N. MyaskovskyN. Myaskovsky

Myaskovsky and his recorded legacy by Gregor Tassie

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If one was to ask the average record collector what they know of Myaskovsky, more than likely the response would be that he knows that he wrote a multitude of symphonies, and apart from the cello concerto, he has never heard a note of his music. Happily that is beginning to change for the better, several outstanding new recordings have appeared recently and this year’s Edinburgh Festival, for the first time in decades is programming an orchestral work by Myaskovsky.

My own curiosity for the composer goes back to when I heard the 21st symphony on the BBC Third Programme and straightaway I began to track down his recordings; it took fully forty years to gather a complete set of his symphonies! Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950) composed twenty seven symphonies, thirteen quartets, nine piano sonatas and over one hundred and fifty songs; he taught at the Moscow Conservatoire for almost thirty years and was a major figure in the Composers Union and music publishing. A former officer in the Tsarist army; he fought in the Great War and was severely injured, and he was the most respected senior composer in the USSR that is until the Zhdanov denunciation of Soviet composers in 1948.

The great influences on Myaskovsky were Tchaikovsky, Musorgsky, Scriabin and Wagner; throughout his extensive career his composing style embraced periods of late romanticism, impressionism and modernism. The war seriously affected his life with a distinctly dark and tragic nature sweeping through his music, though without the melancholia of Tchaikovsky. Immediately following the 1917 revolution he lost his father who was shot accidently by a Red sailor in the Ukraine, and in a short period lost his aunt and foster mother and many of his friends including Prokofiev who left for America. Already the author of five symphonies nothing came from his pen for almost three years, following which he wrote an extraordinary 3rd piano sonata which was presented to the ICRM Festival in 1924. The 6th symphony of 1924 became his magnum opus, of Mahlerian length, the work contains motifs from French revolutionary songs Carmagnole and Ҫa ira, yet they are only symbols, the essence of the work can be found in the frequent use of the lament from the Latin mass Dies Irae. The opening bars set the tone by the terrible invocation of the rant of a revolutionary at a meeting attended by the composer, ‘Death, death to the enemies of the revolution’. The second movement is drawn on Myaskovsky’s memory of his family home visiting the corpse of his dead aunt and the bitter wind sweeping through the building. In the finale Myaskovsky uses the ancient chant ‘As the body departs from the spirit’ preceded by the lament of the simpleton from Boris Godunov ‘Oh, woe, woe for Russia.’ The symphony was met with an ovation when it was premiered by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Chorus under Golovanov. In the next few years the 6th was conducted by Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Walter, Wood and Furtwangler. Myaskovsky’s new symphonies were awaited with great interest in the West; however in Russia the reverse was true. The 10th depicts a macabre tale from Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman in which the statue of Tsar Peter chases a poor little man through the streets of the capital. The work was written against a background of unrelenting pressure by ultra-leftist musicians trying to ban the music of Tchaikovsky and traditional composers, so much so that Myaskovsky and his colleagues were forced to leave teaching for several years. The symphony was not well received in the Soviet Union.

The leading American orchestras were regularly programming Myaskovsky and for their 50th anniversary, the Chicago Symphony commissioned Myaskovsky to write a symphony. This became the 21st symphony in F and it is among his finest and most beautifully written, in a single movement of under 20 minutes, the listener hears an expansive sweep of lyrical harmonic music, both intensely dramatic and poignant. In a poll by CBS, Myaskovsky was nominated among the top ten most popular 20th century composers. During the war Myaskovsky was able to hear the recordings of contemporary music from America and Europe. Among those that he listened to was Elgar’s Second symphony, Ireland’s Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov’s Third symphony. He was upset by the reading by Bernard Herrmann of his 22nd symphony which imposed cuts and alterations to tempi. He demanded that the recording not be issued. He was happier with Ormandy’s setting of the 21st symphony with the Philadelphia of 1944 (CBS P 14155), Morton Gould recorded the symphony in 1946 with the Chicago Symphony (RCA SB 6783). 

