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37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History's interesting & relevant, but let's talk about the style(s) of the music (PLUS a suggestion about the notes problem), 9 Jan 2009
This review is from: Miaskovsky : Complete Symphonies Nos 1 - 27 (Audio CD)
This is an indispensable purchase for those interested in the Russian or Soviet symphony, but Miaskovsky's vast "terra incognita" is more important as music than a statistic. His decision to stick to a conservative idiom during the musical upheavals of the 20th century makes him different from, not inferior to, say, Shostakovich or Stravinsky. A composer's worth has nothing to do with whether or not he is a stylistic weathervane, blown about by every passing fad. Miaskovsky took what he wanted, and left the rest alone.

In the last three months I have compulsively devoured this set four times. The very fact that the booklet notes are sketchy (one page!) has forced me to assess the music as music, separated from its political environment (although I am familiar with the basics of Soviet political and musical history). No one insists that the ONLY way of appreciating Beethoven is to consider him against a background of footnoted essays on the Napoleonic wars. Likewise, one is in danger of minimizing Soviet music to a mere soundtrack to history--to say nothing of ignoring its significance as a universal human statement--if one is preoccupied with searching for Stalin in every corner!

So what can the newcomer expect? Of the early works, it has been said that the harmony is Scriabinesque--but there is little, if any, of Scriabin's ecstatic flight. I am reminded more of early Zemlinsky and the hyper-charged expressionism of pre-atonal Schoenberg, testing tonality to its limits (No.10 is particularly drastic), as well as the Russian "futurists"--Roslavets, Mossolov, etc.

Later, the emotional tone becomes less angst-laden. Mostly, the music becomes more orthodoxly tonal, lushly "romantic," and even, at times, "bright". Still, Miaskovsky almost always has something important to say. He always retained his gift for steering a slow movement to a climax of exalted lyricism, or (usually) making a triumphant close convincing--and his "futurism" doesn't vanish completely. Also, he never stopped experimenting with the shape of the symphony. Most are in three or four movements, but there are a few in one or two, and even one in five!

Symphonies 18, 19 and 20 acquiesce to populist "Soviet optimism"--one had to placate the authorities in order to survive. However, Miaskovsky recovers his true voice in No.21. No.23 proves he could write a lightweight yet substantial work based on folk tunes, with deliciously novel harmony. The three so-called "Sinfoniettas" are also substantial, fully worthy to be counted among the symphonies, and most of the fillers are important works.

Throughout, there are homages to Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Mussorgsky, Rimsky, etc. Yet, surprisingly, some later scores recall Delius and Elgar (Nos.25 and 27--these are masterpieces!). There are suggestions of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Honegger and other "modernists" (No.14). A great deal of Miaskovsky might not be taken for "Russian music" at all. Some works (No.13 of 1933) even resemble dissonant American academicism of the 30's and 40's! However, no single style dominates. "Modernist" works jostle, cheek by jowl, with lushly romantic ones, in no particular order, and certainly not in predictable alternation. He is a stylistic chameleon, tremendously adept at assimilating influences into his own unique voice.

The booklet notes ARE inadequate (although George Calvin Foreman's dissertation is a great help--more about this below), and the track analysis is full of errors. I have tried to correct as much as I could with the help of Foreman's dissertation, Ikonnikov's "Soviet optimism"-slanted biography, and Groves's:

(Symphony) No.11 is in B-flat minor; in No.8 (on disc 4), the tempo indication for the finale is "Allegro deciso"; No.12 is subtitled "Collective Farm"; the "Symphony-Suite" on disc 10 is No.23; No.16 is subtitled "Aviation Symphony"; the duplicate "No.8" on disc 11 is really No.18; No.2 is in C-sharp minor; No.13 is in B-flat minor; in No.6, Svetlanov omits the optional chorus (Dudarova includes it); No.21 is in F-sharp minor; the "Serenade" on disc 14 is Op.32, No.1, NOT "No.1"; Sinfonietta No.2 is in B minor; the tempo indication for the third movement of Sinfonietta No.3 is "Andante elevato"; the "Hulpigung's Overture" on disc 11 is aka "Salutation Overture" and "Greetings Overture"--WHEW!

The story of Svetlanov funding some of these recordings after the fall of the Soviet Union is well-known. Now and then, there are "wild and wooly" moments (surely due to inevitably insufficient rehearsal time), but the overall standard of the playing is high, and Svetlanov is a tower of strength throughout. It seems unlikely that this set will have any real competition for a long time. Considering the present spotty availability of the Olympia and Alto releases, this is probably, for now, the most reliable way (and surely the least expensive) to acquire all of these CD's.

SCHOLAR'S NOTE! In 1981, George Calvin Foreman submitted his dissertation, "The Symphonies of Nikolai Yakovlivich Miaskovsky" to the University of Kansas. I was able to download it at a university library, although I'm not sure if it's available to the general public. At any rate, it is well over 400 pages, and discusses ALL of the symphonies--Ikonnikov stops at No.24. There are copious musical examples, and Foreman discusses the works in the context of Soviet history. The musical analyses probably get too technical for non-musicians, but there's plenty of other interesting stuff here. Perhaps with the current explosion of interest in this composer, the dissertation will be published! Anyway, it's well worth looking into.

As a parting shot, I doubt that those who dismiss Miaskovsky as "reactionary" would regard him any more favorably if he were a satellite of Shostakovich, Stravinsky or Webern. He is himself--an original--working, by choice and with conviction, in a generally conservative style--eminently worth getting to know on his own terms.

P.S. If you enjoyed the symphonies, don't forget to check out the Taneyev Quartet's recordings of the String Quartets.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Jun 2011 09:09:38 BDT
J. Kinory says:
The string quartets are superb, I cannot listen to them often enough. But buying them all is very expensive ...

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Jun 2011 15:05:51 BDT
Dear "J",
Indeed! Some of the copies I bought looked like CDR's! Thanks for the comment--the latest information on the notes problem contributed by other reviewers is on my review of this set on American AMAZON.
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