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Nikolaï Miaskovsky

Quartets n° 1 & 13

The Renoir quartet


Quartet n°13, in A minor opus 86

Presto fantastico
Andante con moto e molto cantabile
Molto vivo, energico

Quartet n°1, in A minor opus 33

Poco rubato (ma Allegro) ed agitato
Allegro tenebroso
Andante sostenuto
Assai allegro (quasi Presto)

Art Director and Sound Engineer: Jean-Marc Laisné.
Recorded at the Saint-Marcel Lutherian Church, Paris, on 15, 16, 17th June 2009
Booklet : Nicolas Southon.

AR RE-SE 2010-1

Unexpected Master of 20th Century Russian Music

The First and Thirteenth String Quartets by Miaskovsky

A regular rhythm of eighth notes is brought in by the viola and by the second violin. The melody rises immediately from the cello. A melody – one could rather say a prayer, humble and resigned, yet fervent. The mere essential notes of an immaculate A minor are deployed, barely colored with a chromatic oscillation by the other instruments. The first violin finds its way into the polyphony. It now takes over the prayer from the cello, bringing it an octave higher, still as diatonic and vibrant but modest as it hauls itself into the high register. This emerging lyricism is brutally interrupted: the A minor gives way to an unexpected C sharp minor. This is not about settling into an ethos, but about getting to its deeper meaning. The same elements then appear under a different, more intimate and toned down light. Is it because of the viola’s muffled tone, which took over the prayer for a while before giving it to the violin? Is it because of the chromatic oscillation, which is more pronounced this time around and soon falls back, inexorably, into A minor? Surprisingly enough, the second thematic group in C major then displays vehement accents and a joyous light that had seemed hitherto out of reach.

The first instants of Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Thirteenth String Quartet, opus 86 – his very last work – bear all the signs of a masterpiece. ­Readers will give some allowance for the particular tone of this introduction, which will not preclude them from being suitably informed in the rest of this text. These liner notes could not but start by accounting for (or attempting to acount for) the sheer musical emotion, so intangible yet indisputable, procured by these pages from Miaskovsky. Their simple, reserved and profoundly melancholy expression hints to a finishing life and an accomplished work. This classically structured swansong terminates the catalogue of a musician who had often been close to the avant-garde. Exhausted, suffering from cancer, Nikolai Miaskovsky knew that his end was close as he was composing his last quartet in 1949: at that same time, he was putting some order into his papers, destroying his private diary and collecting a good number of his melodies in an opus 87 titled For many years. It really was about closing a life and a memory, a work and its ­echoes. Miaskovsky’s Thirteenth String Quartet was premiered five months after the composer’s death on August 8, 1950.

Moscow’s Musical Conscience

Nikolai Miaskovsky had been born sixty-nine years before, on April 20, 1881 in Novo-­Georgiyevsk (then in Russia, now in Poland and renamed ­Modlin). The second half of the 20th century has unfortunately neglected this musical giant, who along with his younger colleagues Prokofiev and Shostakovich formed the trifecta of Soviet music at the time. This is due first of all to the fact that Western audiences were not introduced to his work at the right time. Miaskovsky was greatly reluctant to travel and did not seize the opportunities that he had to promote his music abroad (for instance, in the 1920s, he declined Prokofiev’s offer to join him in Paris). Also, his vast production, particularly the massive lump of his 27 Symphonies, gave the impression that he was one of those academic musicians who are as prolific as unoriginal. Enlightened music lovers know that this is far from the truth. Miaskovsky’s style is less adventurous than Prokofiev’s, more influenced by German music than Shostakovich’s. However, his production bears above all the signs of a very demanding artistic conception and an original inspiration that is constantly questioned.

Following his father’s and his grandfather’s footsteps, Nikolai Miaskovsky initially set out to become an engineer officer (like his older fellow musician César Cui). He only abandoned this military career in 1907 but always cultivated his passion for music, which he had had since he was a child. Already in 1903, Miaskovsky learns harmony with composer Reinhold Glière in Moscow, then with Ivan Krizhanovsky, a pupil of Rimski-Korsakov, for almost three years in Saint Petersburg, where he moves in the fall of 1903. He is still officially in the military when he joins the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1906, where he studies analysis with Jāzeps Vītols, orchestration with Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov and composition with Anatoly Liadov. In the latter’s class, Miaskovsky meets ­Sergei Prokofiev who will become his close friend until our composer’s death. These two musicians seem to have little in common: whereas Mias­kovsky is a reserved, languid person, Prokofiev, who is ten years younger, has a biting, energetic personality. Despite these differences in character, Miaskosvky will remain Prokofiev’s closest friend and his main musical advisor – and this feat may have helped him to be somewhat present in ­Western memories.

