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Nikolaï Miaskovsky

Piano Sonatas n° 2, 3, 4

Lydia Jardon, piano


Sonata n° 2 in F sharp minor op. 13

Lento, ma deciso
Allegro affanato
Allegro con moto e tenebroso
Allegro affanato
Allegro e poco a poco più agitato
Allegro disperato

Sonata n° 3 in C minor op. 19

Con desiderio, improvisato
Moderato con moto, stentato, ma sempre agitato

Sonata n° 4 in C minor op. 27

Allegro moderato, irato
Andante non troppo quasi Sarabanda
Allegro con brio

Art Director and Sound Engineer: Jean-Marc Laisné.
Recorded at L’heure bleue, Salle de musique, La Chaux-de-Fond, Switzerland, on 25, 26, 27th January and 7th April 2009.
Piano: Steinway (Regamey).
Booklet : Pascal Ianco.

AR RE-SE 2009-2

Miaskovsky or An Inner Exile

Nikolai Miaskovsky was born in 1881, in the agitated Europe that was described by Marcel Gauchet as “the crucible of the years 1880-1914". This word can also be construed in its alchemical meaning, as the melting pot that weaves and brings together what will be the constituting elements of the twentieth century.

This was a particularly difficult process for Russia. In the same year of 1881, Czar Alexander II dies in a bomb attack and the first pogroms are forerunners for future slaughters on a much more massive scale. Russia’s industry is developing rapidly and benefiting from considerable foreign investment, including the famous Russian bonds. Thence emerges a working class and along with it, the social conflicts particular to industrialized societies: the first great strike in Russia bursts out in the cotton plant of Orekhovo-Zuievo in 1885. The composer’s childhood is contemporary to the advent of the alliance system that almost drove the world to war on several occasions, before succeeding in doing so in 1914. Undermined by famine, revolts and sweeping military defeats, Nicholas II’s regime collapses in 1917. Between these two dates, the Great War claimed an astounding six million victims from Russia.

By the time he finished his studies in 1911, Miaskovsky, trained as an engineer officer like his father, who was an atypical, pacifist general, had already left the army to devote himself entirely to music. He only practiced his new activity for a few years. Called up for duty and sent on the front in 1914, the composer is an actor and a horrified witness to the First World War. Wounded in his soul and body – he suffers from a brain concussion –, he witnesses on the battlefield the birth of a century whose brutality he will fully get to feel during his lifetime. After the Czar’s fall and until 1918, Miaskovsky serves at the Soviet military staff, more by patriotism, it seems, than by political conviction. In a tragic paradox, his father is murdered the same year on a railway platform by a revolutionary soldier.

The civil war ends in 1921 with the defeat of the White Russians and the total assumption of power by the Soviets. After the mistakes and the catastrophic economic experiences of the communist era, the NEP (New Economic Policy) seems to herald a return to realism and prosperity. Miaskovsky’s life evolves at the same rhythm as his new country’s. Appointed as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory in 1921 (1919, according to some sources), he settles into his life as a composer and academic. Does the young Soviet Revolution give him hope in a more fair and free society, in a new impulse “in new affection and noise (1)” for this world? Despite its flaws, the new society is a place of artistic and social experimentation, a huge cultural whirlpool. Not so once Stalin comes to power: after the Kulaks – farmers “who own their production tools” and are opposed to collectivization –, the new bourgeoisie generated by the NEP is exterminated, the avant-gardes are brought into line and the “realism adapted to socialism” becomes the official doctrine of the regime. Along with the irreversible advent of totalitarianism, 1930 is also the year of the suicide of poet Vladimir Maiakovsky, who embodied the avant-garde utopia, and the creation of the Gulag.

Can Miaskovsky’s “inner exile” or “emigration”, in the words of musicologist Mikhael Segelman, be traced back to these years? Confronted with the tragedy of history, the composer may remember his father’s advice: “The only form of liberty that I recognize, the general wrote to his son, is the victory over yourself. (…) Only Christ has shown us what [Liberty means]: to master oneself, to surpass oneself. Work towards that goal, and you shall be free.” It is difficult at this point to say anything about the composer’s religious views. But the testimonies show that, at the very least, he adopted what could be branded as a “philosophy of withdrawal”: mastering oneself, being in the world without being part of it and compensating the outer, tragic forces by the inner force. This aloofness and high-mindedness that prevailed during his whole life elevated the composer to a higher moral status among his fellow musicians.

