Miaskovsky is a fascinating composer with a strongly lyrical talent naturally
nostalgic and perhaps a little old-fashioned in his language. Unlike his
close friend Prokofiev he did not go in much for experiments or obviously
new directions. Miaskovskys music is definitely worth exploring. There
is a big, brilliant Violin Concerto offering a well judged mix of poetry
and drama. The twenty-seven symphonies are full of interest and fascination.
We know too little of this mountain range of works.
There are currently two Miaskovsky symphony CDs in the Revelation catalogue.
The other one (Symphonies 2 and 22 both conducted by Svetlanov) is also reviewed
this month. In the present CD we have one large-scale epic early symphony
and another from later in his career although in the case of RV10069 the
other symphony dates from only 11 years later and with its roots in the Great
war rather than the Great Patriotic War of the 1940s.
Symphony No. 1 dates from Miaskovskys third year at the St Petersburg
Conservatoire when the composer was 26. It was revised in 1921 and presumably
it is that version which is recorded here. Some years ago a Russian Disc
recording of the symphony with similar timings came out coupled with
Miaskovskys Symphony No 19. That version was again conducted by
Rozhdestvensky with an orchestra with only a slightly different name. I suspect
that it is the same performance. The only other recording I know about is
the BBC radio tape by the Ulster Orchestra conducted by the late Bryden Thomson.
There were rumours (it was announced in small print in Gramophone) of an
Olympia disc coupling symphonies 1, 15 and 21 but when I checked some years
ago with Olympia there were technical problems with the digital mastertape
and this has never been issued.
Symphony No. 1 has a striving and striding first movement with much sturm
und drang. If I had to call in any parallels it would be Tchaikovsky
of the fifth symphony and of Manfred. There is that feeling of a pilgrimage
of the spirit through an oppressive clouded but dramatic landscape. It is
also intriguing to hear music in this movement which reminds me very forcefully
of the angst-ridden music of Prokofievs Eugene Onegin (does anyone
out there have the Russian Melodiya version of that play with Prokofievs
music?). The second movement is an expansive larghetto dominated by a meandering
long-breathed theme for the strings with violins crying to the heights. It
is projected with passion in this recording.
The last movement already displays all the usual hallmarks of Miaskovsky
symphonies. The jerky, noble, aspiring march-like figure has brethren themes
in the later symphonies. Glazunov is evoked from time to time and the confidence
of this music won Glazunovs praise at its premiere when the elder composer
praised it for its maturity of thought and even went out of his
way to secure for the young composer a small stipend.
The symphony does not feel like an immature work although there seems to
be a higher charge of electricity in the second symphony. I have always liked
Rozhdestvenskys music making. His years in the late 70s and early 80s
as Principal Conductor of the BBC SO marked some of the best repertoire days
of the orchestras history. I recall so many performances. His Prokofiev
Chout (full score) performance at the 1979 Edinburgh Festival had narration
by Andrew Cruickshank (the original Dr Finlay of Dr Finlay Case Book
fame - at least in the UK). It was televised and I recall Rozhdestvenskys
almost childlike joy in the music - such a communicative and imaginative
musician! Then there was a rare performance of Lokshins Symphony No
3 setting with bitter violence and lyricism poems by Kipling including a
Danny Deever which left the Grainger version well behind. He also directed
RVWs Fifth Symphony and possibly the sixth. His Proms performances
of Delius Song of the High Hills and Violin Concerto (Ida Haendel) were also
notably enjoyable. I dont recall him offering any Miaskovsky symphonies
with the BBCSO although if he did perhaps someone will remind me.
The Rozhdestvensky performance of the Fifth is new to CD. It was recorded
on 12 February 1982. The sound is very acceptable without being startlingly
clear. The fifth is a four movement work unlike the three movement First.
The first movement opens grazioso - the marking is allegretto amabile but
it is not long before Miaskovskys darker side draws in one of his most
striking upward-thrusting themes. The second movement is heavy with mystery
and at 3:40 there is a passage startlingly pre-echoing Tapiola. At
6:24 an elusive but haunting theme returns. The third movement is dance-like
(though the dance is heavy-footed - giants in gum-boots) emulating Borodin.
Later the dance becomes more charming and elfin - a Slavonic Warlocks
Capriol - well almost! This stamping Russian folk-dance motif is rather
Glazunov-like. The last movement is dashing and confident and for me is deeply
coloured by Glazunovs symphonies, the eighth of which had been completed
in 1905. The thematic material here, with recollections of material from
the first movement, is of the highest distinction. At 1:55 of this movement
we can hear a little of what may have influenced Shostakovich in years to
come. There is a joyous Easter Fair heartiness (alternating with nobility)
about this movement and even at 4:20 a momentary premonition of Bax. At 6:20
the liturgical upward thrusting theme from the first movement returns in
tragic crumbling splendour.
When it comes to comparing couplings for the first symphony the Russian Disc
offers Symphony No. 19 for military band which is entertaining but does not
have the taut concentration of Symphony No. 5. I also have been able to compare
the Marco Polo CD of Miaskovsky 5 (BBCPO/Edward Downes) and the Olympia CD
with the old (1960s) recording by the USSRSO and Konstantin Ivanov. No. 5
is a fine work and enjoyable in any of these recordings however for me the
Ivanov performance with its single-minded dedication and vibrant (though
dated) sound and performance is still marginally the front-runner.
To summarise: buy this CD. Any recording of No. 1 is rare. The Revelation
disc should be in easier supply than the Russian Disc version and in any
event the Symphony No. 5 is a more attractive coupling. If you are going
for a number 5 then you cannot really go wrong with any of the versions though
my preference is for Ivanov on Olympia - if you can find it. Miaskovsky symphonic
completists are destined to get every version as a means of filling gaps
in the symphony sequence. The respectable, intense and well-recorded Marco
Polo version has Symphonies 5 and 9 in committed performances conducted by
Opportunists please note that while we dream of a boxed set of the Miaskovsky
symphonies by one inspired orchestra, conductor and recording engineer, a
street-wise move would plug every gap in the Miaskovsky symphonic canon:
Numbers 4, 13, 14, 18, 20, 24 and 26. Please dont couple these with
previously recorded symphonies. Couple them together!
For someone looking for an easier way into Miaskovskys world do try
the Violin Concerto. There is an Olympia CD of this work played by Grigori
Feigin with the USSRSO conducted by Alexander Dimitriev. This is
Miaskovskys most approachable work barring none.