The Compact Collection

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The Independent Culture

Nikolai Myaskovsky was the dark horse of Soviet symphonism who, like many of his peers, suffered "official" disapproval. He was attacked in the 1948 Soviet Party Decree, yet the catalogue of his influences – from Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky – feeds a muse that is much more introspective than others from the same time and place.

Myaskovsky was born in 1881 and died in 1950, four months before the premiere of his last symphonic work. Twenty-seven symphonies take their place along the front line of orchestral repertoire still awaiting rediscovery, so Olympia's projected 17-disc survey of Myaskovsky's complete orchestral works is a highly significant event.

The first three volumes, all of them impressively recorded and authoritatively annotated, augur well for the rest. Volume one stresses the polarity between the effusive young Romantic and the leaner, more acerbic writing of his later years. The 42-minute First Symphony (1908) wears its influences well, unlike the opening movement of No 25 (1946-7), which sounds like a distant relation of Bax, or even Delius. We're told that Myaskovsky "wasn't especially fond of the piece", yet its lyrical slant – much of the music is slow and contemplative – is both effective and attractive.

The second of Olympia's couplings opens with the Second Symphony (1911), a more confident work than the First that melds memories of Scriabin's 10-year-old Second Symphony with what sound like elements of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. By contrast, the 18th Symphony is, like Shostakovich's Ninth, a superficially light-hearted essay born of terrible times (in this case, Stalin's show trials of the mid-1930s). Myaskovsky assumes a cheerful persona, recalling the folk-inspired work of Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov. It's both approachable and thematically memorable.

Symphonies Nos 18 and 25 here receive their first digital recordings, but in the case of the more aphoristic 13th, Olympia offers us a recorded world premiere. Cast in a single movement, its clarity and concision recall the later symphonic works of Sibelius, but its pungent harmonic language is more akin to the Stravinsky of, say, The Rite of Spring or Symphonies of Wind Instruments. No 13 is perhaps the most remarkable of the six, more original than the pessimistic Third Symphony that it comes coupled with – a much earlier recording – and more responsive to repeated listening.

The performances by the Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra under Yevgeny Svetlanov give Myaskovsky essential breathing space. Judged from the standpoint of the new century, these symphonies should shift from footnote status to main commentary. They are a vital segment of Soviet musical history, and fully warrant this valuable retrospective.

Myaskovsky: Symphonies – all with the Russian Federation Academic Symphony Orchestra/Yevgeny Svetlanov

Vol 1 (Nos 1 & 25) Olympia OCD731; Vol 2 (Nos 2 & 18) Olympia OCD732; Vol 3 (Symphonies 3 & 13) Olympia OCD733

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