I well remember my visit to the Anglo-Soviet Music shop near Foyle’s in 1970. The entrance was out of a John le Carre novel, in what looked to be an antique shop an elderly and attentive gentleman ushered me up a narrow staircase into a freshly painted suite of small rooms piled high with Melodiya LPs. I was met by a Russian who brusquely snarled that the shop was closed and he thrust a list of their records for sale. I had no more choice but to continue my trawl elsewhere through the city. From the list I ordered the Myaskovsky 3rd Symphony conducted by Svetlanov (C01015-2). No record arrived and after weeks and months passed, I decided to trace the whereabouts of my missing record/postal order, despite several unsuccessful attempts to phone the shop, I eventually received a response from the bank manager who had cashed it. He was good enough to pursue my cause with the manager of the shop, and some ten months later the Myaskovsky LP arrived. In the years since then I have often wondered what happened to the shop and its mysterious ‘manager’, I sometimes think that in one of the diplomatic scandals between the UK and the former Soviet Union he will have been sent back home in disgrace. Certainly it was the most bizarre of my record-collecting adventures.

I fully expected to find more than a few Myaskovsky recordings on my first visit to Moscow in 1972 but despite calling at several shops, only a single LP could be discovered that by Svetlanov of the 22nd Symphony coupled with a piece by the conductor himself (CM03157-8). Subsequent visits to other cities such as Leningrad and Kiev did not bring any significant rewards and concert programmes revealed Myaskovsky was still a conspicuously ignored figure. A small number of symphonies were discovered in shops in London or Glasgow. At Devoy’s shop I was lucky to get my hands on the legendary set of the 6th Symphony in Kondrashin’s reading from 1959 coupled with the Divertissement. This quite changed my perception of this composer; the work heralds the great symphonies by Shostakovich written years later and was the first to include religious texts which led to its neglect over many years. In the 1980s a complete series of the thirteen quartets were issued by Melodiya in readings by the Leningrad-based Taneyev Quartet. With the arrival of the CD in 1983 things began to change to the better when Francis Wilson’s Olympia label began to record the piano sonatas on three disks with the young Scot Murray MacLachlan in 1988( OCD 214, 217, 252). The company attempted to release all of Myaskovsky’s music including the quartets and symphonies. They also issued CDs by Myaskovsky’s students Khachaturyan, Kabalevsky, Knipper and Shebalin, these noticeably broadened ones’ idea of music-making in Russia during the Soviet era and of Myaskovsky’s legacy. Olympia in the UK made their digital production of the 6th symphony (OCD 510) with Veronica Dudarova conducting the Symphony Orchestra of Russia in 1992. This appeared at the same time as Marco Polo’s version of the 6th directed by Robert Stankovsky and his Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (8.223301).

Many of Olympia’s CDs featured Svetlanov’s analogue recordings from the 60s, however a project embracing all of the orchestral works (excluding the concertos) with Svetlanov was plagued by misfortune, Melodiya agreed a contract for the complete set however delays and financial catastrophe almost sabotaged the project. Certainly the symphonies are well recorded by some of Russia’s best engineers however their weakness is that quite a few symphonies are poorly rehearsed and the State Orchestra was no longer at its best. The financial circumstances of the recording were that sessions were limited by time and do not always bring out the best of the rich orchestral canvass of Myaskovsky’s symphonic works. Most of them had not been performed in concert, and notably the 4th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 20th, 24th, and 26th symphonies were premiere recordings.

Melodiya were in free-fall after the demise of the Soviet Union, and Svetlanov was ultimately left to pay for the recording sessions himself. 300 of the CD sets were stored at his home in Moscow until they were marketed by an American distributor. The set of 16 disks on Russian Disk became difficult to get hold of until Olympia stepped in to issue the series although this was arrested by the bankruptcy in 2003 of Olympia and prior to Alto issuing the remaining seven CDs,  Warner  Classics issued their own collection at a bargain price. The down side of the latter was the lack of information in comparison to the highly informed standard of the Olympia and Alto CDs booklets authored by Per Skans and Jeffrey Davis.

Marco Polo recorded both symphonies and chamber works, issuing all nine sonatas by the Hungarian Endre Hegediȕs, and a series of symphonies between numbers 5 and 12 using orchestras from the UK and Slovakia. Their sister company Naxos also recorded the 24th and 25th symphonies (8.555376). Significantly DG released the 6th symphony by Neemi Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony in a very fine 2002 recording using the original version with choir (471655-2), in addition the violin concerto was issued by Philips with Gergiev accompanying Vadim Repin (473343), and the cello concerto with Mischa Maisky and Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra on DG (449821).Warner Classics have issued recordings by the Urals Philharmonic in excellent readings under Dmitry Liss of the 6th and 10th symphonies (256463431-2).

