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Nicolai Yakovlevich MIASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
String Quartets Volume 1

String Quartet No.1 in A minor Op.33 No.1 (1929-30) [23:17]
String Quartet No.2 in C minor Op.33 No.2 [19:25]
String Quartet No.3 in D minor Op.33 No.3 [26:32]
Taneyev Quartet
rec. 1983, St Petersburg Recording Studio

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String Quartets Volume 3
String Quartet No.7 in F major Op.55 (1941) [28:35]
String Quartet No.8 in F sharp minor Op.59 (1942) [24:41]
Taneyev Quartet
rec. 1982-84, St Petersburg Recording Studio

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String Quartets Volume 4
String Quartet No.9 in D minor Op.62 (1943) [26:20]
String Quartet No.10 in F major Op.67 No.1 (1907 revised 1945) [23:18]
String Quartet No.11 in E flat major Op.67 No.2 (1945) [21:05]
Taneyev Quartet
rec. 1981-84, St Petersburg Recording Studio

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The Miaskovsky string quartets have now finally been transferred in their entirety from LP to CD. Shamelessly I’m going largely to reprise my texts that accompanied an essay on the composer’s music, though I can say that I have listened twice over to each recording, basking in the longevity now accorded this body of recordings. My admiration for the Taneyev Quartet has not lessened a whit. In fact, though it’s on the fifth volume and not under discussion in these three single discs, a comparison of their traversal of the Thirteenth quartet and that of the current Borodin’s recent recording is certainly not to the disadvantage of the Taneyev. The recordings are of early to mid 1980s vintage – not obviously warm sounding, it’s true, but full of clarity and suiting the tonally combative Taneyev sound. This is a living and breathing body of performances, and though the quartets may not occupy so prominent a place in the heart of Miaskovskians as do the symphonies and concertos I strongly advocate getting to know them. They strongly reflect his compositional preoccupations and dilemmas and are a microcosm of his orchestral practices. The excellent booklet notes
are a bonus. Incidentally my review of the fifth volume in this series can be read here.
No. 1 of the Op. 33 set was actually the third to be written. It’s an intensely chromatic, slithering and complex work entirely characteristic of his mid to late 1920s techniques. It abounds in fierce contrastive material and tension-sapping dissonance – listen to the cello’s winding line through the thickets of the texture or the ambiguous lightening of that same density. There is some instructive use of the Miaskovskian full stop, a narrative device by which he makes some dramatic-paragraphal points before moving on thematically. The newly introduced conciliatory melody is soon infected by harmonic discomfort and we return to the now mutated cello line with a sense of abstract winding down. The second movement is notable for some real rhythmic licence and metrical flexibility whilst the third features an expressive violin melody –the Taneyev Quartet are remarkably fine here in their control of dynamics and attack – and a remarkable sense of the rotary; memorable writing. The jagged and angular introduction of the fourth movement leads to a folk-like tune, which threatens to go into full fugal overdrive but then relapses to a slithering hothouse, Schoenbergian atmosphere. There is a delayed climax before some motoric writing, crisp and bright and full of nervous energy leads rapidly to a fake-ending ending.
No. 3 is the Liadov-Grieg Joke Quartet, in which Miaskovsky secreted a set of variations on Grieg’s Cradle Song, Op. 66 No. 7 as a riposte to Liadov, his composition teacher, who was well known for his dislike of Grieg. Apparently Liadov never noticed. After a short, pensive introduction there is some emphatic attacking material before the cello carves out an independent line for itself (Josef Levinzon, on fine form). Tunes are threaded through the individual voices until fist the dominant cello and then the two violins triumphantly return with the first theme. Here embrionically can be seen some of Miaskovsky’s compositional tropes – pensive, melancholy, lyrical, full of cogent development, cyclical, with an emphatic return to the initial statement. The second movement opens with a Tchaikovskian theme before those Grieg Variations begin. It compels a lighter style of performance than he generally cultivated – energetic and withdrawn by turns, certainly – but the impulse is purposefully toward the generic and the salon. Even here though he can’t refuse the temptation of fugato writing which leads to a ghostly reminiscence with tremolo strings (those conjunctions and abrupt changes of his later symphonic work developed early and were always part of his thinking; it’s tempting to split his compositional life into convenient parcels and to insist on development and change – some of this is true but for all the disruptive change there also a solidly unchanging face to his work even if it emerges in a different form. Disjunctive writing – even if, as here, benign – was one of those traits). The work ends in cyclical melancholy after something of a quiet triumph of variation form writing. No wonder Liadov was fooled.
The final set of the group of the four Op. 33 Quartets is No. 2. Less quixotic and immediately fascinating than No1 it begins sternly with an abrupt opening that coalesces through easy pizzicatos to launch a more reflective and lyrical theme. The stern figure reappears but is now transformed into a more benign one and it is put through some fugal paces. The figure keeps reappearing getting more and more superbly woven into the fabric of the movement. As ever there’s a big part for the cello, in the second movement – but whilst the line is reflective and nostalgic (key Miaskovskian adjectives) it never properly settles. The third and final movement is skittish, a kind of nursery song, full of naughty skittering unison violins and chundering lower strings and, unusually for Miaskovsky, unambiguously – at least to these ears – happy. The Quartet is a study in change - a movement from uncompromising severity through transformation and assimilation leading to reflection and a studied understanding before the heart takes flight in song. It’s a compelling narrative, a journey well spent and a fine introduction to his less abrasive style of the period.
