Myaskovsky's Sixteenth Symphony (1935-1936) is one of his most successful compositions and one of his most tightly argued. Dedicated to the Orchestra of the Moscow Philharmonic Society and premiered by that very ensemble on October 24th with Jeno Szenkar on the podium, the symphony soon became among the composer's most popular symphonies and much talked about since then.
And yet it was recorded only twice to this date, notwithstanding the profound yet beguiling attributes of the work (which takes over where the Fifteenth Symphony leaves off). The first movement is particularly impetuous, melodic, & succinct, not as long-winded as the finale and not a poetic as that of the previous symphony. But it is definitely ear-catching as the Andantino second movement, which, with its ABA format, is graceful á la Tchaikovsky, with some of the woodwind writings that evokes the great Russian. And the appeal of the movement is further enhanced by its middle section, which paints a country landscape at its most imaginative (as Prokofiev wholeheartedly observes).
But it is the third movement (Andante marciale) that have the greatest impact in this whole symphony. A funeral march, a cortège in essence, with the bittersweet middle section, it was written in response to an aviation accident involving a giant Soviet plane, Tupolev ANT-20 (named after Maxim Gorki, a famous Russian writer). And while Tchaikovsky is again evoked (and perhaps even Mahler-listen to the closing bars of the movement), the profundity is for real and not at all calculated at the very least. Its heartfelt introversion is rather inescapable here (and made even more so by the aforementioned middle section, which has that Brucknerian sorrow and sincerity in it). But the finale, however, is quite a different story: buoyant in character comparatively speaking, where Myaskovsky used the melody of his 1931 patriotic song "The Planes are Flying" as its main theme. It is a tuneful, catchy theme, which recurs throughout the movement: the movement that takes its time getting it going before it abruptly reverts to the main idea of the Andantino. But I cannot find fault in Prokofiev's final analysis that this symphony is real art. It shows once again Myaskovsky at his most resourcefulness.
As does his Nineteenth Symphony (1939), which has a rather curious history. According to Manashir Yakubov, in his excellent notes of the composer and his works for strings in the Claves label (CD 50-9415), Myaskovsky attended a performance of his Eighteenth Symphony arranged for band & played by the wind orchestra of the Moscow military garrison. The composer was very impressed for he had never imagined such a possibility and the resulting success the ensemble garnered. After the urging of Ivan Petrov, who was the conductor of the Moscow Calvary Band, the composer tried his hands in composing a symphony for such an ensemble, overcoming issues such as sonorities, textures, and instrumental techniques. The Nineteenth Symphony, as was to become, became the first Soviet symphony of its kind and turned out to be an instant success. It was only later, in 1945, that the composer decided to reorchestrate the middle movements for strings and published them as Two Pieces for String Orchestra op. 46bis. It is a totally agreeable decision on his part, given the pure elegance and sublimity of those movements.
And Svetlanov's 1970 performance of that symphony with the Russian Frontier Guard Band is arguably the best on record, driving the music hard with an euphonious sense of excitability and electricity (their rendition of the last movement is just simply splendid). I may, however, elicit controversy by confessing how much I admire Mikailov's performance with the USSR Ministry of Defense Orchestra (Melodiya/Olympia-nla), even though the inclusion of the harp was never called for in the score. It's Mikailov's poetic treatment of the piece I find the most compelling and mesmeric (especially the middle movements). But Svetlanov is never short of excellence in the music and the recording is more than acceptable.
As in the case of the Sixteenth Symphony, where his Russian Federation Symphony Orchestra performed with total command, alertness, artistry, and blendedness: the very qualities that are not always guarantees in this series. And Svetlanov clearly outclass Konstantin Ivanov with the same orchestra in some respects, even though the latter has virtues of his own that makes his Melodiya recording a classic in its own right. Svetlanov's take is piquant where needed (in the first movement for instance), though in comparison with Ivanov, a bit too drawn out in both the second movement and the finale. But he scores high in the Andante marciale, where its funereal qualities is brought out with a greater sense of poignancy and profundity. He also has the recording to his advantage, which is of exceptional clarity that is likewise not always a guarantee in this series. But despite a qualm or two, this release is a welcome in every way.
I would like to take a moment in remembering Per Skans who passed on in January of 2007. His knowledge in music especially of Soviet Russia remains essentially unchallengeable for its depth and perspective. I remember having a nice series of correspondences with him a couple of years ago regarding my plans to do a biography of Nikolai Myaskovsky. Needless to say, I still cherish those moments. My sincere condolences to all.