Miaskovsky is already fully participating in his country’s musical life when World War I breaks out. A graduate of the Conservatory since 1911, he authors some acclaimed pieces: three symphonies, two sonatas, a symphonic poem, a sinfonietta, and some melodies. He publishes some critiques in the important Muzïka review (directed by musicographer Vladimir Derzhanovsky) and is part of contemporary music and art circles. The war and the Revolution interrupt this activity for some time: Miaskovsky is called up to the front, first in Galicia and then in the navy in Reval, Estonia, and finally at the naval operations headquarters which is located in Petrograd and then moves to Moscow. His father, a Czarist general, is murdered in 1918 by a revolutionary soldier; the composer will retain from these events a fierce hatred of every form of violence and oppression which is brought to light in 1923 in his important Sixth Symphony, with its quotes of French revolutionary songs, ­Russian sacred hymns and the Dies Irae. After his demobilization in 1921, Miaskovsky is appointed as a composition professor, a position that he will retain until his death. Among his students were Dmitri Kabalewsky, Aram Khashaturian, Boris Tchaikovsky and Vissarion Shebalin. Thanks to his educational role and his intense activities, particularly as a composer, Miaskovsky becomes a crucial, respected figure of his country’s musical and cultural life, “Moscow’s musical conscience” as he will come to be known.

An Intimate, Introspective Music

Miaskovsky’s official status may be misleading. His political views could be the subject of an in-depth study, but it can be safely asserted that the artist suffered from the communist regime’s oppression while doing what was necessary to adapt to it. Although he compromised in his music and – more blatantly – in his writings, he also had an attitude of spiritual resistance which did not go unnoticed by the authorities, particularly in certain symphonies: thus the Sixth Symphony was deemed too intellectual and psychological for the working class, the Tenth was berated as “morbid” and “pessimistic”, the Thirteenth as “somber and nervous” and the Twenty-Sixth, based on old ­Russian folk music, was criticized as “dismal”. As a matter of fact, many of these works were excluded from ­concert programs. In February 1948, Miaskovsky was also targeted, along with Shostakovich, Popov, Prokofiev, Shaporin and Shebalin, as a “formalist” by the official in charge of arts at the Politburo, Andrei Jdanov, who accused these composers of taking the Russian musical art down a bourgeois, subjective path. Confronted to the difficulty of responding to ill-defined, conservative demands, Miaskovsky invented an intimate, introspective music, which was also suited to his solitary, melancholy character. He led a simple, unmarried life with his sister and arguably had no real horizon but his art, in which he poured his quest for perfection to such a degree that he was never entirely satisfied.

Miaskovsky’s first manner is connected to modernity, although distant from the new ­European currents – impressionism, neo-classicism, expressionism, dodecaphonism: the composer considers the avant-garde movements favorably but remains independent. He endeavors to combine the legacy of Russian music (including Piotr Tchaikovsky) with a prospective spirit devoid of systematism or intellectual snobbery. The apex of this first stage is the Sixth Symphony (1923) and its closing comes with the Thirteenth (1932), which is a farewell to modernism and still displays an inclination towards questioning the tonal system, as Miaskovsky himself explained. In the 1930s his style becomes simpler: the composer adopts an openly tonal language and a less complex writing – just as his friend Prokofiev, who characterizes Miaskovsky’s Second Violin Concerto (1935) as heralding a “new simplicity”. It is difficult to ascertain whether the composer’s esthetic evolution is meant to meet the expectations of the communist regime; be that as it may, this evolution will not suffice, as we have seen, to gain its approval in 1948.

