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Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Complete Symphonies (27) and Orchestral Works
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Evgeny Svetlanov (3, 19, 22)
Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. Grand Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow. 1965-1994
complete contents list at end of review
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 69689-8 [16 CDs: c. 21:30:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This is number 35 in Warner Classics’ totally admirable Svetlanov series and a thunderously large instalment it is too.

What we have here are Miaskovsky’s 27 symphonies with two overtures, two early tone poems (one after Poe; the other, Shelley), three sinfoniettas, one serenade, one Divertissement, one Concertino Lirico, one Slav Rhapsody and a piece called Links. It’s all the music for orchestra apart from the two concertos and choral works with orchestra (Kirov is With Us and Kremlin by Night). Note that the version of the Sixth Symphony here is the version minus chorus – which in any event is marked ad libitum. The symphonies span forty and more years from 1908 to 1949 – from pre-Revolution Tsarist times to post-Great Patriotic War Communism - four years short of the death of Stalin and of Myaskovsky’s friend, Prokofiev.

This cycle was, with the exception of symphonies 3, 19 and 22 from 1965 and 1970, recorded during the years 1991-94. The project formed the single largest chapter in Svetlanov’s gargantuan-ambitious ‘Russian Symphonic Anthology’. It arrived just as the Melodiya of yore was losing its footing and as its links with the State were being severed. A few of the symphonies were issued on individual Melodia SUCD discs but these were no more than a handful. They were then released en bloc in a very limited and lightly documented box by Records International. Then Olympia, which had produced the odd ex-Melodiya non-Svetlanov Myaskovsky in the 1980s, set about issuing the cycle a disc at a time. They got as far as volume 10 and then folded. Russian Disc issued the symphonies complete in four boxes in the early 2000s but those sets were scarce outside the Russian Federation and not exactly common inside. They disappeared almost as quickly as the four preciously rare Eshpai boxes. That said, the RD Myaskovskys do surface from time to time on ebay - often at a hideous price. For the last twelve months Regis-Alto in the UK have, in the most unpredictably unlikely and admirable move ever, picked up the baton let slip by Olympia. Alto are now steadily releasing the remaining Svetlanov-Myaskovskys in a series completely uniform with the start made by Olympia. So far they have reached volume 13.

The early symphonies inhabit an intense Scriabin-like world with Tchaikovskian excursions. The First is played with total Russian commitment with crackling abrasive brass in the first movement. The Second Symphony is a work from his time in Moscow at the end of his formal studies. It was premiered in 1915. The music has a swooning hysteria and craggy gait so characteristic of the composer and redolent of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead and Tchaikovsky's Fifth. The Third shudders forward aggressive and brooding. Melancholy suffuses even the odd shaft of brightness. This issue is ADD and was recorded in the 1960s. The Fourth is very rare indeed. It was planned as a work 'quiet, simple and humble' but is in fact determined and stern even when it moves with speed and fury. It holds fascination in reflecting the first stirrings of material to be developed in the tragic-heroic Fifth. Speaking of which Svetlanov’s Fifth, newly recorded strikes me as the only real miss-hit in the cycle. The Fifth is the Myaskovsky work I would propose to 'unbelievers'. Unfortunately Svetlanov takes the work at a lumbering pace which, although revealing details often subsumed in drama, rather saps the work's wondrous power. This is certainly the best recorded sound and the orchestral contribution is matchless even in subtlety. But for the real essence of this piece you need to track down Olympia (OCD133) which has the Konstantin Ivanov recording. Only slightly behind that comes a Balkanton CD 030078 at c 38.00. Then there is the excellent Marco Polo 8.223499 - BBCPO/Edward Downes. This is the quickest of all at just short of 36.00 and is much easier to get.

