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Nikolai MIASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Piano Sonatas
Sonata no.2 in F sharp minor op.13 [12:37]
Sonata no.3 in C minor op.19 [12:10]
Sonata no.4 in C minor op.27 [22:29]
Lydia Jardon (piano)
rec. L’Heure Bleue, Salle de Musique, La Chaux-de-Fond, Switzerland, 25-27 January, 7 April 2009
AR RE-SE 2009-2 [47:16]

A philosopher, possibly Confucius, once said that a suitable curse on someone would be that “they live in interesting times”. It is possible to say we all do always. Depending on precisely when and precisely where some could be cursed with living in truly ‘interesting’ times.
Nikolai Miaskovsky certainly did for he, along with millions in Russia, saw some of that country’s most turbulent era. He was born in Ukraine, part of the Russian Empire at the time and later a Soviet Republic, in 1881. That was the same year that Tsar Alexander II was killed by a bomb in an attack by members of Narodnaya Volya (The Peoples’ Will). It was the fifth attempt to assassinate him, the third by the group. Two more Tsars would come and go before the revolution swept away the House of Romanov forever together with the world as Miaskovsky and his fellow Russians knew it.
His father, a General in the Tsar’s army and an engineer was murdered by Red Guards while waiting for a train during the period of the civil war (1919-21). Miaskovsky too trained as an engineer officer but eventually pursued his preferred career as composer studying under Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. That was at the St Petersburg Conservatory where he became lifelong friends with Prokofiev and from which he graduated in 1911. At his death in 1950 from cancer he had composed around 90 works and is considered ‘father of the Soviet Symphony’ writing no fewer than 27.
While he was not known as a great experimenter he was an early champion of the music of Stravinsky and his music does show flashes of innovation with these three piano sonatas exhibiting several examples. The Sonata no.2 is quite a ‘modern’-sounding work considering it was written before the First World War. It is dominated by the Dies Irae theme which is introduced around four minutes in. It quotes the piece as paraphrased by Liszt in the work for piano and orchestra Totentanz. That work was modelled on its origin in Gregorian plainchant but drew its inspiration from its appearance in the last movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique which had so impressed Liszt when he heard its premiere in 1830. Miaskovsky’s sonata is quite monumental in scope despite its relatively short length with powerful chords throughout that pound out that frightening theme in a menacing fashion. The third is a little more restrained, very beautiful and with an overall sad and anxiously reflective nature to it which is never resolved.
The fourth, by far the longest of the three, is cast in three movements with the first lasting almost as long as each of the previous sonatas. It once again involves crashing chords as well as some quiet passages with the second movement bringing some well deserved relief in the form of a gentle and very lovely interlude. The final movement is in a somewhat lighter and more upbeat mood than the first.
Miaskovsky’s father told him that to be truly liberated one had to battle and conquer oneself and musicologists have written that these three sonatas are representative of this struggle rather than any comment on the times he lived in or, later, the system he lived under. He was always somewhat detached from politics or religion and though he didn’t write works that were considered ‘controversial’ in the context of the Soviet reality he was nevertheless caught up in the accusations of ‘formalism’ levelled at him, his friend Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Despite this he still braved criticism by championing ‘modern’ works by being a leader in the Association for Contemporary Music along with the composers Alexander Mosolov, Gavriil Popov and  Nikolai Roslavets all three of whom got into hot water with the authorities.
Miaskovsky’s piano works are generally less well known than some of his symphonies though that is hard to understand when you’ve heard these since there is much to admire and plenty of difficulties to challenge any pianist. Lydia Jardon rises to those challenges with an obvious reverence for the music which translates into beautifully sensitive and thoughtful playing making this a disc that will be of interest to all lovers of the Russian School of piano writing. Hitherto there have been few recordings available of his piano sonatas, notably by Endre Hegedüs on Marco Polo and Murray McLachlan on Olympia so this is a welcome addition to these. It is to be hoped that it will also help to change attitudes towards Miaskovsky’s compositions which are generally represented in most people’s minds by a few of his symphonies. This disc shows that there is clearly a lot more to Miaskovsky than many people think.
Steve Arloff 

Miaskovsky review index