These qualities were more than necessary to Miaskovsky in order to overcome the 1948 persecutions launched by Jdanov against the most prominent Soviet composers, including Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Miaskovsky himself. Jdanov (as in the infamous “Jdanov doctrine”) who, in a tragic and surrealist fashion, serves both as Minister of Police and Minister of Culture, accuses them of formalism – meaning doing “petty bourgeois” musical research “against the People”. He pits the terrified musicians against one another. The Union of Composers is a miniature Soviet Union. Just as in the country at large, the most absurd directives are applied, everyone’s energy is consumed in trying to solve invented contradictions, musicians denounce one another to save their standing or their own lives. In the whole of the Soviet Union, as in the Union of Composers, anguish and lies prevail (2). Sleep itself becomes a fleeting notion. Like many of his countrymen, Shostakovich, his suitcase ready at the foot of the bed, lies down fully dressed and spends his nights listening out for the slightest noise, waiting for an arrest which, in his case, will never come. Stalin is also awake at night, like Macbeth. But not because of guilt or the conscience of what he has done: he spends his nights drawing up the lists of his victims. Miaskovsky does not play into the persecutors’ hands. He refuses self-criticism, public or in writing, and does not attend the “meetings of Muscovite composers and musicologists” or the public humiliation sessions organized at the Conservatory in front of the students.

To what extent can you remain aloof in such situations? Two world wars, years of watching the Soviet society absurdly devour its children, purge after purge, circle after circle, in the name of the inflexible march of history (is it to ward off death, of whom he once wrote “she is the only winner”, that Stalin offers his countrymen as a sacrifice?), the 1948 persecutions and the ensuing skewing of human relations all affected the composer’s faltering health, which takes a turn for the worse. He passes away two years later, in the family circle, on August 8, 1950.

His human qualities as well as his political views were essentially those of a moderate. As such, although he probably shared a vague belief in “progress” with his contemporaries, it is likely that he never totally adhered to historic determinism or to the creed in a “brighter future”, let alone the “material” advent of a new man and an accompanying new musical language. Even before Stalin eradicated any avant-garde tendencies in the USSR, his natural inclination will have caused him to cultivate and prolong the classical language. The symphony is his favorite formal framework. It allows him to hone a proven craftsmanship and to concentrate on encapsulating onto paper the subtlest variations that precisely come from the “inner man”. This does not mean he is against modernism. He analyzed, commented and taught his students works by Debussy, Ravel, Skriabin, Stravinsky, Strauss, Schoenberg and was quite aware of the new fields that they had opened.

As a matter of fact, for a certain period of time, Miaskovsky developed a very advanced musical syntax as well, as in the Second, Third and Fourth Sonatas that are recorded here. These are huge, crucible-like works, that do not fall short of the piano works by Prokofiev, Rachmaninov or his Western contemporaries. Lydia Jardon describes their power, their profusion and their intimidating pianistic language, which seems to exceed the human limits – were they maybe meant for a “new man”? “A music of wrath”, the interpreter adds. This is, indeed, about wrath, musically conveyed by the Dies Irae (3) that underlies the entire Second Sonata (1913) and illustrated by a final fugue whose out-of control theme seems to be possessed with desperate folly.

The Second and Third Sonatas are in one movement and therefore do not benefit, unlike the Fourth, from the relative rest provided by a slow movement. Both convey the impression of an absolute, inescapable disarray. The three sonatas seem to start with the same distraught phrase, an enraged punch of sorts on the keyboard. They are like the three versions of an increasingly radical work. All of them include, within a very strong architectural design and minor tones, the exploration of the low and high registers, extraordinary piano sections verging on tonal and psychological dissolution, an obsessive, monomaniacal motif writing, the growing, panic rehashing of ideas, hammered-out codas, and the frenzied struggle between left and right hand, always hurling themes and motifs at each other with the utmost violence, a fight between a soul and itself as it were. It is worth noting that, as a sign of hope and conflict resolution, this “Wrath Trilogy” formed by the Second, Third and Fourth Sonatas ends (last movement of the Fourth Sonata) in a mood that is as wild as before, but this time joyous and gambolling.