The towering Sixth Symphony is given a furiously, whipped and fleet-footed reading at the sort of clip you might have expected from Golovanov on an impetuous day. Would that Svetlanov had found this pacing for his recording of the Fifth. The Dudarova (on a previous Olympia OCD510) is better than serviceable and well engineered but lacks the imaginative heft to be found in the other recordings. Kondrashin's mono Sixth on and Melodiya is revered but its mono tracking and sound quality renders it of historic value rather than being recommendable in the face of this Svetlanov, the DG Järvi and the still surprisingly good Stankovsky (Marco Polo). If you want the work with the choral finale then go for Järvi; if you are content with the orchestra-only version then Svetlanov on Olympia is the one to opt for.

The 25 minute Seventh is dwarfed by its mighty predecessor. It too rattles cages but the darkling pages are this time alive with distressed shreds of Ravel's La Valse and distorted reflections of Tchaikovsky's Fifth. The work opens in an uncanny image of the start of Bax's Second Symphony. Bass accented strings shudder, pregnant with bleak tension.  The work plunges and charges along. The work ends with a snarl and a lump in the throat.

Between the gloomy harmonic complexities of the Seventh and before the dissonances of the Ninth the Eighth represents an innocence and folk-like character shot through the essence of folksongs. After a stormy scherzo there comes a Ravel-like Adagio - a real gem with a succulent role for the cor anglais. The song, which is of Bashkiri origin, is sad and lovely perhaps rather Bax-Irish too.

The Ninth was dedicated to Nikolai Malko. The Andante sostenuto depends on one of those wide-ranging and yearning melodies played surgingly and with flowing, tender and sombre power by the strings.

The one-movement Tenth was premiered by the conductorless Persimfans orchestra, on 2 April 1928. Myaskovsky wrote it after his one and only journey outside the USSR when he went to Vienna to sign a contract with Universal Edition. It radiates stress and turmoil, struggle and dissonant violence.

The Svetlanov Eleventh Symphony 'competes' with Veronika Dudarova's Moscow SO version on another time-expired Olympia (OCD133 issued in 1987!). Dudarova's Eleventh goes at a smarter clip than Svetlanov's (31.09 rather than 34.46). The Symphony is certainly worth having and Svetlanov does it very well indeed. He breathes ruddy life into the work which is written in Myaskovsky's most accessible style. The horn-lofted theme at 3.45 is tossed from section to section of the orchestra with confident abandon and it works ... in spades.

The Twelfth Symphony was premiered in Moscow under the baton of Albert Coates. This is in the usual three movements rather than the Fifth's four. It has been recorded once before on Marco Polo with Stankovsky and the Czecho-Slovak RSO (8.223302) but Svetlanov makes more of this than Stankovsky. A dancing and sometimes poetic Slavonic folksiness plays through the big first movement It is not top-notch Myaskovsky but it is attractive enough if you are into 20th century celebratory Russian nationalism.

The Thirteenth Symphony is a soul brother to No. 3: equally gloomy but tonally adventurous - so much so that, clarity of orchestration aside, it suggests Bernard van Dieren in the Chinese Symphony. Frank Bridge, Bax and Berg are other triangulation points. Svetlanov gives us the world's first ever commercial recording and makes what I take to be an expressionist success of it. This is a twenty minute single movement essay in contemplation and stormy hammerhead clouds.

After the morose and gloomy Thirteenth the Fourteenth's folksy artlessness was more in keeping with the political correctness of the times. Myaskovsky's use of five movements also suggested something closer to a suite. This is one of Myaskovsky's lighter efforts.

The Symphony No. 15 is radiant with the composer's trademark nostalgia and rip-roaring cavalry charges. You get both in the first movement while in the second there are reminiscences of the catastrophic nightmare world of the Sixth Symphony including some really eerie music. The third movement is a fast-moving waltz with the emphasis on Tchaikovskian excitement rather than the voluptuous sway of the dancers.

Composition of the Sixteenth Symphony began shortly after the crash of the giant eight-engine Soviet passenger aeroplane Tupolev Maxim Gorky. The first movement is full of intrepidly heroic and exciting music. The third movement has the reverent pace of a funeral march with the emphasis on the sound of the wind section. The finale makes use of the composer's own popular song The aeroplanes are flying in the sky.