The Op. 55 Quartet, No. 7, was written in 1941 in the Caucasus where he had been sent and where he made a thorough study of local folk music (indeed incorporating a local Kabarda folk song into the slow movement). Lyrical with a few pleasing harmonic quirks it has an opening movement that perhaps over quotes, to its ultimate structural damage, an opening theme incapable of sustaining fully subsequent developmental potential. The second movement is an engagingly swinging affair; I can certainly imagine it being played at a somewhat faster tempo than the Taneyev Quartet essay even at the slight risk of rushed articulation – the risks may well be outweighed by the musical benefits of contrast and vigorous accenting at speed. A scurrying figure nicely winds down the compass until it finally reaches the cello line where it expires. The third movement includes that North Caucasus folk song and also a little pepper, musically speaking, to the slow movement. It is beautifully harmonised and flows in a slow incremental ascent, dynamically, its line and texture unimpeded and inevitable. The fourth is a fast movement, reflective but resilient, harmonically somewhat piquant. A unison call to arms announces the cello’s succeeding frisky foray followed by the other strings leading to a triumphantly untroubled conclusion. Marking no especial advance on the previous quartets the Seventh is something of a reminiscence, harking back to Taneyev and Glazunov, an absorbent rather than innovatory work – indeed something perhaps less even than absorbent in its simplicity and nostalgia.
The Eighth Quartet was completed in the following year and dedicated to the memory of a friend. Elegiac therefore in outline it still contains more than its fair share of formal surprises. The opening movement’s lyricism – note the second violin’s distinctive scrap of melody – is wistful and more than somewhat reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. The slow movement’s beautiful melody is accompanied by thrummed lower strings and as the violin arches its song the other voices play a winding counterpoint; the more insistent, contrastive, middle section inflects that lyricism with increased levels of meaning before the return of the opening theme of the movement. The finale is determined and robust with a second subject like a flecked folk song with some enchanting shards of song shared out between the four voices – and its final appearance is transferred to the viola, the solo becoming healthily withdrawn as Miaskovsky, in time-honoured cyclical fashion, brings finally a return of the first movement’s opening theme and a sense of evolution and inevitability to the syntax and musical argument.
The next quartet, Op. 62, is also a product of the War years though it’s hard to extrapolate much of his experience directly from it, as was often the case in works that derived from, but were not explicitly representative of, his First War experiences when he was injured and shell-shocked. The Ninth opens with an unsettled theme later opening out lyrically – the Taneyev Quartet are especially successful in their hushed playing here observing with meticulous intelligence and instrumental excellence the precise gradations of Miaskovsky’s dynamics. The slow movement is a species of adagio and scherzo; the melody winds affectingly but in true Miaskovskian fashion fails to burst into unambiguously simple life – in fact I feel it lacks the melodic distinction to sustain the imposed mood. The middle section is of propulsive speed and then he fuses a keening cello tune with the scherzo, a real example of his stylistic flexibility and astute use of material for development – both thematic and rhythmic. The final movement begins as a quasi-march, solid with contrastive slower, more ruminative section and a constant, almost obsessive return to the pompous march tune followed by more developmental material. The ending – maybe a little forced – is of a mildly dissonant kind.
No. 10 was written in 1907 but radically overhauled during the Second World War and finished in 1945. A dramatic unison flourish opens the piece, giving way to a skittish folk-inflected passage with a deliciously insouciant upwards and downwards walking cello pizzicato whilst the violins answer antiphonally. There is some more playful pizzicato in the upper strings before a second cousin of a waltz theme takes us to a drone passage. Here Miaskovsky can’t resist some fugal developmentvery brief – before the movement resumes some almost Dvorįk-like momentum and the movement gently and with beautiful simplicity winds down. The second movement is an off beat rhythmically lively scherzando and has a genuinely involving and evolving power with its entwining theme for the violins and his characteristically propulsive cello pizzicatos, an ever constant device to drive his quartets onwards. The middle section of the movement is one of wistful introspection almost as if it was impossible to sustain the original impetus – before the return of that same rhythmic material which scoops up the scherzando to a conclusion. The third movement opens with much cello eloquence and contrastive material with a spinning violin line gradually lightening and flecking the texture. However a motoric section of creeping desolation floods the material causing a slowing down and fracturing, an enervation and a not unambiguous return to the opening cello solo, eloquent but not mournful. The finale is decisive and bustling. Delightfully duetting violins join a chugging and wheezing cello with a fretfully lugubrious viola steering harmonic direction. Miaskovsky then throws in another fugal section, one which becomes increasingly frantic, before a violin led song takes the chugging lower strings with it – listen to the viola’s desperate motor as the tune is repeated in flourishing triumph before a triumphant gallop to the conclusion.
Subtitled Reminiscences, the Eleventh quartet hearkens back to piano works written in the first decade of the century for Liadov’s class and to vocal works of the 1930s. The easeful reflectiveness enshrined in this work attest to a direct lineage from those youthful student works. The lyricism is of easy and unhurried grace, cast in sonata form, and the ethos is nostalgic. It’s not inappropriate that Miaskovsky utilises his songs for the slow movement – the only movement where he does so – because this reminiscence from his 1936 Lermontov song cycle infuses the music with a quality of singing balladry, richly warm, not least in the chordal unison passages - albeit not untouched by some vehement outbursts too. As ever he had an ear for balance and suggestive contrasts. The waltz-like patterns of the Allegretto may remind one of the Cello Concerto, yet to be written but clearly germinating, in its lyric legato. This is altogether a lovely movement but so too in its way is the festive dance that is the finale; the drones and rhythmic vitality of the writing rounding off the quartet in fine style.
Place these volumes next to your Svetlanov box of the symphonies.
Jonathan Woolf