Miaskovsky In His True Self

Most of Miaskovsky’s thirteen String Quartets were composed in the second half of his career and particularly in his last decade. To be perfectly accurate, however, it must be noted that the musician composed his very first quartet in 1907, although this work was revised and published in 1945 as the Tenth Quartet, opus 67 Number 1. Additionally, ­Miaskovsky was awarded his diploma in composition at the Conservatory in 1911 by presenting to the jury two new quartets, which in 1930 and 1937 became the Third and Fourth Quartets, opus 33 Numbers 3 and 4. His other works in this genre date from 1929 and 1930 (First and Second Quartets, opus 33 Numbers 1 and 2), 1939 (Fifth Quartet opus 47) and then follow in a regular pattern until the Thirteenth Quartet opus 86 in 1949. Miaskovsky’s quartet production thus mirrors a large part of his life and career, without going as far as to become a private diary of sorts, as is the case for Shostakovich. Next to the symphonies, which by definition are destined to the multitudes, Miaskovsky’s string quartets represent the introspective part of his work: in an oppressive, threatening political atmosphere, which favored self-censorship, the intimate, ­confidential character of this genre certainly allowed Miaskovsky to appear in his true self.

The First and Thirteenth String Quartets, both written in A minor, offer perfect examples of Miaskovsky’s main creative stages. Whereas the opus 33 Number 1 is still close to modernism through its post-expressionist lyricism and language, verging on atonality, the opus 86 displays an artist who has reached a classical ideal thanks to the balanced, sober expression and the inner might of this piece. Between 1929 and 1949, Miaskovsky evolved from a symphonic conception of quartet writing, with an avant-garde esthetics, to a terseness geared towards formal perfection and purity of expression and devoid of any modernist streak.

First String Quartet, opus 33 Number 1

(Tracks 5-8)

As has been mentioned, the place of the opus 33 Number 1 in Miaskovsky’s catalogue does not reflect the actual chronology of his quartet production, since he had composed three other scores starting in 1907. However, this work was the first quartet listed as such by the composer, at a time when he had already completed his tenth Symphony (1927) – a sign of his caution in approaching this genre renowned as the most demanding of all, and of the fact that this should not be seen as a juvenile, tentative experiment. It is an ambitious work, symphonic in spirit, with an iridescent quality, whose harmonic chromaticism, rich, almost profuse textures, and tormented style are counterbalanced by starkly contrasted and thus easily identifiable themes (as is often the case in Miaskovsky’s works). This Quartet was composed in 1929-30, published by Musgiz in 1932 and premiered in Moscow in 1934 by the Soviet ­Composers’ Union Quartet.

In the first bars of the initial Poco rubato ed agitato, a winding motif progressively finds its shape and leads to the first theme, a long, expressionist melody, prompted by falling thirds, then displaying broad, undulating intervals. After a marcato repeat of the first, winding motif, the second theme appears under the guise of a pentatonic lullaby of sorts. The development exploits all these elements while ­adding identifiable albeit constantly renewed phrases, often based on ostinatos (tremolos, reflections of eighth notes, harmonic pedals). The second theme then comes back in a luminous A major but gives way to a dissonant conclusion which enigmatically superimposes two fifths that are one semitone apart (A–E and B flat–F), thus epitomizing the underlying chromaticism of this movement.

The second movement, Allegro tenebroso, in F sharp minor, acts as the work’s scherzo. After an introductory tremolo chord, a mechanical texture, based on a chromatic, whirling motif, settles in and becomes ever more dense, to the point of covering the whole extent of the quartet sound space at its expressive apex, before suddenly closing up. The cello then introduces a melody in B flat minor which is immediately carried on by the violin in G minor, before coming back to the ­cello in C sharp minor. The mechanical texture is reintroduced and brings with it a robust outburst of the whirling motif, before giving way to the central part of the movement. This is opened by a series of chords and presents a popular-sounding theme under different aspects. The mechanical sixteenth notes try to grind through this motif as if to contaminate it. The third and last section of the movement is largely a repeat of the first part and ends with fragments of the whirling motif.

The Andante sostenuto is clearly influenced by jazz, at least at the beginning and the end. This is anything but innocent: for the communist authorities, jazz embodied an utterly contemptible bourgeois perversion, inextricably linked with the United States. It is worth bearing in mind that around the same time, Shostakovich was forced to apologize for producing an arrangement of Tea for Two; it is not until 1934 that he will take advantage of a more flexible official attitude to compose his first Jazz Suite. In Miaskovsky’s ­Quartet, the accompaniment conjures up a stylized blues, anchored in the dismal D minor key. The violin, followed by the cello, declaims a sensual, nonchalant melody of an improvised style. A unison motif on four sixteenth notes brings together the central section, while the violin occasionally pours itself into indecisive melodic fragments.

