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Nikolay MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op 23 (1922-23) [65:32]
Slavonic Overture, Op 71(1947) [11:34]
Yurlov State Choir
USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin, Yevgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1959/93 at Large Hall of Moscow Conservatoire
ALTO ALC1421 [77:06]

In Nikolay Myaskovsky’s large catalogue of symphonic works, the Sixth symphony ranks as one of his most important. In Russian symphonic music it is one of the longest written up to this time (Gliere’s Third Symphony, and Rubinstein’s ‘Ocean’ Symphony are also over one hour) and uses choral forces. Following the world premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Myaskovsky’s Sixth was adjudged as a triumph for the composer and the finest symphony since Tchaikovsky’s own Sixth symphony, written thirty years before.

The symphony quickly became popular outside the Soviet Union, and especially in the United States where in Chicago under the German conductor Frederick Stock, the Sixth was performed in every season for seventeen years. Many of the finest conductors including Toscanini, Furtwangler, Stokowski, Scherchen, and Ormandy conducted Myaskovsky’s symphonies. The cause for the symphony’s disappearance from concert schedules after the war can be given to the deteriorating relations between the major western countries and the Soviet Union with little access to scores and parts. Another reason can be attributed to the 1948 Composers’ Union Congress when Myaskovsky, along with others, was criticised for ‘formalism’ and adhering to western musical techniques. It was only in 1958 that these censures were largely removed. It was following this resolution that Myaskovsky’s Sixth symphony was recorded with the country’s finest virtuoso orchestra and a conductor who was personally familiar with the composer, and who had undertaken many first performances of new Soviet music.

Kondrashin managed to grasp the essence of the massive score of the symphony in arguably the finest recording of this masterpiece. There are already quite a few recordings; among the finest are those by Polyansky on Vista Vera, Neeme Jarvi on DG, and Svetlanov on Alto. There is another recording by Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra which was the last before he left the USSR in 1978.

There are two performing versions; one with chorus, and one without (1947). In this reviewed version, the Yurlov State Choir is used, a particular benefit for this recording. Of course, without the chorus, the effect of the tragic closing is lost although Myaskovsky harmonised the voices into the orchestral canvass.

This recording is based on that issued by the Russian Disc issued in 1996 (RDCD 15008), with some improvements in the original monophonic recording made in the large hall of the Moscow Conservatoire in the remastering by Paul Arden-Taylor. The original recording has an almost legendary status for it was only available in libraries and in some fortunate collectors’ homes. Already an avid fan of Myaskovsky, I sought his recordings for many years, however only No 3, No 15, and No 27 were available on Melodiya. I was fortunate to acquire the original MK LPs in a box; the fourth side was taken up by Myaskovsky’s ‘Divertimento’, Op. 80 conducted by Alexander Stasevich with the USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra. Robert Layton in Gramophone praised the symphony for many years and for its influence on Soviet composers, yet only when Marco Polo issued a recording by the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Robert Stankovsky in 1986 could a wider number of listeners hear it for the first time (CD 8.2223301). Nothing can really prepare you for the volcanic eruption of emotion in the Sixth symphony. Each of the four movements contain quite different ideas with reappearing motifs, or citations from folk song, religious chant, and from revolutionary songs.

To understand the symphony better, it is helpful to look at the years in the composer’s life immediately prior to his writing it. In the first revolutionary events of 1917, Myaskovsky was a military officer at Revel (Tallinn) and he was chosen by his soldiers to be their delegate to meetings where he became influenced by socialist ideas. In the coming months, Myaskovsky was sympathetic to the revolution, but when he moved back to his family home in Petrograd, his father, who was a general in the Tsarist army, was preparing to leave for the Crimea with his new wife. On the rail journey south, he was murdered by Red Army troops because he was still wearing his old Tsarist generals’ uniform. During the revolution in Petrograd, Myaskovsky heard the speeches at meetings where the chief prosecutor called for death for the enemies of the revolution. During the bitter civil war, on return to his home, he found the building cold and wind blowing, this together with the mix of revolutionary romance and the brutality of the period influenced his writing of the Sixth. Years later the composer tried to explain his feelings in writing the symphony: ‘My somewhat confused world outlook at the time, inevitably led me to the concept that seems very strange to me now, with the theme of “martyr”, “parting of spirit from the body”, and an apotheosis of “placid existence” at the end. But my emotions which called the symphony to life and my enthusiasm in writing it have made it dear to me even now and have preserved its capacity for moving audiences today.’

