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Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Symphony No. 23 in A minor op. 56 (1942) [33:27]
Symphony No. 24 in F minor op. 63 (1942) [38:56]
Russian Federation Academic SO/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1991-93, Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory. DDD
volume 14 in the Myaskovsky Edition - Complete Symphonic Works
ALTO ALC1024 (Olympia OCD744)


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Alto have held true to immaculate standards in their continuation of the Olympia Myaskovsky project. Olympia's discs – some of which now command vertigo-inducing prices on ebay – ran to ten volumes and then folded when the company stopped trading. Alto have picked up the fallen baton and this is the fourth of their continuation series. There's no overlap. If you have or can get the Olympias this means you now have all the symphonies. With three more discs you will have the complete series including various overtures, sinfoniettas and serenades. Alto's attention to continuity extends as far as quoting the serial number Olympia would have used had they not been cut down mid-stride. They even continue the scheme of spelling out Myaskovsky's name on the spine with one letter per disc. 

Per Skans’ notes were such a bulwark of the Olympia series but his death halted that contribution too although he did complete the note for Symphony 24 and that is used here. Jeffrey Davis has taken his place and provides a very full note on Symphony 23. He carries the standard high. Annotation is one of the unique selling points of the Alto-Olympia edition which compares very favourably with the scant annotation of the inexpensive Warner Myaskovsky-Svetlanov symphony box. 

While symphonies 24 and 25 have been in harness before (Melodiya and Naxos) these two have never shared a disc. Placed side by side they remind us of two Myaskovskian themes: folk voices (23) and the epic-heroic (24). Both works are war-time creations. The first, designated as symphonic suite (like Rimsky's Antar) is deeply soulful and wondrously glowing. It is redolent of its contemporary RVW's Fifth Symphony. Sincere and soulful, without bathos, it makes for a slow burn and seems to carry also a redolence of Orthodox chant. For a war-time symphony it approaches national spirit without brash heroics. It taps the underlying pulse of nationhood without crowd scenes, banners or grand parades. After two yearning singing movements the finale looks to the celebration of Borodin's Polovtsi camp rather than to Shostakovich's ramparts and tank battles. It’s very much a natural progression in the nationalist line of Balakirev, Borodin and Rimsky. 

There is no mistaking the heroic agenda of Symphony No. 24. It is dedicated to his friend the musicologist Vladimir Derzhanovsky who died the same year as Rachmaninov. The RSFRSO brass players are simply magnificent - rhetoric irradiated with sincerity. Comparing Myaskovsky with Shostakovich is to compare a composer whose fundamentally conservative tonal language - rooted in Tchaikovsky and Scriabin - answered his expressive need with a composer of raw and unflinchingly violent distinctive originality. The middle movement (each symphony is in three) opens in folk-inflected contentment but rises to heroically grandstanded statement recalling the heightened emotionalism of the first movement of the underrated Seventeenth Symphony. While listening to this recording it came home to me that his clamant heroism is distinctive not just because of the cargo of tragedy but also because he speaks of a better tomorrow. This is not in any facile agit-prop poster way but because it is part of the warp and weft of this composer's creative engine. This quintessentially sanguine music articulates its optimism alongside tragedy. After an evidently heartfelt Molto sostenuto comes a demonstrative allegro appassionato with a touch of Reger-Strauss about its fugal-accented introduction. The orchestra is amazingly powerful and responsive and its brass and woodwind retain some of the distinctive character. Listen to that abrasive bray and the liquid singing of the Russian playing tradition. 

Symphony 23 was premiered by Golovanov in Moscow on 5 June 1942 and 24 by Mravinsky, again in Moscow, on 8 December 1943. 

There you have it: two wartime symphonies: one stirringly heroic; the other folksy nationalist.

Rob Barnett

Myaskovsky review index


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