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Lyatoshinsky sys 9991832
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Boris Lyatoshinsky (1895-1968)
Symphony No 4, Op 63 (1963)
Symphony No 5, Op 67 (1966) ‘Slavonic’
Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra/Roland Bader
rec. 1994, Cracow Philharmonic Hall, Poland
CPO 999183-2 [53]

Although Lyatoshinsky has often been called the founder of the Ukrainian symphony, that honour belongs to Berezovsky; nonetheless, he had a huge influence on Ukrainian symphonism which has its own unique strand alongside the 20th century symphonic schools of Szymanowski, Penderecki, Shostakovich and Myaskovsky.

This CD was originally released almost thirty years ago; however, owing to the events in eastern Europe, both CPO and Naxos are reissuing Ukrainian music from their back catalogue. To my knowledge, these symphonies have never been heard in the concert hall in this country; hopefully that will soon change when scores become available. I would hope that rather than being a source of current interest, Ukrainian music will become better known in the long term.

Despite showing outstanding musical prodigy, Boris Lyatoshinsky, the son of a school teacher, studied law in the University of Kiev in 1913, avoiding war service and completing his degree in 1918. He then studied at the Kiev Conservatoire with Glière (who tutored Prokofiev, Myaskovsky and two generations of Soviet composers) the composer of the some of the most colourful late Romantic works from ballets and operas to quartets and symphonies to radical concertos for double bass (completed by Lyatoshinsky), French horn, harp and for coloratura soprano. On graduation, Lyatoshinsky began teaching at the Kiev Conservatoire. He was initially attracted to the avant-garde and formed the Kiev branch of the Contemporary Music which cooperated with the ISCM and led to some of his music being performed in the West. The greatest influence on his early pieces was Scriabin, but he became increasingly drawn to folk music.

His first three symphonies were all different: the first dates from 1925, while the second was composed in 1936 when socialist realism was the prevailing trend in Soviet music. The Third Symphony was the first to stand alone among his orchestral works, with its striking dramatic narrative and distinct orchestral palate. Mravinsky suggested that he rewrite some of the orchestral text so as to allow his ideas to be clearly expressed; the symphony was rejected after its first performance and the composer revised it extensively. The premiere was given by the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1955 to great success and was performed all over the USSR.

Both the last two symphonies are programmatic. The Fourth opens with a striking motto on the brass, immediately followed by a chilling idea played on the high strings. The mood here is tentative, the harp conveying a sense of a lack of identity; however, an idea announced on the bassoon passes from clarinet, flute and oboe passing to the strings and leads to a climax. Here is a distinct theme of struggle before we enter a passage of reflection and then the chilling strings return, followed by a brass chorale. In the second movement, a dark idea on the strings enters which is continued by the wind, then tubular bells atmospherically create a rise in tension before the reappearance of the bells, harps and percussion. The finale opens with a dramatic motif on the trumpets and the percussion explore an idea which rises in intensity. Thrilling ideas on the woodwind emerge against a strident beat on timpani as if killing all hope, before a fresh woodwind idea and a brass chorale offer enlightenment, closing on the tubular bells. 

The Fifth symphony opens with a stirring, optimistic clarion-call on the brass and strings, then the woodwind introduce an idea with the timpani heard in the background and the woodwind bring a chirpy tune. The forceful tempo on the strings lead to a heroic idea on the horns assisted by the strings and brass. The second movement opens with a hauntingly beautiful flute solo, almost idyllic in tone and the idea is picked up by the solo viola and woodwind. This spell is broken by the percussion and the threatening low brass, yet the strings and woodwind return to the flute solo idea. In the finale, the brass open stridently and upbeat with a beautiful Russian folk song first on the solo violin, then on the harp. A beautiful ringing theme is heard on woodwind and brass in upbeat mood, then an attractive passage on woodwind leads to a dramatic outburst from the percussion heard against the strings, offering the hope of an optimistic outcome to the struggle, with the tubular bells invoking church bells.

One could say that Lyatoshinsky is under the shadow of Shostakovich along with composers like Kancheli, Schnittke and Shebalin, but he has a distinct voice. The performance by the Polish musicians is excellent, with fine solos from the orchestra leader, percussion, brass and woodwind. I do not know how familiar the musicians are with this composer’s music, but they are fine emissaries for it. The informative booklet notes by Dorothea Redepenning are in English and German. I hope that more record companies will explore not only other symphonies by this major Ukrainian composer but also his chamber works and his two operas. This is a welcome release deserving of a hearing by those interested in Eastern European music.

Gregor Tassie

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