Indeed, what could the wrath of this music be directed against? A Soviet musical critic may have answered: “against an outdated social order, an old skin that the new world needs to shed.” A safer bet is that what Miaskovsky wanted to get rid of was himself, the old man that needs to be “mastered” and “surpassed”, according to the paternal precepts, “in order to be free”. For if the works that we have just mentioned really have something to do with the inner world of their author, what can the composer do, in order not to fall prey to it, but to overcome these extremely violent tensions and to reverse the trend so as to find inner peace?

A spiritualist perspective on the new man, whom the communist ideology considered only from a materialistic angle. Nikolai Miaskovsky would have certainly adhered to this phrase by the contemporary poet Pessoa: “I am a man for whom the outer world is inner reality”.

Pascal Ianco
Translation: Alexandre Escorcia and Jennifer Arenson-Escorcia

(1) Excerpt from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud, Départ [note by the translator].
(2) It is worth remembering that 1948 is also the year of the Lyssenko affair, which is the exact match, in the scientific realm, to the persecution of composers. In 1948, the whole of the USSR literally “walks on its head” and lies become the reality.
(3) Dies Irae that is to be found again in the Sixth Symphony, composed ten years later.

The Press covers it !

« This recital presents scores that are, alas, rarely played or recorded. Less immediately appealing on the rhythmic or harmonic level than those of Prokofiev and Scriabin, held less by the melodious flow than with Medtner, Miaskovsky’s sonatas are no less fascinating. Their epic, violently intensified temperament makes no secret of the diverse influences: Rachmaninov and Scriabin, essentially, along with Debussy and, sometimes, Chopin or even Schumann in the Second Sonata. Lydia Jardon offers us a reading both cutting and highly expressive, preserving the clarity of the writing as much as demonstrating its narrative dimension. Her playing has nothing impulsive about it, and she dominates the fantastic, whimsical side and motor rhythms of these works in impressive fashion. Indeed, it would be so easy to reproduce only a succession of atmospheres ranging from despondency to rage. This coherence of intention shows the originality of Miaskovsky’s music and, above all, his highly personal handling of sound. The pianist favours the sound matter, in fact, the effects of resonance and the silence after the paroxysm of chords. The discography is hereby enriched by a modern version of reference, which supplants the readings of McLachIan and Hegedüs. In fact, Lydia Jardon obtains a balance between passion and lucidity, a balance we had hoped to find again since the accounts of Richter in the Sonata n°3 (RCA, Pyramid). Just one regret about this disc: the playing time is a bit too short. »

Classica, October 2009, Stéphane Friédérich

« The Russian repertoire clearly suits Lydia Jardon! After the Rachmaninov sonatas and Scriabin’s complete Études (Ar Ré-Sé), she has now tackled a composer infinitely less well known or documented. Granted, his 27 symphonies were recorded by Svetlanov (Warner, 16 CDs), and his chamber works and concertos have not had too much cause to complain, but, aside from the Sonata n°3 by Richter, the discography of Miaskovsky’s piano music has remained extremely barren up until the release of this version of the three sonatas — dating, respectively from 1912, 1920 and 1924 —, the most interesting of the nine left by the composer. A constant technical challenge, this music never, however, lapses into exteriority and puts its virtuoso surge at the service of sombre, restrained energy. Haunted by the Dies irae theme, Sonata n°2, which opens the programme, sets the tone. Betraying the influence of Scriabin, it, along with the Third, adopts the monolithic construction typical of the Poet of Ecstasy’s Sonatas Nos. 5-10. However, these furious, personal pages let us hear something more than just an epigone: less sulphur and more rage, one might say. Lydia Jardon gives them a sweep and a sound palette of remarkable richness and density. In Sonata n°4, Miaskovsky adopts a more classic construction, even though the character remains profoundly irato, to borrow the adjective added to the opening Allegro. His masterpiece for the piano? Perhaps. In any case, we admire the intelligence with which the artist combines wrathful intentions and concern for balance. »

