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Boris LYATOSHYNSKY (1895-1968)
Symphony No 3, Op. 50 (1951) [44:35]
Grazhyna, op. 58 (1955) [18:38]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kyril Karabits
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, UK, 2018

Whereas some of the principal works of his teacher and compatriot, Gliere, have been modestly well-known in the West for some time, the compositions of the Ukrainian composer, Lyatoshynsky, have fared less well. This began to change when the cycle of his symphonies was released on the Marco Polo label in the 1990s but there have been very few releases of Lyatoshynsky’s music since. Having not got around to exploring the music when the Marco Polo cycle was re-released on Naxos a few years ago (review) I thought I would take the opportunity offered by the present disc to make its acquaintance – and I’m glad I did.

Lyatoshynsky was born in Zhytomyr, northern Ukraine. He studied composition at the Kiev Conservatory after which, in parallel with composing, he took up a teaching post there and, later, a professorship. Between 1935 and 1944 he also taught at the Moscow Conservatory. He produced a wide range of works, including two operas (possibly three – Wikipedia is a little ambiguous here), choral and vocal music, five symphonies, a piano concerto, shorter orchestral works including symphonic poems, and chamber and piano music. Earlier compositions seem to have been influenced by the music of Schumann and Borodin but, by the time of his graduation composition, the First Symphony, Scriabin was a more evident influence. Between 1924 and 1929 he experimented with atonality but abandoned this to return to the simpler harmonies to be found in Ukrainian national music. Today he is widely regarded as the father of contemporary Ukrainian music. He was a contemporary of Prokofiev and a few years older than Shostakovich and it seems that, as with them, some of his compositions led to career-threatening difficulties with the Soviet musical authorities.

Lyatoshynsky’s epic Third Symphony is a substantial piece in four movements (all his other symphonies are in three) and might almost be regarded as a late romantic work, although anybody hoping for much in the way of lush, Rachmaninov-like tunes will be largely disappointed. All the movements are derived from a single theme. The first movement Allegro opens with a shattering Andante maestoso fanfare that rapidly subsides, leaving the bass end of the orchestra grumbling beneath a cor anglais solo. The booklet notes refer to what follows as having “an atmosphere of brooding menace and violence”, with “turbulent, impetuous forces of destruction”, a “vivid portrait of struggle”, etc. Such elements do exist but much of the music is relatively restrained, so I feel this description is a little OTT. Whilst fairly clearly a work from the Soviet era, a kinship with the orchestral works of Gliere is evident, although this music inhabits a more modern world. The orchestration is no less colourful than that of Prokofiev, and might occasionally strike some listeners as bombastic, but there is none of the brashness of Khatchaturyan or the compartmentalised presentation of orchestral sections and lines characteristic of the darker, more sardonic side of Shostakovich. After a major climax the music all dies away surprisingly suddenly.

The relatively tranquil, almost nocturnal, slow movement comes second and it has an arch-shaped ABA structure. It opens arrestingly with high woodwind above harp and strings and, initially, continues with a gentle but inexorable tread, using a three-note motif, with secondary ideas spiralling out. The sound world of Shostakovich appears occasionally but other passages suggest romantic film music to me.

With reference to the short third movement, Allegro feroce, the booklet notes state that “the savage scherzo crackles like a salvo of bullets”. This led me to expect something like the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. Admittedly, initially, it is almost as though Baba Yaga has burst out of the forest but, after this, I find it difficult to reconcile the suggestion in the notes with the way the music quietens and “the desolation of the battlefield” that is referred to seems to be upon us quite quickly. There are certainly savage moments in what follows but the one really ferocious climax is left until nearly the end of the movement, after which the music rapidly winds upwards to disappear.

The fourth movement (Allegro risoluto) is the one that gave Lyatoshynsky particular problems with the Soviet authorities. The symphony’s overall dedication reads ‘To the 25th Anniversary of the October Revolution’ but the composer’s intention was to create “a conclusion that would express the achievement of peace and enlightenment following the tensions of the previous movements” – which led to the work’s subtitle including the words: “Peace shall defeat war”. Such a sentiment was evidently at odds with the remaining belligerence of a post-World War II Stalinist Soviet empire and it was almost certainly this that caused the work to be deemed “anti-Soviet”. The planned premiere of the work in 1951 was abandoned when the authorities dropped the symphony from the concert programme.

In a remarkable act of defiance, the conductor, Natan Rakhlin, performed the work at an “open rehearsal” and the audience for that gave it a triumphant reception. Nevertheless, any hopes of a concert performance were dashed until Lyatoshynsky refashioned the final movement to accord with the strictures of the Communist Party. The new finale was approved four years later and acceptance of the symphony was finally sealed by the official premiere in December 1955 (by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Mravinsky). What we get on the present disc is the original finale and, given that the disc’s overall playing time is about 63 minutes, I wonder if a good opportunity was lost to juxtapose the original and revised finales.

At any rate there seems to be nothing in the music that would obviously have given the authorities a problem. The variant of the single theme (upon which the symphony is based) that starts the movement rather recalls the beginning of Holst’s Hammersmith – especially when the lower brass enter. There are a few big tunes although they tend to appear organically, and there is a rousing march-like theme with peals of horns as well as some bells. It gets a bit noisy towards the end. I found this movement perfectly listenable – but a bit rambling and unmemorable, although I feel the work as a whole will repay repeated listening at least as much as some of the longer Shostakovich symphonies.

The ‘Symphonic Ballad’ Grazhyna is apparently regarded as one of Lyatoshynsky’s master works. It depicts the poem of that name by the Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, and was written to commemorate the centenary of the poet’s death in 1855. It has something in common with some of the symphonic poems from Smetana’s Ma Vlast insofar as a river runs through it – the murmuring opening and close of the work evoking the River Neman. Unlike Smetana’s celebration of the history of his country, however, this work is not about a native Ukrainian (or even a Pole) but tells the story of a tragic, mythical Lithuanian heroine who (briefly) led the fight against invading Teutonic Knights before being killed. The music alternates between relatively sombre passages – with echoes of Miaskowsky – and the more colourful and brilliantly orchestrated elements of the story, which include fairly vivid battle scenes. It makes a good companion for the symphony.

Performances sound excellent to me and the Bournemouth orchestra yield nothing to their Ukrainian counterparts on Naxos. Karabits is generally slightly faster than Kuchar but a quick comparison of these two Chandos performances with those on Naxos suggests that, otherwise, there is little to choose between them. Perhaps it is enough that both conductors are Ukrainian. The Marco Polo/Naxos recording is perfectly good, if a little reverberant. As might be expected, however, Chandos have an edge here, with slightly more refined sound, plenty of presence, and a more atmospheric acoustic (with slightly less reverberation). Bass drum and timpani strokes are particularly accurate and well caught – as is the brass.

For me this music, whilst uneven, is an interesting discovery. Presumably this disc marks the beginning of a Lyatoshynsky cycle and, if so, I shall be pleased to explore the works of this composer further – especially if a recording of his Piano Concerto is planned.

Bob Stevenson
Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Dave Billinge

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