Sadly Russian companies have proved wanting, despite a huge archive, Melodiya currently only have one CD devoted to the composer, Northern Flowers in St Petersburg with less resources have issued all the string quartets, and two CDs of wartime symphonies; the 22nd and 23rd symphonies (NF/PMA 9966), and the 24th and 25th (NF/PMA 9971). These were recorded by the St Petersburg State Symphony under Alexander Titov. Recently a song recital features three of Myaskovsky’s early romances performed by the mezzo-soprano Mila Shkirtil accompanied by Yuri Serov (NF/PMA99103). Another Russian company Vista Vera have issued the 6th in a 1996 recording by Valery Polyansky and his State Symphonic Capella of Russia (VVCD-00202) with the 1947 revision and with choir. Melodiya have lately issued the Bolshoi Quartet’s 1967 setting of the 9th Quartet, in one of the best recordings (MELCD 1001750).

It is a good sign that Western musicians are beginning to explore Myaskovsky’s string quartets and sonatas. The Chicago-based musicians Wendy Warner and Irina Nuzova have recorded the cello sonatas on the Cedrille label (CDR90000120) whilst the Pacific Quartet has set down the 9th Quartet in a survey of Soviet quartets on the same label (CDR 90000127). Of particular note is the 2008 reading by the Kopelman Quartet of the 13th quartet for Nimbus (NI 5827). The French Renoir Quartet have recently set down the 1st and 13th Quartets for AR RE-SE (AR2010-1), this enterprising label have released a disk by Lydia Jardon of his most important piano sonatas – the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sonatas (AR2009-2). The Turkish pianist Idil Biret set down Myaskovsky’s 2nd and 3rd sonatas for Finnadar LPs (SR9029, IBA 8.571281) with a sleeve entitled ‘Mostly Myaskovsky’ celebrating his birth centenary, (something which almost every record label ignored).

Whilst Richter recorded the 3rd sonata several times (74321 29470 2, Pyramid 13503, DHR-7806), he never widened his interest in his music, although both he and his wife Nina Dorliak were close friends and often performed his song cycles. Grigory Ginzburg set down his wartime Song and Rhapsody (456 802-2), and there are fine recordings of other piano works by Voskresensky (D 35279-80), Lvov (AU 31474 US), Slobodyanik (C10 14263-4), Petrushansky (AED 68010) and Leonid Blumberg (D 13775). Blumberg was a student of Myaskovsky who lived in desperately bad housing conditions and the composer successfully pleaded to Molotov to help his plight, after which the young man was given a better flat.

Perhaps the greatest gap in the recorded legacy are his vocal works, once he planned an opera based on Dostoyevsky’s Idiot and another on King Lear but he wrote many cycles of songs and romances which were performed by the leading vocalists of Russia’s golden age of singing during the 20s and 30s, but pitifully under-represented in the catalogues, Nicolai Gedda performed one of the romances from Myaskovsky’s Gippius setting of ‘The Moon and the Cloud’ at a 1961 Salzburg Festival concert EMI (CDH 5653522). In their day Myaskovsky’s romances were compared favourably with those by Rachmaninov. The music harks of the Musorgskian style with rich melodies and dark spirits beneath. He often used the poems of the controversial Russian poet Zinaida Gippius. Her scandalous, sexually explicit and mixed with religious fervour texts were banned in the USSR. Nadezhda Shpiller recorded the early song cycle ‘Madrigal’ based on Balmont (D-5978-9).

The greatest propagandist of Myaskovsky’s music was Mstislav Rostropovich who recorded the Cello Concerto several times, first with Faktorovich (D 5096), and famously with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the Philharmonia (SXLP 30155, CDM 5 65419 2), but most magnificently with Svetlanov (72296). He also used the second cello sonata as a course work at the Moscow Conservatoire and his single-handed advocacy has led to this being most frequently recorded of all, twenty in all. Rostropovich only recorded this work once with Dedukhin (D 35455) shortly after the premiere. Myaskovsky wrote it as his swan song, it is a beautifully rapt pastoral work invoking the broad landscapes so beloved by Myaskovsky; one can almost sense the woodlands and gardens where the shunned composer spent his last summer together with his life-long friend Prokofiev.

