About this Recording
8.223469 - MYASKOVSKY: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 4
English 

Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881–1950)
Piano Sonatas (Complete) Vol. 3, Nos. 1 and 4

 

Who was Nikolai Miaskovsky? That may seem a strange question to ask about a composer who with Prokofiev and Shostakovich forms the great triumvirate of Soviet symphonists and who was himself one of the most prolific symphonists of our century, but given the circumstances of his life and times, the question is not as strange as it first appears. Reticent by nature, he divulged precious little of his private life and personality. His Autobiographical Notes of My Creative Development, published in 1936, serves as much to confound as to clarify, but what artist in Stalinist Russia could be expected to write candidly? Miaskovsky was a product of the last years of Tsarist Russia; historical events made him a Soviet artist, and he was alternately praised and damned depending on which way the political winds blew.

Nikolai Yakovlevich Miaskovsky was born on 20th April 1881 in Novogeorgiyevsk near Warsaw. His early years were marked by conflict between the detested military career his father had decided for him and his own intense love of music. At the age of fifteen he vowed to make music his life’s work after hearing Nikisch conduct the Pathétique Symphony in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky’s score became his inseparable companion, a powerful influence that resonated profoundly with his own melancholy nature.

In the spring of 1907, as soon as he was free to do so, Miaskovsky entered St. Petersburg Conservatory as a full-time student of Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. He joined a circle of progressive musicians, worked as a critic and championed the music of his friend Prokofiev. During this period between 1911 and 1914 Miaskovsky composed complex, rather modernistic scores that have been described as troubled landscapes overcast with a pall of oppressive gloom. Russian critics likened him to Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky as a traveller in the realm of mental darkness.

The First World War wrought a fundamental change in outlook. Miaskovsky wrote that his experiences clarified his musical thinking, and officially the war was credited with taking him out of “the musty atmosphere of decadent salons” and placing him among “simple, spiritually healthy people”. Nevertheless, much of his music throughout his life expresses deep sadness, and the move toward simplification after 1917 is not borne out by the scores. In 1923 Miaskovsky became a founding member of the Moscow-based Association for Contemporary Music, blamed during the Stalin era for promoting “decadent-modernist formalism” and for hindering the development of socialist realism. In 1928 he composed arguably his most radical work, the nearly atonal, psychologically anguished tenth symphony. It failed to make the desired impression, and only thereafter did the composer adopt a simpler, more accessible idiom and begin to profess a Marxist social and political awareness.

Even though Miaskovsky became the Soviet Union’s most respected composition teacher and “the musical conscience of Moscow”, he was not immune to the devastating criticism that befell seven prominent composers in the infamous Decree on Music issued in 1948 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Along with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Popov and Muradeli, he was denounced for “formalist perversions” and “anti-democratic tendencies…alien to the Soviet people and their artistic tastes”. Already gravely ill, he responded with his 27th Symphony, a work of autumnal beauty that makes few concessions to socialist realism. He died thoroughly embittered in Moscow on 8th August 1950. Soon afterwards the symphony was premièred and declared exemplary.

Who then was Nikolai Miaskovsky? It can be said with certainty that he was an introvert who attempted all his life to reconcile his inner being with his outer circumstances, a self-critical man of integrity who strove to transmute his personal experience into a message for humanity.

Miaskovsky represents stability more than innovation, despite his progressive associations up through the 1920s. His brand of modernism is more of an evolution than a break with the past, motivated primarily by the sincere belief that music’s purpose is to communicate. His work is usually perceived as moving from greater complexity to relative simplicity, from the extremely chromatic to the diatonic, from overwrought subjectivity to calm objectivity, from polyphony to homophony. But in fact such an uncomplicated line of progression does not exist. The differences between early and late works are less marked than one would be led to think, and those very qualities that are praised in the late music are not entirely absent from the early works. Moreover, one must distinguish between those“simplified” compositions of the 1930s and 1940s that may be a response to external pressure and those that represent true artistic maturation.

Perhaps arising from the need to create unity out of diversity and resolution out of conflict, Miaskovsky’s work took shape as “a lifelong meditation on sonata form”. Twenty-seven symphonies, thirteen string quartets and nine published piano sonatas bear that out. The sonatas represent every phase of his career, and like the other sonata-form works they show a preference for minor keys. Miaskovsky composed at the keyboard, and analysis reveals the pianistic origins of his harmonic language and orchestral textures. Conversely the piano sonatas and string quartets tend toward symphonic breadth and the same sort of dynamic movement, development and inner tensions as the symphonies. Displaying neither extremes of virtuosity and brilliance nor striving after effect, the sonatas on the whole are not easy to play, and the first four in particular demand a high level of sophistication from the listener.

Not published in order of composition, the nine sonatas fall into four groups. Standing alone, the first (1907–10) belongs to the late romantic world of Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Medtner. Also originating during Miaskovsky’s student years in St. Petersburg, the Fifth and Sixth Sonatas were rewritten in 1944 to reflect the simpler clarity of his maturity. The second, Third and Fourth, also revised later, retain the excitement of the radical years and present a strange world filled with conflict and neurosis, conveying an assimilation of Scriabin and the symbolist poets. The last three sonatas (1949), intended as didactic pieces, express a simple, often folklike charm.

Supposedly Miaskovsky composed six piano sonatas before that in F-sharp minor, which he published as his second. It follows almost certainly that the highly accomplished Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 6, is not his first attempt but is the fruit of considerable experience. The innovative fugal opening traverses a century and a half in four minutes, taking us from Bach to the audacity of the early 20th century. A sonata-allegro follows, perfumed with the fin de siècle romanticism of Scriabin and Rachmaninov and culminating in a mighty cadenza. Fugal elements, which permeate the movement, resurface in the middle part of the lyrical slow movement. The orchestral breadth mentioned earlier as characteristic of Miaskovsky’s piano writing asserts itself in the imposing finale, where romantic fervour and brilliance lead at last to a victorious transformation of the fugal opening.

Sonata No. 4 in C minor, completed in 1924, shares the massive dimensions of the First Sonata, the despairing restlessness that ten years earlier marked the tumultuous Third Symphony, and the glittering coloration of Scriabin’s mysticism. Extreme dissonance, thick polyphony and an oddly alluring lyricism create an impression of emotional turmoil in the fervid opening movement, which ends with the ominous tolling of bells. The middle movement originated in an album entitled Frolics (1917–19) and purports to be in the manner of a sarabande. Its pervasive melancholy finds relief in a central episode, where bell-like motifs this time lend brightness. The moto perpetuo finale sustains a manic, even playful, mood, interrupted midway by a dreamy, cascading episode until the frenetic energy once again picks up and propels the sonata to its forceful conclusion.

David Nelson


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