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8.550953 - MYASKOVSKY / SHOSTAKOVICH: Chamber Symphonies

Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950)
Sinfonietta in A minor, Op. 68, No. 2

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a
(from String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 arr. Rudolf Barshai) 

Nikolay Yakovlevich Myaskovsky has long enjoyed an ambiguous reputation, much honoured among musicians in his homeland, the former Soviet Union, and respected abroad, if relatively little known, except for his achievement in completing 27 symphonies. Born in 1881, he belonged to the generation that had its training at the turn of the century, under the successors of Rubinstein and 'the Five', and its active career under the new régime established in Russia after 1917. 

Myaskovsky was born in 1881 at Novogeorgiyevsk, near Warsaw, the son of an engineer officer. His early education followed family tradition at military schools at Nizhny-Novgorod and in St Petersburg, and finally at the Academy of Military Engineering, where he completed his studies in 1902. From childhood he had shown an interest in music, fostered at first by his mother and after her death in 1890 by his aunt, his father's sister, who had been a singer at the opera in St Petersburg and who gave him piano lessons, as far as her nerves would allow. He pursued his musical interests as best he could during his years of military study and in 1903, after joining a Sappers' battalion in Moscow, he was able to take lessons from Glière, on the recommendation of Taneyev, who had been approached on his behalf by Rimsky-Korsakov. He later took lessons in St Petersburg from Krizhanovsky, in preparation for entry in 1906 to the Conservatory, where his teachers included Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1907 he was able to resign from the army, having completed his obligatory service and in the following year he wrote his first symphony, which won him a share in the Glazunov scholarship. 

Myaskovsky's fellow-students at the Conservatory included the young Prokofiev, ten years his junior, with whom he established a lasting friendship, united at first in their critical attitude to Lyadov, who seemed old- fashioned in his teaching and attitude. The two composers maintained their relationship until Myaskovsky's death in 1950, the older man an indulgent mentor, offering advice tempered with admiration, both acceptable in equal measure to Prokofiev. 

After graduation in 1911 Myaskovsky supported himself by teaching in one of the less important music schools in St Petersburg and during the war he served on the Austrian front as an officer in the Sappers. He was wounded during active service on the naval fortifications at Reval (Talinn), after which he held a staff appointment in Moscow. In 1917 he joined the Red Army and after demobilisation in 1921 joined the teaching staff of the Moscow Conservatory, remaining a professor of composition there until his death. In this capacity he exercised an important influence over a younger generation of composers, including Khachaturian and Kabalevsky. In character he was retiring and diffident, perhaps affected by the shell-shock he had suffered in the war, and rejected attempts by Prokofiev to persuade him to travel to Western Europe. As time went on, he attempted increasingly to fulfil what he saw as the requirements of the Soviet establishment, abandoning in the 1930s the Association for Contemporary Music, of which he had been a founder-member, to adopt a style that was often of more immediate appeal to the people and certainly more congenial to the political theorists of the time. Nevertheless in 1948 his name was linked with those of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and his own former pupils Kabalevsky and Shebalin, in Zhdanov's condemnation of formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies. He died in 1950, to be posthumously rehabilitated in 1958. 

Myaskovsky's Sinfonietta in A minor, Op. 68, No. 2, dates from 1945 and is thoroughly diatonic in its musical language. The first movement opens dramatically and there is an air of menace in the opening, before a melancholy Andante with its imitative entries and intensity of feeling in its descending melodic contours. As the material is developed, there is always a strong element of counterpoint, a common mannerism of the composer. The second movement lightens the atmosphere in a simple folk-dance, with duly contrasted sections in the minor and moments of lyricism for which the folk-dance provides a frame. It is followed by a move into more lyrical territory with a strongly felt theme, breathing the spirit of Tchaikovsky. There is a shift into the minor with a contrasting passage, before the return of the thematic material with which the movement had begun. The lyrical mood is dispelled by the movement that follows, with its return to the menace of the opening of the work. This, with its emphatically repeated, hammered chords, is followed by the appearance of a more lyrical theme, over a repeated accompaniment figure that gives it a feeling of urgency. The material is developed, to return in brief recapitulation, ending in a feeling of ambiguous triumph, with a coda based on the opening of the movement. 