The epic Seventeenth Symphony softens into smiling kindness in the finale. The brass throughout are idiomatically Russian with that glowing part warble - part bloom. The heroic aspects have a leisurely majesty – listen to those agonising and agonised trumpets and the superhuman striving of the massed brass in the first movement.

The mood of the Eighteenth Symphony is rambunctious like a boozy country fair with echoes of Balakirev's concert overtures and Mussorgsky's Neva melancholy. The idyll of the long lento gives way to a return to folksy capering and the gentle musing of the silver birch trees. The work was very popular in the Soviet Union and travelled far and wide carrying its dedication to the twentieth anniversary of the October Revolution. It was even arranged for military band - a version that so impressed the composer that the Nineteenth was actually written for military band. 

The Nineteenth Symphony has been recorded several times before; most recently with Rozhdestvensky and the Stockholm Concert Band (Chandos). The music of the first movement moves between a Prokofiev-style brusque quick-march and a sound very reminiscent of Vaughan Williams' Sea Songs and the Moorside Suite by Holst. There is none of the bombast you might have been expecting from a soviet military band piece. Playful, gleeful, romantic and even a shade heroic but as for empty gestures not a one.

The vibrant Twentieth has one of those gifts of a theme, wholly Russian, haunting, exultant, nostalgic, plangent, sad and poignant with an exalted spirit lofted high by a blaze of strings and a supreme brass choir. This recording session must have left everyone exhausted and amazed.

The wartime Twenty-First is also superbly done and is allocated a single track. Svetlanov's command of atmosphere is immediate. I had forgotten how the introduction before the ‘cavalry charge’ figure was so close to the expressionist angst of symphonies 7 and 13. After a moments of skirling power and tramping fugal character the music rises to a peak of tortured triumph. The work settles into a Sibelian shimmer at the close with some plangent bass-emphasised pizzicato writing.

The Twenty-Second (also termed ‘Symphony-Ballad’) will be known to Miaskovskian old hands from ages gone. They will know it from the EMI-Melodiya ASD LP of circa 1971 to the late 1980s Olympia reissue with Feigin's excellent version of the Violin Concerto. It is a superb work, burnished and radiant with baritonal Russian spirit. The orchestra plays with fervour. The gripping playing of the strings and defiant nobility of the brass deserve special mention. The echo-singing of the heaven-clawing strings in the first movement recalls his first 'war symphony' (the masterly Fifth). The Twenty-Third is another lighter work comparable with the Eighteenth but its lighter touch is set in sharp relief by the tragic and beetling power of the Twenty-Fourth.

Symphony No. 25 has a real charging attack in the allegro impetuoso third movement. This vigour is offset by a lovely melancholy. Listen also to the calamitously screaming trumpets emulating garish bugle calls.

The Twenty-Sixth Symphony looks back to Balakirev's Overture on Three Russian Themes, to Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia to Rimsky's Antar and to the rustic courtliness of the Glazunov symphonies. This is termed a symphony 'on Russian themes' rather along the lines of the Twenty-Third and Prokofiev's Kabardinian string quartet (No. 2). It is played with fiery flair.

The Symphony No. 27 is better known and has been recorded several times over the years. Svetlanov brings out the autumnal, meditative and melancholic colouration of the first movement with its remarkably Finzian gravity. Towards the end of the movement another ‘signature’ ‘charge’ topped off with a stomping dance 'tail' is excitingly done. The central adagio demonstrates Myaskovsky's art of placing and shaping woodwind solos with the after-tone of sadness and lustrous grace.

As substantial bonuses one also gets Svetlanov’s massed forces versions of the Serenade, Concertino Lirico and Sinfoniettas and the overtures, tone poems and some ballet music but the focus is quite naturally on the symphonies here.

The present set is available in the UK for £43. In sheer grocer’s terms that’s just over £2.50 per disc. Documentation with the Warner set is skimpy by comparison with the palatial notes on Olympia and now on Alto by the late Per Skans. Another writer, Jeffrey Davis has taken over where Skans set down his pen.

