This year marks the 140th birth anniversary of the Russian composer Nikolay Myaskovsky, and much to their credit, the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals celebrated his legacy in Russian music. Myaskovsky wrote 27 symphonies, 13 string quartets, 9 piano sonatas, two concertos, each for violin, and cello, and two cello sonatas, a violin sonata, plus 150 songs. Myaskovsky taught three generations of composers including 81 of the country’s finest composers. A unique aspect of his teaching at the Moscow Conservatoire was encouraging students to find their own voice, and avoid copying styles. He was a noted music critic, and developed contacts with Universal publishers in the 1920s and inviting Bartok, Hindemith, Milhaud, Reger, Casella to Russia. His music was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, the Chicago Symphony played his works 55 times, including the world premiere of the 13th symphony and commissioned the 21st symphony. The 1948 Zhdanov condemnation led to the almost complete neglect of his music, and in the west, sadly, the cold war had its effect. His students Khachaturyan, Kabalevsky, Shebalin kept his legacy alive, and Shostakovich (who consulted with Myaskovsky on his major works) called Myaskovsky the greatest symphonist of the 20th century. Only in the 1980s was his music revived and the symphonies were recorded by Svetlanov in the 1990s.
It is still rare to hear his music in the concert hall, Gergiev, Petrenko, Jurowski, Jarvi have performed and recorded his music, but this Festival devoted to Myaskovsky is the first to celebrate his music. The city of Ekaterinburg has a music conservatoire (named after Musorgsky), a first class opera and ballet theatre, two professional and youth symphony orchestras. The city is in the process of building a ‘state of the art’ concert hall designed by the British/Iraqi architect firm Zaha Hadid. It was scheduled to be ready in 2023, however, it has been delayed because of the pandemic, but certainly, this project with its two concert halls will place the city among Russia’s top music centres.
The ‘Myaskovsky Dialogues’ is only one of several music festivals taking place currently; the Bach Festival has been going on since January through to April. The Deputy Director of the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic Rustem Khasanov said that ‘there is a tradition here of holding festivals devoted to a single composer since the 1990s including Kancheli, Gubaydullina, Terteryan, and others. When the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic was established 85 years ago, the music of Myaskovsky was regularly performed so it is fitting that we commemorate this unjustly forgotten composer.’ As part of which is the exhibition at the Sverdlovsk Concert Hall from the Glinka Music Museum with rare archive photographs and concert programmes together with a history of Myaskovsky’s music heard in this city. This was combined with an art exhibition of suprematism in Russian art by Anton Taxis covering the coded thinking in art portrayed by Malevich. Uniquely enlightening were the weekly dialogues between musicologists and performers, including Gabriel Prokofiev, the grandson of the great composer, and the Israeli musicologist Nelli Kravetz who is publishing a new edition of the Myaskovsky/Prokofiev letters, and the author of this article. The Philharmonic operate their own virtual concert hall, similar to the Berlin Philharmonic’s system of live streaming and all streamed to libraries and concert halls throughout the region, on this occasion they were streamed worldwide free of charge.
The first of three concerts took place when the city was snowbound and at a temperature of minus 10, however the Russian public’s enthusiasm is unabated, turning up in all weathers. The Philharmonic, following six months of lockdown restarted their concerts several months ago and have been enjoying well attended audiences. Among the guests of the festival were Myaskovsky’s grandniece and the granddaughter of Shebalin and distinguished journalists from all over Russia.
The honour of opening the festival was given to the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic String Quartet (now renamed the Myaskovsky String Quartet). They were formed in 2010 from members of the Urals Philharmonic Orchestra and have their series of subscription concerts and appear regularly on TV and radio. In the valedictory Thirteenth String Quartet, the four musicians showed how much they are in sympathy with this music. The ensemble is excellent, and I was especially impressed by the cellist, but all four musicians are virtuosos, perhaps in the future, they can record all the Myaskovsky quartets.