In closing, the Assai allegro presents a somewhat complex structure, akin to a rondo-sonata. Its different components are well defined yet fairly easy to listen to – the following is only a tonal and formal structural description, which of course falls short of accounting for the often somber beauty of this music. The refrain “x” is made up of two motifs: a gasping one in C sharp minor, then in A minor, which is the reference key, and another one which is a succession of joint notes. A second section “y” presents a popular-sounding theme in C major. Section “x” then comes back and goes through different keys (C sharp minor, G minor, C minor). The third part “z” brings about an alternation between an atonal choral and a poetic theme introduced in A major and then in C major. The “y” section is back in different keys (F major, A major and D major) then gives way to section “x”, in A minor and D minor. Only a wisp of the “z” atonal choral and the conclusion comes as a Stretto molto fugato from the low to the high register, followed by a frenzied Prestissimo and in closing by a dissonant, chromatic motif which acts as the quartet’s signature mark, before the final cadenza.

Thirteenth String Quartet, opus 86

(Tracks 1-4)

Miaskovsky was most likely aware that this would be his last work. Hence, calling the ­Thirteenth Quartet the coronation of his career does not seem artificial. It is also worth remembering that the year before this work, ­Miaskovsky was berated by Jdanov as a “formalist”, even though it is unclear whether this had any consequences on the esthetics of this work. At any rate, Miaskovsky’s natural evolution led him towards his own classical perfection. The year 1949 was a productive one, despite his illness: the ­composer completed his Second Cello Sonata and produced his last symphony, the Twenty-Seventh, his Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Piano Sonatas, and this Thirteenth Quartet. This very last production clearly reveals the composer’s will to find an uncomplicated style, which arguably brings him close to a post-romantic esthetics (akin to the anachronistic post-romanticism in Strauss’s Four Last Songs, written in 1948 and also the sign of their composer’s accession to his personal classicism). The language has a limpid tonal quality, made up of unexpected harmonic relations with various modal colors implemented by a clear, refined style which sometimes uses counterpoint and has a synthetic character quite different from the often experimental First Quartet. The Thirteenth Quartet was composed in 1949, published by Murgiz in 1951 and premiered in Moscow in December 1950 (after Miaskovsky’s death) by the Beethoven Quartet, who had also premiered and been dedicated several of Shostakovich’s works.

The splendid opening of the first movement, Moderato, has already been mentioned at the beginning of these liner notes, particularly the lyrical first theme, in A minor then C sharp minor. Mias­kovsky grasped the potential of this first theme in terms of expressiveness and will fully exploit it in a way that will be analyzed shortly. Another theme comes as a complement to the first one. This lively, optimistic second theme starts with a very identifiable fifth skip. In a noteworthy fashion, one section of this second theme slows the melody down while the first violin soars above the other instruments. All these elements are then combined in a rondo-sonata. The two main themes, which were exposed in A minor and C major respectively, are recapitulated in A minor and A major as expected, according to the principle of tonal resolution that is part of the sonata form, but at the same time, the recurrent appearance of the first theme, always in the key of A minor, acts as a refrain in a rondo. Such is the case when this first theme appears at the beginning of the development or after the recapitulation of the second theme.

The next movement, Presto fantastico, has sometimes been called a “fantastic Scherzo”. Some sources suggest that the materials contained in it had been originally meant for a symphony. It is structured in three main episodes, with the last one reusing two thirds of the first one. In its initial appearance, indeed, the first episode is broken into three parts: first, a texture that swirls according to endlessly varying rhythmical combinations, then a section where the violin, followed by the cello, launches a jerky melody, while the other instruments play repeated eighth notes as an accompaniment, and finally a repeat of the swirling texture. Therein, of course, lies the “fantastic” quality. As for the central episode, it is a mysterious, delicate waltz, which, according to some commentators, conjures up the universe of ­Russian tales.