Following the premiere, given by Nikolay Golovanov, many of the audience were in tears, taken away by the recent memories of the pre-revolutionary past and the mixed emotions of the new Russia - this is what this symphony is about.

Right from the striking opening chords Kondrashin finds the appropriate key for this vast tragic work, with the orchestra playing stridently at a great pace, bringing out all the drama, and terrifying trumpets herald some great menace, while the strings try to reduce the drama with plaintive chants, and more proud harmonies emerge, while suddenly a glorious theme is announced on the strings. Voices in the woodwind offer reason; however, the movement ends in a terrible, frightening mood. In the second movement, the mood of danger continues; this virtuoso orchestra produces magnificent playing, bringing out the wealth of colours, hints of Wagnerian harmonies. The flute hints at new hopes, and another idea brings a pastoral beauty, and returns to a late romanticism, against threats from the brass. The strings reassure us, and the Presto closes mysteriously on cymbals.

In the Andante, the strings usher a great plaintive call, with a soulful solo from the tuba, picked up by the solo violin, and clarinet. There emerges a wonderful humane idea in a beautiful development of one of Myaskovsky’s most successful themes, fully impassioned, reminding one of the accelerandos and rallentandos in Tchaikovsky’s own symphonies. Uncertainty appears on the violas, and then echoes on solo oboe, bassoons, is picked up by the strings and ends on an optimistic note Everything heard so far doesn’t prepare one for the finale. There is an upbeat note and festive chirping on the woodwind, brass and flutes. The second motif is a martial theme, and the ancient theme of religious chant, sounding here wonderfully noble. After a reprise of darkness on the wind, then the ladies chorus enters so heavenly. The male voices join, sometimes harking of Mussorgsky, the theme is picked up by the whole orchestra and closes on an upbeat, beautiful, glorious culmination. The Sixth leaves one with a tremendous impression, as if one has witnessed a great battle, and at the close there is the redemption.

The filler is the ‘Slavonic Rhapsody’ from 1947, written during a period when an effort was bringing together the cultural relationships of the eastern European countries. Here Myaskovsky uses several motifs, especially a Polish folk song, with colourful exciting harmonies. This recording was made by Svetlanov in his project to record all Myaskovsky’s orchestral music in the early 1990s, a vast project of forty works commissioned by the state firm Melodiya. After Melodiya reneged on the deal, Svetlanov financed the recordings himself yet was left without a distributor until the US firm International Records arranged their marketing in the west. This is a fine recording with all the rich colours wonderfully drawn out, and one would hope that more of the composer’s short orchestral pieces could be recorded; invariably they hint of the late romanticism of Glazunov and Rachmaninov, but all have that unmistakeable Myaskovsky sound. However, it might have been a better idea to include the ‘Divertimento’ from the original Russian LPs of 1959.

It is a pity that the original artwork, with a drawing of Myaskovsky from the old Soviet LP box, could not be used. This release by Alto continues the fine series of Myaskovsky that they have been issuing in recent years. As always, the CD notes are informative and interesting, Jeffrey Davis concentrating on the musical content without the stereotypes that so often are a feature of other CD issues of 20th century Russian music. This release highlights one of the great 20th century symphonies and shows the connection between the Russian romantics and the new modernists of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. This is highly recommended.

Gregor Tassie

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