The second piece to be heard was ‘The Kremlin at Night’ Cantata-nocturne was written to a symbolist text portraying the nocturnal work of Stalin. Showing the leader in an unfavourable manner, the cantata was criticised by the Party, and led to the 1948 denunciation of Myaskovsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. Of course, the composer of another ‘offending’ work The Great Friendship, Muradeli studied with Myaskovsky. The cantata was banned, and this was the first full performance since 1947. It is a masterpiece and has some of the finest choral music written by any Russian composer in the Soviet period. The opening Introduction was suspenseful, and there was beautiful melody, with shimmering harmonies from the cymbals and harp. The chorus singing was deeply elegiac, and one was reminded somewhat of Delius and Vaughan Williams In the Aria with soprano, the idiom was poetic with captivating singing from Klavdia Bashkirtseva before the marvellously suspenseful close. This was a tremendous performance by the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic Choir and the Urals Youth Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Rudin. Rudin has recorded several Myaskovsky works both as a cellist and conductor. Their Naxos recording of the Myaskovsky 1st and 13th symphonies was awarded a prize at the 2020 ICMA awards.
The final work was the Seventeenth Symphony. It is reflective and somewhat dark, yet there emerge passages of great beauty which remain in the listener’s memory long afterward. This symphony was written at the same time as Shostakovich’s Fifth and shares the same glorious musical ideas — though with a different voice — for there is no parody or sarcasm in Myaskovsky’s music. The Seventeenth opened with a great theme on strings and backed up by marvellous playing for the oboe and flute and a secondary more ambitious idea is picked up and the drama returns almost like we are witnessing a struggle between good and evil. There was top class playing by these young musicians, and the extended first movement closed with great energy and terrific playing. In the final section, the polyphonic form in a fugue led to an organic whole full of great drama and excitement concluding on a brightly optimistic coda. This was a tremendous performance of a long neglected symphony.
The second evening was labelled ‘Myaskovsky versus Prokofiev — a dialogue through life’ explored the friendship between the two composers to their final days with two actors playing the parts of the composers and reading extracts from their letters. The project was the brainchild of the Radio Russia music journalist Olga Rusanova who devised this unique evening illustrated by music from their friendship and acted as narrator and compere. The concert recreated the musical soirees of the Russian capital before the Great War at a time of enlightenment and a wave of symbolism, mixed with radical concepts of futurism and suprematism in the arts.
Yuri Favorin opened the musical side of this evening with the Prokofiev Etudes with a thundering dissonance followed by a lovely melody interrupted by dissonant chords, brilliantly executed, the second Etude is lyrical, often dream-like and often sounding like icy drops falling into a river, reflective and thoughtful, the third etude evoked bells, yet these were the prelude to a storm of stressful music, with rapid switches between modernism and lyricism, in the final Etude, we entered into a dark, gloomy world and slowly there arose poetry and lyricism. Myaskovsky’s ‘Eccentricities’ are among the most eclectic of his piano pieces well portrayed again by Favorin.
The outstanding musical part of the evening was the romances performed by Maria Ostroukhova. If the symphonies are rarely heard, hearings of the songs are as rare as moon dust, yet they are exquisite and as fine as anything written by Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky. Ostroukhova graduated from the Royal College of Music and won the Michael Oliver Prize at the Handel Singing Competition in 2015. Based on the symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, Myaskovsky’s ‘Madrigal’ Suite is in five brief settings; Ostroukhova was magnificent in the fleeting ‘Prelude,’ and heavenly in the brief ‘Romance,’ while the idiom was idealistic in the ‘Interlude,’ and the ‘Your blue eyes’ was a lovingly lyrical song to her erstwhile lover, and the concluding ‘Postlude,’ reprised Balmont’s verses of a troubled and unhappy soul.
Prokofiev’s Akhmatova settings engaged spirited lyrical singing, against the intimacy of the poetess’s verses, the singing was touching, yet eccentric, and in ‘Greetings,’ she sang of coming to meet her lover, and ‘The Grey-Eyed King,’ opened with the fateful singing of the ‘glory to your mourning death’. This contrasted with Myaskovsky’s profoundly lyrical Blok settings of 1921. ‘The Full Moon Arose over the Meadow,’ contained some beautiful lyricism and touching emotions. ‘The Terrible Chill of an Evening’ seemed at first brooding, yet sinister harmonies were heard amid dense chromatic chords.
