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Boris LYATOSHYNSKY (1895-1968)
Symphony 1, Op. 2 (1917/19) [37.24]
Grazhyna, Op. 58 (1955) [18.57]
Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
rec. May 1994, State Broadcasting Studio, Kiev, Ukraine
NAXOS 8.555578 [56.38]

Symphony 2, Op. 26 (1935/36, rev. 1940) [30.07]
Symphony 3, Op. 50 (1951, rev. 1954) [46.40]
Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
rec. June 1993, Concert Studio of Ukrainian Radio, Kiev, Ukraine
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. December 1993, Hall of State Broadcasting Company, Kiev, Ukraine
NAXOS 8.555580 [55.16]

Naxos is to be congratulated for re-issuing this complete set of Boris Lyatoshynsky's five symphonies and the symphonic poem Grazhyna. The three individual discs were originally released in the 1990s on Marco Polo, a label founded to record rare and unknown repertoire. All the recordings are performed by the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra under American Theodore Kuchar - a prolific and enterprising conductor in the recording studio.

Although celebrated as the father of twentieth-century Ukrainian music Boris Lyatoshynsky will undoubtedly be a name new to many. Born in Zhytomyr, his compositional career spanned the vast majority of Soviet control in Ukraine and its resultant challenges and opportunities. Initially training at law school Lyatoshynsky later studied composition at the Kiev Conservatory under Reinhold Glière. In 1919, the same year he graduated at the Conservatory Lyatoshynsky started to teach there becoming a professor and lecturer. He was to stay there for the rest of his life. In addition he also spent around six years in 1935/38 and 1941/44 teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Parallel to his lifelong teaching career he composed an considerable output which included five symphonies, a number of symphonic poems, other orchestral scores, film music, three operas, chamber music, songs, part-songs/cantatas and instrumental works.

Written in 1917/19 the three movement Symphony 1 in A major, Op. 2 did not receive its première until 1923 when it was conducted by Glière. Marked Molto lento the middle movement had been introduced as an independent work titled Lyric Poem in 1917 submitted as his graduation piece at the Kiev Conservatory. The First Symphony reminds me of a children’s fairytale in music with the lengthy opening movement brisk and edgy evoking a storm at sea. There's a contrasting calm central section which is like taking a peek into a magic forest. This atmospheric sense of an enchanted forest imbues the Molto lento second movement together as does distinct aqueous quality that could easily evoke the flowing of a small stream. The Finale opens to a blazing brass fanfare before subsiding to lyrical writing of a passionate quality. Overall the feel is rather heroic and reminded me of a sea voyage in squally weather. The work ends on a triumphant note. If I was reminded of another Soviet composer it was probably Nikolai Myaskovsky.

A much later work, the symphonic poem or as it is described here, a 'symphonic ballade' Grazhyna, Op. 58 was written in 1955 to mark the centenary of the death of great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. Described in the booklet notes as “one of Lyatoshynsky’s most accomplished works” It is a programmatic piece based on Mickiewicz’s narrative poem Grażyna which follows the adventures of the mythical Lithuanian female leader who fights against the Teutonic knights. An interesting and satisfying work, Grazhyna would make a splendid addition to the first half of a concert programme. It opens with mysterious rather chilling music amid swirling mists. Warlike episodes are followed by sections of intense passion. It concludes with a feeling of exhaustion say after the ending of a battle.

There was a gap of seventeen years before Lyatoshynsky wrote his splendid Symphony 2, Op. 26 in 1935/36 - later revised in 1940. The work was condemned to remain unperformed until 1964 on account of Soviet censorship. Described in the booklet notes as “turbulent” the three movement symphony in some ways reflects the unsettling nature of the times under Soviet control. A touch sinuous the opening movement is edgy and unsettling in character with several blasts of aggression. Everything seems to combine for a curiously heavy, near stifling sensation. Coming as a welcome relief the middle movement with its feel of wide-open spaces serves as a soothing balm. With writing of excitement, drama and adventure the Finale ends in dramatic fashion.

Following on fifteen years later is the four movement Symphony 3 in B minor, Op. 50. Evidently this is Lyatoshynsky’s most played work, much commended by Ukraine audiences and musicians alike. The Third Symphony is sometimes titled ‘To the 25th Anniversary of the October Revolution’ although there is no mention of this in the booklet notes. A blend of traditional and impressionist styles, the symphony was written in 1951 and premièred at the Composers' Congress in Kiev to public acclaim. That said, the Soviet authorities demanded the last movement be rewritten, hence the revisions in 1954 and the removal of Lyatoshynsky’s title for the fourth movement ‘Peace will defeat war’. The revised version was introduced in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) under Yevgeny Mravinsky. The necessity for Soviet censorship to the score damaged Lyatoshynsky’s reputation in official circles and it was some years before he was able to compose with any “creative freedom”. A powerful and assured work the Third Symphony is packed with drama and incident. When a number of calmer passages are introduced they soon swell and become powerfully energised. The slow movement Andante con moto evokes one of the composer’s characteristic magical atmospheric sound-worlds. It's mesmerising, colourful and tinged with the exotic. Episodes of intense drama soon disappear back to magical contentment. Relatively short in duration the Scherzo is bold and brisk, overflowing with high spirits. The closing movement has a jubilant Nationalistic feel and at times reminds me of a soundtrack to accompany a victory procession or a prestigious state occasion. With regard to similarities, at times I was reminded slightly of the music of Prokofiev.

It was twelve years before Lyatoshynsky completed his Symphony No. 4 in B flat minor, Op. 63 in 1963. It was introduced the same year under the baton of Ukrainian Nathan Rachlin at Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and met with glowing critical acclaim. A number of critics not only praised the significance of the symphony in Ukrainian music but comparisons were made with works by composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Bartók. Containing that characteristic bold brass opening the first movement is predominately upbeat for the first half. Providing a stark contrast from 6.20 the second half is unruffled with a rather impressionistic quality. In the central movement heavy brass writing is pitted against a lightly atmospheric rather murky undertow. Becoming increasingly frequent is the employment of chimes to represent tolling bells. A dramatic opening to the Finale becomes unceasingly nervy and energetic before developing a deep melancholy - a pattern that is repeated during the movement. Bells are prominent in the comparatively peaceful close.

Following close on the heels of the Fourth Symphony is the Symphony No. 5 in C majorSlavonic’, Op. 67 written in 1965/66. Since the 1950s Lyatoshynsky had become interested in Slavic folk music and the title ‘Slavonic’ reflects his integration of traditional Slavic folk material into each of the three movements. A characteristic brass fanfare opens the Fifth Symphony. The writing has an upbeat rather cheerful, dance-like quality that gradually adopts a more serious expression with a martial quality bordering on the warlike. At the jubilant ending to the score the chimes ring out strongly as if granting affirmation.

Throughout these discs the excellent and well prepared orchestra under Kuchar gives powerfully expressive performances that are often gripping and always compelling. No problems whatsoever with the clear and well balanced recorded sound.

The symphonies of Boris Lyatoshynsky are certainly well worth getting to know. Those wanting to try something away from the mainstream and admirers of Slavic symphonies will be in their element.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: David Barker



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