In the last couple of decades or so, many record labels have made readily available the works of once-neglected composers from the 20th century. Those whose reputations have benefitted from the increased exposure include Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Bohuslav Martinů and Mieczyslaw Weinberg, all of whom have converted many to their cause. Nikolay Myaskovsky is perhaps another candidate-in-waiting, although time will tell if a significant revival is sustained. He wrote a vast array of compositions, including twenty-seven symphonies, and in the 1920s and 1930s was quite popular for a contemporary composer. Many conductors championed his music, including Frederick Stock, Hermann Scherchen, Eugene Ormandy, Serge Koussevitzky and Wilhelm Furtwängler.
After World War II, his music faded into obscurity, though Evgeny Svetlanov eventually recorded all the symphonies and most of his other orchestral works, which have been made available in a 16-CD set on Warner Classics. That massive project, concluded in 1994, seems not to have stirred significant interest across the globe in Myaskovsky’s music. However, Naxos and its sister label Marco Polo have in recent times issued a number of recordings of his symphonies and other works. That said, it appears that most of the activity in the concert hall and recording studio still comes from Russian sources and Myaskovsky remains a largely neglected figure outside Russia.
Myaskovsky composed his First Symphony in 1908 as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Ultimately dissatisfied with it, he revised it substantially in 1921. Richard Whitehouse’s informative album notes rightly cite the influences of Liadov and Scriabin on this three-movement work, although I must say that I hear a few echoes of Rachmaninov, too. However, Myaskovsky exhibits a somewhat cooler emotional demeanor than Rachmaninov, and while he may be closer in spirit to the other two influences, he also evinces elements of his own emerging and evolving style.
Lasting nearly thirty-eight minutes, the work opens with a fifteen-minute first movement (Lento, ma non troppo – Allegro) that begins a with a dark Introduction resolved with a climax punctuated brightly by brass. The main Allegro section follows with a stormy, short-breathed theme on low strings that exhibits a restless and anxious manner. A lyrical alternate theme, first stated by woodwinds, is then heard. The tempestuous mood returns in the development section, and after a reprise recalling both main themes, a coda crowns the movement with a defiant and once again stormy character.
The ensuing Larghetto (quasi andante) is more relaxed and features two charming lyrical themes. The music builds with some agitation to a climax of triumphant character involving the main theme, after which the alternate theme is recalled, and then the movement closes quietly. The finale (Allegro assai e molto risoluto) begins busily, hinting at conflict and struggle before turning very optimistic. A slower lyrical theme is then presented and is followed by a development section, the structure actually a fairly standard sonata form. After a reprise there is an energetic contrapuntal coda that leads to a fierce, brass-dominated ending. This is a well-crafted work that one might say is a fine “first” symphony. That said, I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, but those interested in this composer will likely find it an attractive work.
The Symphony No. 13 is quite a different creation, as if from another world or from an altogether different pen. This single-movement work of about twenty minutes opens slowly and ominously with woodwind and string writing that recalls Stravinsky from his neo-Classical period. However, as Myaskovsky’s music here proceeds to develop tension, one realizes that it isn’t genuinely neo-Classical; it does exude a somewhat cosmopolitan character, but unlike Stravinsky’s. As anxiety brews, the music intensifies and seethes but without breaking away from the sense of darkness and struggle. The interior of the symphony is energetic but only barely allows sunlight to shine through the stubborn gray skies, the mood anxious with tensions remaining. After a lengthy slow, rather gloomy section thematically related to the woodwind and string music of the opening, the tempo struggles to gain momentum and a tepid climax on brass is reached. Tensions still unresolved, the music once more attempts to push ahead and another weak climax fails to cast off the dark spirit. The music, almost chamber-like in its scoring, fades away slowly, weakly, desolately.
This is one of the more advanced compositions of this mostly conservative composer. Conservative, indeed, and a few years after this 1933 symphony, pressure on composers by Soviet bureaucrats at the behest of Stalin, was applied to make their music more accessible. Prokofiev, Shostakovich and others were harassed, some might say threatened, to eschew modern trends and produce music for the masses. Anyway, regarding this symphony, I can say that if attractive melody is essential to your taste, you probably won’t find it to your liking. Although this is the stronger of the two symphonies on this disc and deserves greater attention, it is unlikely to get it.
These performances by the Ural Youth Symphony Orchestra are most impressive and suggest that this is certainly one of the better youth ensembles in Russia, perhaps among the finest anywhere. Actually, according to a biographical note in the album booklet, the orchestra includes graduates from area music schools, and I assume also contains talented students as well. Alexander Rudin leads them with a fine sense for the disparate character of both works. Naxos provides excellent sound reproduction. Svetlanov is the only competition in these works that I am aware of, but is not necessarily easy to find. My advice to those who might consider purchase of this Naxos release: it is a worthwhile disc if your tastes can accommodate Myaskovsky’s somewhat derivative but finely crafted First Symphony and his far bleaker and more advanced Thirteenth.
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