Myaskovsky’s Third Piano Sonata is his most radical sonata, and was notably championed by Richter. The opening thunderous bars of the Con desirio segment opened up to a stressful passage displaying the composer’s modernism, switching between lyricism and dissonance, in the Improvisato-moderato, Myaskovsky’s writing delves deeply with his fluctuating harmonies. In the Stentato, ma sempre agitato, there were massive ostinato chords and flashes of chromatics before closing with an energetic coda. This was a memorable concert, and entertaining for the ‘dialogues’ between the two composers played by two actors in recreating the hundreds of letters exchanged between the two composers, at one time raising laughter from the audience when Prokofiev says how much he dislikes Myaskovsky’s Fifth symphony and then Myaskovsky comically retorts that he doesn’t like it at all, especially the finale!
A feature of the festival was the online documentary materials and essays on the composer’s life and work. Before the final concert, Irina Vinkevich gave a well-attended talk on the momentous Sixth Symphony. The concert by the Urals Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Liss opened with the composer’s most often performed piece. Myaskovsky’s Cello Concerto (1944) and long championed by Rostropovich. The soloist was the second-prize winner of the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition Alexander Ramm. Here, the Concerto’s opening Lento ma non troppo, started on a foreboding idea on the cellos. The cellist was accompanied by the flutes and oboes and the mood became more optimistic, which was boosted by fine oboe playing by Kudinov unfolding imagery of a landscape bathed in sunlight after the clouds have passed by. Ramm returned with a brief reflective cadenza and some enchanting interplay, all performed with great virtuosity leaving a feeling of enlightenment at the close of the movement. The Allegro vivace’s briskly dramatic playing on the double-basses and horns allowing Ramm to introduce delightful arpeggios on the cello and a more dynamic idiom unfolded — heard somewhat excitedly in the woodwind. The cantilena from Ramm revealed an achingly beautiful theme, while the horn reprised dramatic unease in a somewhat tentative solo cello passage, and a brass chorale was echoed by the orchestra before slowly dying away.
The Sixth Symphony of Myaskovsky reflects on the tragedy of the Russian intelligentsia after the revolution. It became hugely popular following the 1924 premiere under Golovanov, at the closing bars, the audience rushed to the platform crying bravo and many had tears in their eyes. No other work epitomises the agonies of Russia from the losses suffered with millions leaving the country and many more dying in the terrible civil war. The symphony opened on sudden terrifying chords, Poco largamente ma non allegro, followed quickly by the second theme of great trauma, and the conductor unleashed a shift in tempo bringing tranquillity. Throughout, there are great swings of tension and emotion, it is clear that Dmitry Liss is a very fine conductor able to handle the great sweeps of Myaskovsky’s music. It was clear that the orchestra was playing at the maximum of their ability — the musicians showed how much they believe in this music and determined to reveal to worldwide audience the music’s finest qualities. In the Presto tenebroso, the strings brought great drama at a brusque tempo in F minor, yet suddenly a lyrical idea on the flute introduced a pastoral scene, and the celeste introduced harmony in a moving citation of the Latin lament ‘Dies irae’ before the horns returned us to darkness.
In the slow movement, a darkly sinister theme continued the theme from the scherzo and as quickly disappeared. The celeste introduced a child-like idea as if the composer were remembering his childhood, yet this quickly disappeared when the bassoons introduced a shadowy idea, again the beautifully luminous theme returned and the celeste reprised the naïve theme on the remarkable main subject in B major. The finale, Allegro molto vivace, erupted loudly, and suddenly the strings cited a French revolutionary song, ‘La Carmagnole’ and then bizarrely, we heard the Simpleton’s lament from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and then the strings reprised the French revolutionary songs as if in a warning. The Simpleton’s lament is heard again before the chorus entered with the old orthodox chant of ‘The Parting of the Soul from the Body.’ The singing was spectacular by a Russian chorus — ‘What have we seen? A wonder of wonders, a dead body.’ The music was tremendously moving, and the crucial luminous divine theme returned on the strings, and slowly ever so slowly, on a E flat major note, the music died away.
This was a tremendously fitting close to this hugely invigorating festival of Myaskovsky’s music. Many music festivals world-wide can explore the way this festival has been planned and take up some of its innovative aspects as a template in celebrating a single artist. Most certainly the organization and planning of the ‘Myaskovsky Dialogues’ cannot be praised highly enough. To put on such a festival devoted to one composer is phenomenal during a worldwide pandemic. The concerts are all available online. Festivals | Sverdlovsk state philharmonic.