It was Prokofiev who first recorded a piece by Myaskovsky for Duo Art of No’s 1 and 6 from the 1917 set of Whimsies (73888) dating from 1924. They have appeared on 78, LP (M1039515-18) and CD (Delta 14203). The first recording of a Myaskovsky symphony was the 21st undertaken by Nathan Rachlin with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in 1941. This was issued on 78s on Compass C-103. An extremely popular work was the Sinfonietta for Strings which became the first piece recorded in the West under Frank Black and the NBC Symphony Orchestra (Victor 12091/4) in 1942. However prior to these was the recording of the Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Gauk which dates from 10 January 1939 and issued in the UK by Decca X272/6 on five 78 discs. The Beethoven Quartet made a recording of the 13th Quartet in 1951 coupled with the 4th Quartet by Myaskovsky’s one-time teacher Gliẽre, on Westminster (XWN 18423). Regrettably few of the Beethoven Quartet’s tapings are available (the ensemble premiered almost all of Myaskovsky’s quartets), and the Borodin Quartet have restricted their recordings to the 13th, the second of which is a recent issue on Onyx (4051).

There is on YouTube recordings of the two cantatas Kirov is with Us and The Kremlin at Night under the baton of Gennady Rozhdestvensky from TV concerts.  These offer a quite different take on Myaskovsky’s music; the former is a wartime cantata written to inspire troops and patriotic feeling in 1943 whilst the other shorter piece is a beautiful setting of contemporary texts with a controversial portrayal of Stalin which caused the work to be banned and led to the famous Zhdanov scandal in 1948.

It is of regret that neither Mravinsky nor Golovanov recorded anything by Myaskovsky despite having premiered his symphonies. Nikolay Golovanov established a close friendship with Myaskovsky however he did not prove the most reliable of interpreters. Alexander Gauk portrayed himself as the composer’s favoured interpreter, however according to Myaskovsky this was not true, certainly since 1937 Gauk conducted several premieres however the composer was frustrated by Gauk’s frequent inability to grasp the essence of his symphonic ideas. An exception is Gauk’s recording of the 27th symphony made shortly after the 1950 premiere and which conveys magnificently this valedictory masterpiece (ND0496-7); regrettably this is not available on CD, for it surpasses any other recording. If anyone could be given the mantle of the Myaskovsky interpreter par excellence, then that honour should belong to Konstantin Ivanov. Ivanov’s reading of the 5th Symphony at the 1938 conducting competition gained him the third prize and the opening for his career; his recording of the 5th on Olympia (OCD 133) exceeds any of its rivals for its exuberance, passion and accuracy of detail. His recordings of the 16th and 21st symphonies are quite magical in their capturing of the unique Myaskovsky sound world (D 09415-6), again not available on CD. In the 40s he set down the 6th following radio concerts; however the recording much praised by the composer was never released. One other conductor who caught the dramatic chromatics of Myaskovsky’s symphonies was Kirill Kondrashin, he recorded the 15th symphony in 1963 (C 0801, APL 101.503)) and his remarkable setting of the 6th was restricted in distribution in 1959 (DO5472-750, RDCD 15008). In his final Moscow concert in 1978, Kondrashin conducted the 6th again, albeit without a choir, and Melodiya issued it (MEL CD 10 00841). Kondrashin enjoyed a wholehearted friendship with Myaskovsky and frequently studied with him works before their orchestration and first performance. Other recordings by Gauk, Ivanov, Ginzburg and Rachlin have had limited availability in the West. These rarities became a phenomenon and collectors were unkindly characterized in one journal as ‘Myaskovsky symphony spotters’. The lack of concerts featuring Myaskovsky’s music underlined the dreadful indifference to the composer’s music. 

Today in the swiftly changing world of technology it is possible to listen to all Myaskovsky’s orchestral works on the internet and on YouTube, for any reader unfamiliar with the composer’s work, I can promise that you will discover music which can both startle and amaze one. This website has available almost all of Myaskovsky’s recordings www.classical-music-online.net/en/composer/Myaskovsky/738. Also try You Tube on these links: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=myaskovsky. There is a website dedicated to the composer: www.myaskovsky.ru.



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