The Andante con moto e molto cantabile is also structured in three sections and comes as a reminder that Miaskovsky was a prolific composer of romances. The main theme of this slow movement, in A major, is exactly that. This gently balanced, simple theme, despite the subtle counterpoint, is played twice, in an ethereal, higher octave the second time around. After a transition, the ­central section exposes a new theme with eighth notes, which is more linear but still as simple as the first one. It is presented under different keys, F sharp minor, D minor, B minor, and finally brings back the initial main theme accompanied by the eighth notes of the central section. This theme is repeated in the same octave as the original before it branches into its conclusion, covertly derived from the linear central theme, although the final cadenza hints at the romance.

Miaskovsky’s taste for the mosaic-like forms akin to the rondo-sonata, which while rich and complex, have a transparent structure, is at its best in the final Molto vivo, energico. Its structure may be summed up as follows: x y x z y, followed by a recapitulation of sorts (complete with tonal resolution) that goes x y z x y. The keys used by the composer greatly contribute to the dynamism of the movement, where “x” is a lively theme starting with an ascending scale, still in A minor, “y” is a more lyrical melody characterized by its fall and its tonal wildness, and “z” is a theme made up of vigorously stressed chords.

Nicolas Southon
Translation by Alexandre Escorcia and Jennifer Arenson-Escorcia

The Press covers it !

« Le Quatuor Renoir, fondé en 1995, fait preuve d’audace en proposant un programme entièrement dédié à Miaskovsky. Tous ses membres font partie d’orchestres parisiens. Leur jeu intègre la transparence et la vivacité fantasque qui sied aussi bien à la musique française de la fin du XIXe siècle qu’à ces deux opus. Le Quatuor n°13 puise sa délicatesse mélodique et rythmique dans le postromantisme. Il est joué avec chaleur, dans un climat de sérénité heureuse, refusant toute dramatisation (bien qu’il s’agisse d’un œuvre testamentaire). L’écriture du Premier Quatuor ambitionne de rivaliser avec celle du premier Webern et de Schoenberg, tout en s’inscrivant dans le courant du futurisme. L’ensemble assure avec finesse et précision les liens avec les univers de Roussel et de Milhaud, évitant aussi bien l’assèchement de la pâte sonore qu’un exhibitionnisme hors de propos. Un disque remarquable. Serait-ce le premier volume d’une intégrale ? »

Classica, July-August 2010, Stéphane Friedrich

« La redécouverte de Miaskovski bat son plein. Après l'intégrale des (vingt-sept !) symphonies par Evgueni Svetlanov (Warner), la sonate pour violoncelle par Kanka (Praga, Diapason d'or), le concerto pour violoncelle par Ivashkin (Chandos) et trois admirables sonates pour piano par Lydia Jardon (Ar Ré-Sé), deux quatuors nous permettent de retrouver cet ami — et condisciple — de Prokofiev. Professeur à Moscou pendant près de trente ans, comptant d'innombrables élèves dont Chébaline, Khatchaturian et Kabalevski, Miaskovski n'est-il que l'archétype du compositeur ancré dans la tradition et casanier, victime d'un isolement psychologique et esthétique contribuant à l'enfermer dans un langage massif, puissant et foncièrement tonal ? Rien n'est moins sûr. Car si ce père emblématique de la musique soviétique, qui n'est pratiquement pas sorti d'URSS, semble bien poursuivre sa quête hors du temps, ses treize quatuors à cordes témoignent d'une nature intime et profonde, bien éloignée des problèmes illustrés dans sa production symphonique « officielle » comme des controverses de l'époque sur le rôle de la musique dans la société socialiste. On saura gré au Quatuor Renoir, excellent ensemble remarqué notamment au Concours international de Bordeaux en 2003, d'avoir choisi deux partitions d'une rare perfection d'écriture, loin de l'académisme brillant mais parfois assommant d'autres pages du compositeur. Le Quatuor n° 1 en la mineur (1929-1930) se distingue par son chromatisme et son expression âpre et complexe, surtout dans son lugubre mouvement lent. L'interprétation à la fois souple, nerveuse et d'un style châtié, tient particulièrement compte de cette mélancolie inquiète propre au meilleur Miaskovski. De même, dans l'ultime Quatuor n° 13 en la mineur (1949), qui n'est ni plus sombre, ni moins dynamique que les précédents, les Renoir soulignent le lyrisme direct, la splendeur des inflexions et des timbres avec une coloration poétique, une densité nullement inférieure à la très récente version des Borodine, plus « noire » et tendue (cf. n° 582). »

Diapason, July-August 2010, Patrick Szersnovicz