It is miraculous that all these Myaskovsky works are available so economically. For an intégrale it’s the only game in town. It is a real blessing that it is at such an accessible price.

The Alto-Olympia cycle is only available as of today in four volumes. The ten Olympias can be had but often at fearful prices. If you are looking for the fully documented Svetlanov-Myaskovsky recordings and perhaps you already have all ten Olympias then Alto-Olympia is the way to go. It delivers a sequence that is completely uniform with Olympia.

On the other hand if you want all these wondrous works in a hurry, at minimal price and can settle for minimal documentation – perhaps supplemented by a secondhand copy of Ikonnov’s 1940s study - which covers many but not all the symphonies - then you need look no further.

Rob Barnett

Complete Contents List:

CD 1 [76:46]
Symphony No.1, C minor, op.3 (1908) [41:30]; Symphony No.25, D flat major, op.69 (1945-46) [34:53]
CD 2 [75:07]
Symphony No.10, F minor, op.30 (1926-27) [16:43]; Symphony No.11, B flat minor, op.34 (1931-32) [34:29]; Symphony No.19, E flat major, op.46 (1939) [23:23]
CD 3 [78:46]
Symphony No.9, C minor, op.28 (1926-27) [41:30]; Symphony No.14, C major, op.37 (1933) [36:58]
CD 4 [76:12]
Symphony No.7, B minor, op.24 (1922) [23:44]; Symphony No.8, A major, op.26 (1924-25) [52:12]
CD 5 [76:38]
Symphony No.5, D major, op.18 (1918) [33:47]; Symphony No.12, G minor, op.35 (1931-32) [32:26]
CD 6 [77:41]
Symphony No.4, C minor, op.17 (1917-18) [40:41]; Symphony No.15, D minor, op.38 (1935) [38:31]
CD 7 [75:01]
Symphony No.17, G sharp minor, op.41 (1936-37) [47:49]; Symphony No.20, E major, op.50 (1940) [36:52]
CD 8 [79:04]
Symphony-ballad No.22, B minor, Ballade, op.54 (1941) [36:23]; Symphony No.26, C major, op.79 (1948) [42:30]
CD 9 [74:03]
Symphony No.24, F minor, op.63 (1943) [38:44]; Symphony No.27, C minor, op.85 (1949) [34:54]
CD 10 [79:37]
Symphony No.3, A minor, op.15 (1914) [46:31]; Symphony No. 23, Symphony-Suite, A minor, op.56 (1941) [33:15]
CD 11 [79:48]
Symphony No.16, F major, op.39 (1935-36) [35:46]; Symphony No.18, C major, op.42 (1937) [23:39]; Hulpigung’s Overture (or Salutatory Overture), C major, op.48 (1939) [9:49]
CD 12 [79:01]
Symphony No.2, C sharp minor, op.11 (1910-11) [46:46]; Symphony No.13, B flat minor, op.36 (1933) [20:26]; Slavonic rhapsody, D minor, op.71 (1946) [11:32]
CD 13 [78:19]
Symphony No.6, E flat minor, op.23 (1921-23) [64:11]; Pathetic Overture, C minor, op.76 (1947) [13:40]
CD 14 [77:45]
Symphony No.21, F sharp minor, op.51 (1940) [18:15]; Sinfonietta, A major, op.10 (1910) [20:11]; Silence, F minor, op.9 (1909-10) [21:26]; Serenade No.1, op.32 (1933) [17:19]
CD 15 [78:58]
Sinfonietta, B minor, op.32 No.2 (1930) [27:05]; Sinfonietta, A minor, op.68, No.2 (1945-46) [29:46]; Concertino lirico, G major, op.32, No.3 (1929) [21:24]
CD 16 [77:37]
Links of a Chain – six sketches for orchestra, op.65 (1944) [22:43]; Divertissement, op.80 (1948) [25:49]; Alastor, C minor, op.14 (1912) [25:16]


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