the death of Rachmaninov and so the symphony was a double lament yet it is a strong work - not sparse or wallowing but rich in colour and texture and, as always with this composer, full of melodic lines sometimes of very great beauty. The Symphony was completed in August 1943 and the score handed to that superlative conductor Eugene Mravinsky who premiered it at the Moscow Conservatory on 8 December 1943.

It opens with a fanfare - a reminder of the vigours and virtues of life itself. The first movement is in sonata form - a clear and very satisfying form in which this composer excels. The movement is headed Allegro deciso and I would have preferred a more heroic reading from this performance which seems to run out of steam. However, this will not worry anyone unduly. The slow movement reveals this composer's masterly use of the orchestra and the contrasting use of the material yet the composer very cleverly avoids turning the movement into episodes; it hangs together well. The finale, also in sonata form, recalls material from the first movement and, again, is beautifully constructed. The climaxes are shattering and well-judged: full of colour and stirring exhilaration. It is only in the last pages that the composer comes to terms with the tragedy and the movement ends ethereally in F major.

It is a lovely, warm and glowing work.

Myaskovsky was criticised all his life and was also subject to the absurd Communist stand. The Soviets’ attitude to music was as ridiculous as its counterpart criticism of today. ‘Music that has no tune or cannot be sung or whistled is not music’, people cry. Music without melody, or coat-hangers as the professionals call it, is not music at all. It is opined that the majority of people in the West adopt this blinkered view. Barbirolli said that no music written after 1934 was any good and some written before 1934 was not very good either. Melody is not an essential ingredient to music and yet Myaskovsky's symphonies blossom with melody and are criticised for being too old-fashioned!

His craftsmanship and orchestration is quite superb and his melodies are often stick-in-the-mind tunes!

His own health began to suffer. Being a bachelor and living with his sister on whom he did not want to be a burden he hid his sufferings although he did stay at health resorts from time to time thus sparing his sister responsibility.

The Symphony no. 25 in D flat was his first symphony after the war being sketched in the summer of 1946 and premiered on 6 March 1947 by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Gauk.

It was received rapturously and no wonder. It is another very fine work.

It begins with a slow movement which is a set of variations on a Russian theme. In this the composer is expressing his nationalistic love ... and what a lovely movement it is. The second movement is marked Moderato and is cantabile in style while all the drama occurs in a very impressive finale with a relentless drive (this performance could have been more relentless) in which the main theme of the opening movement reappears.

When you have heard these symphonies you know that you have heard some really fine music, flawless in content and presentation with as great an appeal as those by Tchaikovsky and, in the view of many, much better written!

I have heard them played better but for £4.99 one cannot quibble. It is when you get to know and love these glorious works that you search for the perfection they deserve.

David C F Wright

see also review by Kevin Sutton and Jonathan Woolf

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