The complete Northern Flowers series
Nikolai Yakovlevich MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Complete String Quartets - vol. 1
String Quartet No. 1 in A minor op. 33 no. 1 (1929-30) [28:46]
String Quartet No. 1 in A minor op. 33 no. 1 (1929-30) [28:46]
String Quartet No. 2 in C minor op. 33 no. 2 (1930) [19:26]
String Quartet No. 3 in D minor op. 33 no. 3 (1911-26) [26:32]
S.I. Taneyev Quartet (Vladimir Ovcharek (violin); Grigory Lutzky (violin); Vissarion Solovyev (viola); Josef Levinzon (cello))
rec. 1983, St Petersburg Recording Studio. AAD
Nikolai Yakovlevich MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Complete String Quartets - vol. 2
String Quartet No. 4 in F minor op. 33 no. 4 (1909-37) [29:49]
String Quartet No. 5 in E minor op. 47 (1938-9) [24:54]
String Quartet No. 6 in G minor op. 49 (1939-40) [22:34]
S.I. Taneyev Quartet (Vladimir Ovcharek (violin); Grigory Lutzky (violin); Vissarion Solovyev (viola); Josef Levinzon (cello))
rec. 1982-3, St Petersburg Recording Studio. AAD
Nikolai Yakovlevich MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Complete String Quartets - vol. 3
String Quartet No. 7 in F major op. 55 (1941) [28:25]
String Quartet No. 8 in F sharp minor op. 59 (1942) [24:41]
String Quartet No. 6 in G minor op. 49 (1939-40) [22:34]
S.I. Taneyev Quartet (Vladimir Ovcharek (violin); Grigory Lutzky (violin); Vissarion Solovyev (viola); Josef Levinzon (cello))
rec. 1982-4, St Petersburg Recording Studio. AAD
Nikolai Yakovlevich MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Complete String Quartets - vol. 3
String Quartet No. 7 in F major op. 55 (1941) [28:25]
String Quartet No. 8 in F sharp minor op. 59 (1942) [24:41]
String Quartet No. 6 in G minor op. 49 (1939-40) [22:34]
S.I. Taneyev Quartet (Vladimir Ovcharek (violin); Grigory Lutzky (violin); Vissarion Solovyev (viola); Josef Levinzon (cello))
rec. 1982-4, St Petersburg Recording Studio. AAD

  Nikolai Yakovlevich MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Complete String Quartets - vol. 4
String Quartet No. 9 in D minor op. 62 (1943) [26:21]
String Quartet No. 10 in F major op. 67 no. 1 (1907-45) [22:59]
String Quartet No. 11 in E flat major op. 67 no. 2 (1945) [26:00]
S.I. Taneyev Quartet (Vladimir Ovcharek (violin); Grigory Lutzky (violin); Vissarion Solovyev (viola); Josef Levinzon (cello))
rec. 1981-4, St Petersburg Recording Studio. AAD
  Nikolai Yakovlevich MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Complete String Quartets - vol. 5String Quartet No.12 in G major Op.77 (1947) [29:37]
String Quartet No.13 in A minor Op.86 (1949) [24:21]
Taneyev Quartet
rec. St Petersburg Recording Studio, 1981 (No.13) and 1982 (No.12)


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