Diapason, October 2009, Alain Cochard

« Miaskovsky rediscovered
Lydia Jardon in recital at the Athénée

Lydia Jardon? Don’t count on her to do things like everyone else! Create a festival? When the idea came to her about ten years ago, the pianist decided to settle on the island of Ushant. The mockers mocked… ‘Boosted’ by the intelligent mutualisation of forces that Breton festivals carry out/initiate since that summer, ‘Women Musicians at Ushant’ has now become one of the trendiest destinations on the west coast of France. Choosing repertoire? Lydia Jardon likes nothing better than a challenge and, often, rarity. After very fine recordings of Granados’s Goyescas and the two Rachmaninov Sonatas, the pianist recently released what is now the standard reference by which recordings of the complete Scriabin Etudes must be measured. The universe of Russian music ideally suits the ardour and rich palette of colours of her playing. When Pascal Ianco, at Éditions du Chant du Monde (1), sent the scores of the Sonatas of Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950) to Lydia Jardon, the artist fell in love at first sight with the music of a hugely talented composer who is overly neglected. About his fellow composer and close friend — who, like himself and Shostakovich, were the object of the combined attack of the sinister comrade Zhdanov in January 1948 — Prokofiev said: ‘Everything that Miaskovsky wrote is profoundly personal and of admirable psychological intuition. This is not the kind of music that quickly becomes popular.’ Miaskovsky’s works were played fairly often in western Europe and the United States during the interwar period, but since then, we have, alas, lost sight of a composer who thoroughly deserves to be (re)discovered. Maestro Evgeny Svetlanov did a great deal for him, and we have a complete recording of the 27 Symphonies under his fervent baton (Warner, 16 CDs). Henceforth, we shall put Lydia Jardon’s (2) Miaskovsky recital alongside that voluminous set. With Sonatas Nos. 2, 3 — still post-Scriabin in many aspects — and 4, it in fact constitutes the finest recording of Miaskovsky piano music available today and, in addition, presents the composer’s three most appealing sonatas out of the nine he bequeathed to us. This exceptionally accomplished CD, one of the recording events of the fall season, deserved to be accompanied by a recital. Lydia Jardon will take to the stage of the Théâtre de l’Athénée on Monday 28 September for a Beethoven-Miaskovsky programme in which the Russian’s Sonata n°4 will be contrasted with the Opus 110, whilst the burning Sonata n°2, haunted by the Dies irae theme, will counterbalance the feverish Appassionata. The appeal of the programme can only be further reinforced by its coherence and balance. »

(1) To learn more about Miaskovsky and a number of other Russian — but not only — composers, one will gain a lot from consulting the site of Éditions du Chant du Monde:

(2) A recital available, like all of Lydia Jardon’s recordings, on the AR RÉ-SÉ label (dist. Codaex):, September 2009, Alain Cochard

education musicale
« Following the publication of Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Piano Sonatas Nos.3 and 4 (see our Newsletter, May 2009), this CD, which, in addition, includes the Second, comes at just the right moment to allow the performers to benefit from the interpretation criteria retained by Lydia Jardon. Born in 1881 — the year of the death of Tsar Alexander II —, the composer, who was called up in 1914, would be in the service of the administrative staff after the fall of the Tsar. It was only in 1921 that he became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory; in 1948, he was subjected to the persecutions and constraints of the Composers’ Union. His Sonatas Nos.2 in F sharp minor, Op.13 and 3 in C minor, Op.19, both in a single, unbroken movement, have no middle slow movement and exploit the outer registers, sometimes turning to obsession, with discreet quotations of the Dies irae theme (Sonata n°2), and relying on the contrasts of the Lento and Allegro movements. Georges Hallfa compares them to ‘a spiritualist perspective on the new Man, which Communist ideology considered from the material angle’. Sonata n°4, in C minor, Op.27, is tripartite: Allegro…, Andante… and Allegro con brio. The eminent pianist makes child’s play of all the pitfalls in these Sonatas, thanks to flawless technique and unfailing energy.  »

L'Education musicale, Number 32, October 2009