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Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op.23 (1921-1923) [57:12]
State Academic Russian Choir
Academic Symphony Orchestra of Moscow State Philharmonic/Kirill Kondrashin
Rec. live, concert, Great Hall, Moscow Conservatoire, 5 December 1978
MELODIYA MEL CD 10 00841 [57:12]

Myaskovsky website


Myaskovsky’s epic Sixth Symphony has a strong claim - alongside the Cello Concerto and the 21st Symphony - to be his finest work. First performed at the Bolshoi Theatre under Nikolai Golovanov on 4 May 1924, it created something of a sensation. The applause apparently went on for fifteen minutes before the unassuming composer appeared on the rostrum. He had to return a further five times and had a laurel wreath placed over his shoulders. Reports suggest that many of the audience were reduced to tears at the conclusion of the symphony.

The symphony, which is the longest of Myaskovsky’s 27, moves at a high level of inspiration, contains some of his most poetic music - the heartbreaking flute passage heard during the trio section of the scherzo second movement. It concludes with a deeply moving - although optional - choral section which is almost unique in Myaskovsky’s output, illustrating the moment when the soul leaves a dead body.

In Alexei Ikonikov’s biography of the composer, written during Myaskovsky’s lifetime and translated into English during the Second World War, the work is described by the composer as representing "the death of a revolutionary hero and the solemn honours paid to him by the people in farewell." The revolutionary credentials of the symphony would seem to be reinforced by the use of two songs of the French Revolution, the Carmagnole and Ça ira in the Finale. It must, however, be remembered that Ikonikov’s biography, written with the cooperation of Myaskovsky, was published during the Stalinist era when creative artists had to be very guarded in conforming to politically correct explanations for their work.

M. Segelman, in the very informative booklet notes accompanying this new release, reveals the extraordinary fact that, in 1918, Myaskovsky witnessed his father being shot dead by a revolutionary soldier. General Myaskovsky, like his son, had served in the Tsar’s army.

Although it is always difficult to determine the influences which may be operating at a conscious or sub-conscious level in the mind of a creative artist, such an experience as witnessing the murder of his father cannot, in my view, have failed to motivate Myaskovsky in this work. Infact, Segelman goes as far as suggesting that the Sixth Symphony is "a requiem (for) his father ...."

What of the performance itself?

When I first became aware of this recording I assumed that this was a reissue of the famous Kondrashin performance from 1959 on Russian Disc and I was therefore delighted to find that this is, in fact, a much more recent version from 1978. This must have been one of Kondrashin’s last performances in the USSR as, in the same month as the recording (December 1978), he left the Soviet Union on a concert tour of the Netherlands, never to return to his home country.

What distinguishes this Melodiya version from the earlier performance is, firstly, the far superior quality of the recording; you can simply hear so much more detail than in the 1959 version and secondly the significantly faster tempo. Remarkably, there have now been six CD versions of Myaskovsky’s Sixth Symphony although the excellent Myaskovsky website suggests the possible existence of a second Stankovsky version with the Bratislava Radio Symphony Orchestra. Kondrashin’s 1978 performance is the only one which comes in at under an hour. Dudarova’s Olympia version is the longest at over 70 minutes. Kondrashin has a unique authority in this repertoire and his performance possesses a quite gripping sense of urgency from the very opening of the work. The First Movement ends in the deepest gloom and the more expansive recording certainly adds to the sombre atmosphere with details like the funereal drumbeats coming over much more clearly than on the earlier Kondrashin version.

The Third Movement "Andante appassionato" is, if anything, more deeply felt in the 1978 recording and the dramatic entry of the choir in the last movement comes over superbly. My only disappointment is that the crucial scherzo flute passage, mentioned earlier, is taken at simply too fast a speed here. It is a moment of supreme beauty which seems to suggest a heartfelt longing for an irretrievably lost past. Here, unfortunately, it simply sounds rushed and therefore loses much of its impact. In my view this is the main drawback of what is otherwise a gripping and often deeply moving performance.

What of the competition? Kondrashin’s earlier Russian Disc recording still seems to be available and is the best performance on CD but its impact is slightly blunted through the age of the recording, Dudarova’s Olympia version is solid but underpowered, Svetlanov’s recording with the Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra, also on Olympia would be a top recommendation were it not for the absence of the (optional) choir in the final section which means that there is a slightly, less than usual, spine-tingling apotheosis to the work. I always felt that the Stankovsky Czechoslovak version on Marco Polo was underrated on its initial release (1991). True, it is not as gripping or powerful as the two Kondrashin recordings or Svetlanov’s for that matter, but it does contain moments of great insight (the flute passage for instance) and, in its understated way, lends itself to repeated listening. Like so many other worthwhile Marco Polo releases, I hope that this recording appears on Naxos in due course.

This leaves Neeme Järvi’s Gothenburg recording on DG, which is perhaps the current front-runner. The recording is spectacular, allowing you to hear much more detail than in nearly all the other versions. The performance is very fine indeed if not quite generating the same level of visceral excitement as found in the Kondrashin and Svetlanov versions which were, after all, made with Russian orchestras.

Having scoured the record shops of Moscow and Leningrad (as it was then called) in the mid-1980s for records by Myaskovsky, only to come away with a couple of LPs of his string quartets and none of his symphonies, it is a matter of considerable joy that so many recordings now exist of his music although it was a tragedy that Olympia was never able to complete the issue of its pioneering set of the complete symphonies under the redoubtable Svetlanov.

The new Kondrashin version comes with excellent notes, a characteristically soulful photograph of the introverted composer and the best cover art of any recording, a sepia image of a peasant lighting a cigarette by N.P. Andreev (1882-1947), from 1924, the same year as the first performance of the Symphony.

Whether Myaskovsky’s Sixth Symphony relates to the events of the Russian Revolution, personal tragedy in the composer’s life, the betrayal of political idealism during the "Red Terror" or none of these, it remains a great, sprawling heroic epic.

Kondrashin’s Melodiya performance is fully worthy of it and should be in any self-respecting Myaskovsky collection.

Jeffrey Davis


see also Nikolai MIASKOVSKY A Survey of the Chamber Works, Orchestral Music and Concertos on Record By JONATHAN WOOLF



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