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Boris LYATOSHYNSKY (1895-1968)
Symphony 1, op. 2 (1918-19) [37:24]
Grazhyna, op. 58 (1955) [18:57]
Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
rec. State Broadcasting Studio, Kiev, 1994.
NAXOS 8.555578 [56:38]

Symphony 2, op. 26 (1935-36, rev. 1940) [30:07]
Symphony 3 in B minor, op. 50 (1951, rev. 1954) [46:40]
Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
rec. Concert Studio of Ukrainian Radio, Kiev, 1993.
NAXOS 8.555579 [76:47]

Symphony 4, op. 63 (1963) [27:43]
Symphony 5 Slavonic, op. 67 (1965-66) [27:21]
Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
rec. State Broadcasting Company Hall, Kiev, 1993.
NAXOS 8.555580 [55:16]

Boris Lyatoshynsky was a Ukrainian composer, considered to be the most important of his generation, whose working career was more or less entirely within the Soviet era. He was a contemporary of Prokofiev and a decade or so older than Shostakovich. His story is more or less similar: fêted then damned; a victim of Zhdanov at the 1948 Composers’ Conference. If you wish to know more biographical information, I commend you to his Wikipedia page, which is remarkably comprehensive.

These are reissues – the original releases from the mid-1990s were on the Marco Polo label. They comprise his entire output for symphony, plus the extra orchestral work on Volume 1. He wrote a number of other orchestral works, but surprisingly only one concerto, the ‘Slavonic’ for piano. This is the only complete set of his symphonies – there are a few old Russian recordings on Melodiya and Russian Disc, which I doubt are still available.

Symphony 1 was his graduation piece, but this is no Shostakovich First. Tchaikovsky looms large over its almost forty minutes; the booklet also mentions Scriabin. Unfortunately, the influence of these two composers has submerged Lyatoshynsky’s own voice in a recycled melange that is underwhelming and goes on for much too long.

Grazhyna is described as a symphonic ballad, and was written to commemorate the centenary of the death of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, depicting the scenes described in his poem of the name. The booklet notes suggests that it is one of Lyatoshynsky’s masterworks. Given that I have only heard these six works, I’m hardly in a position to disagree, though I would say symphonies 2 and 3 strike me as being more impressive. There is a lot of colour and movement, but not much in the way of memorable tunes. I bought this disc as the Marco Polo release – listening to it again reminds me why I didn’t pursue the other two volumes ... wrongly, as it turns out.

During the 1920s, Lyatoshynsky experimented with atonalism, but abandoned it in favour of exploring his national heritage. How much of this change was due to the change in political circumstances around this time is not known. The booklet notes remind me that in 1994, the Australian national broadcaster’s award for the Best International Recording was given to the Marco Polo release of symphonies 2 and 3. Given that this was a public vote, it was quite a surprise. I presume that it was this that prompted me to buy the Symphony 1 disc, when the award winner was unavailable, and ordering discs from Australia via a retailer back then meant a three month wait.

So the wait ended up being two decades, and having now listened to it, I am very sad that I let the underwhelming experience of Volume 1 hold me back. What a difference! It is as though it is a different composer. Gone are the Tchaikovsky-Scriabin rehashes, and in their place is an original voice. I won’t attempt to find composers which this “new” Lyatoshynsky sounds like. Let me just say that it is not brittle like Prokofiev, more lush than Shostakovich and not darkly sardonic. However, that isn’t to say that it doesn’t have bite and edge, just that it is concealed under a smoother veneer. The second symphony suffered the same fate as Shostaskovich’s Fourth: put in a drawer unperformed, in this case for almost thirty years, while the Third, the most admired and performed Ukrainian symphony, drew the censor’s ire as well, though it was performed after changes.

I prefer the darkness and turbulence of the Second, but I can see why the Third, subtitled ‘To the 25th Anniversary of the October Revolution’ in some sources, though not in the booklet, is more popular. Each possesses drama, orchestral colour and great flowing melodies, but while the Second is lamenting the strictures of Soviet control in the 1930s, the Third is celebratory.

After the huge leap forward from the First Symphony to the next two, the remaining pair of symphonies on Volume 3, both from the 1960s, are less revelatory, but still impressive. The Fourth is a continuous struggle between angry grotesquery and stillness, and is the most Shostakovich-like of the symphonies. I imagine that it would be an impressive work to hear live. The Fifth Symphony begins with a broad, grand brass fanfare, which is based on a folksong depicting Il’ya Muromets, the legendary hero, whose tale is also told in Reinhold Gliere’s Third Symphony: Gliere was one of Lyatoshynsky’s teachers. It relies heavily on Slav folksongs throughout, and yet, has less melody than its predecessors. I would rate as the least interesting of the four mature symphonies.

Theodore Kuchar was one of the Naxos stable’s most regular conductors, and the Ukrainian orchestra seems to one of the better Eastern European ensembles used by Naxos in that period. The sound quality is perfectly serviceable, in fact, better than the average orchestral recording from Marco Polo from that era.

The booklet notes are newly written for this reissue. This is a good thing, since those from the Marco Polo releases were full of statements like “the movement is best described as a deep psychological narration based on human existence”.

It’s taken me twenty years to hear Lyatoshynsky’s symphonies in full; I do wish I’d persevered and held out for the Symphony 2 and 3 disc back then.

David Barker