Dmitry Shostakovich belongs to a later generation of Russian composers. Born in St Petersburg in 1906, the year after the disturbances that had brought Bloody Sunday and the Potemkin mutiny, the son of an engineer, he came to share the liberal sympathies of his family, to whom political change might at first have been welcome. At the age of thirteen he entered the Petrograd Conservatory, studying the piano with Leonid Nikolayev and composition with Rimsky-Korsakov' son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg. His studies

continued during the difficult war years, when he was encouraged by the Conservatory director Glazunov. Weakened by the privations of the period, he graduated, nevertheless, as a pianist in 1923 and in composition two years later. His first symphony, his graduation work, was performed in what was now Leningrad in May 1926 and won considerable success, with further performances abroad, while, as a pianist, he received an honourable mention at the Warsaw International Chopin Competition. 

While he enjoyed apparent early success, even with his opera Lady Macberh of the Mtsensk District, a work that might have seemed a revelation of bourgeois corruption, he met the harshest official criticism for this very work, when, in 1936, at the direct instigation of Stalin, it was condemned in an article in Pravda as 'chaos instead of music'. In the circumstances such criticism had the severest consequences in a society in which official control was absolute. In Soviet music in the first decade of the Revolution there had been a dichotomy between the populist desire for music that the people might understand immediately and the more esoteric modernism with which Shostakovich now seemed identified. The war years brought a measure of rehabilitation, in particular with his Leningrad Symphony, written and performed at a time of great hardship, when the city was under siege. In the aftermath of the war, however, he was again the subject of condemnation, in 1948. Official disapproval brought a measure of isolation and seems to have led him to distinguish between music for public consumption and compositions in which he might truly express what was in him. 1953, with the death of Stalin, brought a certain relaxation, but Soviet control of the arts was not at an end and was to continue, with varying degrees of severity, throughout the remaining years of Shostakovich's life. 

The eighth of Shostakovich's fifteen string quartets, the Quartet in C minor, Op. 110, was conceived in July 1960 during a visit to Dresden, devastated in the war by British and American bombers at the request of Russia. Appalled by what he saw, he dedicated the work to the memory of victims of fascism and war, but created in it music that was largely autobiographical, giving the dedication an ironical twist not recognised by the Soviet authorities, who had sent him to East Germany to provide music for the film Pyat' dney - pyat' nochey (Five Days - Five Nights). In a letter to his friend Isaak Gilman he revealed the nature of the work, which makes considerable use of a figure derived from the first letters of his name, DSCH, which in German notation becomes D - Es (F flat) - C - H (B natural), as well as the revolutionary song 'Tormented by grievous bondage' and themes from his own compositions, from the First Symphony, the First Cello Concerto, the Piano Trio and the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, as well as from the Fifth and Tenth Symphonies. Other musical references include the funeral march from Wagner's Götterdämmerung and the second theme from the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. He confessed that the work brought tears to his eyes as he wrote it and his friend Lev Lebedinsky recalls that Shostakovich suggested that the quartet was his own epitaph, preceding his planned suicide, forced on him by the political pressures to which he was now subjected. It was played at his funeral in 1975. 

The first movement of the quartet, here in an apt arrangement for string orchestra, to which it is well suited, opens with a fugal treatment of the Shostakovich cryptogram. This is followed by a reference to the First Symphony and two further themes, the second derived from the Fifth Symphony, the famous reply in 1937 of a Soviet artist to what he had to describe as just criticism. The second movement, in G sharp minor, opens with a violent theme, a wild dance, derived from a secondary theme of the preceding movement and played by the first violins. The Shostakovich motif re-appears and there is a viola treatment of the theme, accompanied by fierce cello chords and followed by the return of the first violins in the same material. The second theme is the Jewish melody from the Piano Trio. These elements are developed in abridged sonata-form. The third movement starts with the composer's musical signature, now a sinister waltz. There is a second waltz theme and then an intermittent change into duple rhythm, before a reference to the First Cello Concerto and a high register cello theme. The first violin leads to the fourth movement, with the Cello Concerto theme, leading to the song 'Tormented by grievous bondage', followed by a theme from the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The Cello Concerto theme is heard again and the first violin, repeating the Shostakovich monogram, leads to the final fugal movement, ending the work in a mood of intense mourning.

Keith Anderson

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