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MYASKOVSKY Sinfonietta Op 32 no. 2
SCHNITTKE Sonata no.1 for violin and chamber orchestra
DENISOV Five Paganini caprices.
Stephan Arman (violin)
I Musici de Montreal/Yuli Turovsky.
CHANDOS CHAN 9891 (DDD) [60.29]
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Myaskovsky is an under-rated composer. His 27 symphonies make up a marvellous achievement. Like some other great composers he is not recognised as such but is simply admired and nothing else. His huge Symphony no. 6 in E flat minor is a masterpiece and, in fact, all his symphonies are really enjoyable. The final symphony in C minor calls for a new recording. It was not many years ago that Bryden Thomson introduced us to the Symphony no. 1 also in C minor. What is the matter with the musical world?

I do not want to malign Mahler, although I do confess that his Fourth Symphony is simply awful as well as being tedious, but he wrote some fine works and we have several recordings of each of them. That's fine, right and proper. But Myaskovsky's symphonies are equally good if not always profound and yet some of them are still unrecorded if my usual CD supplier is right.

Perhaps Myaskovsky is unpopular because he was labelled the first truly great Soviet composer, the Bolshevik composer, and when one thinks of the horrendous behaviour of Lenin and Stalin, perhaps unconsciously, Myaskovsky was branded as an evil Communist too. The fact of the matter is that by the time of this Sinfonietta of 1929 he was troubled by Stalin's ruthlessness against the kulaks and by his paranoid persecution of Christians and Jews since religious faith was incompatible with communism. Both of these Russian leaders had show trials and by the mid 1930s Stalin ordered all Soviets to be actively involved in anti-Christian activities and he introduced the death penalty for dissidents as young as twelve years old.

Myaskovsky later spoke about this and was condemned by the Soviet authorities. Other composers were treated just as badly.

The B minor Sinfonietta is dedicated to the pianist and composer Alexander Goedicke whose music Associated Board piano students would have encountered. The opening movement is marked allegro, pesante e serioso and I Musici de Montrea1 capture the heavy tread well. The opening theme is memorable, and the movement hangs together by the use of fugato devices. The second theme is highly romantic and played with the right amount of expression. It does not sound very Russian unless you want to suggest a comparison with Tchaikovsky but please don't do that. At times the music has the feel of a concerto grosso. For the discerning listener the movement will end with a surprise.

The second movement is a theme and four variations with a coda. And what a sumptuous theme it is, rich and profound and, thankfully, without any hint of Elgarian nausea. The first variation is marked leggiero and is high spirited with a solo violin part which is played with immaculate intonation. There is some simply glorious dark velvety viola tone of incredible beauty.

This is a truly superb set of variations which show us how to write for a string orchestra. Bartók and Schoenberg were the Continental masters of this genre and, in Britain, only Vaughan Williams really excelled at this form. Myaskovsky' s music is very fine but it has to be listened to with attention. Too much music is heard and often at a superficial level with subdued volume and so the music does not live. The variation with the exchanges between a solo violin and a solo viola are out of this world. It is too beautiful.

The finale is marked presto and has welcome contrasts including yet another beautiful lyrical theme. There is a slightly arrogant feel to some of the music here but it does not deteriorate into pomp and circumstance. It is too good for that!

The sound is excellent. I have a few quibbles about some stylish aspects of the performance but this work, and, indeed all of Myaskovsky's work, deserves to be known and so, I will say no more.

Alfred Schnittke, who died in 1998, was and remains a fascinating composer although some of his extended compositions require stamina. To me, his Faust Cantata, is one of the 20th century's great choral works particularly that sensational Blues movement. His music is more German than Russian and his mistreatment by the Soviet authorities obviously played a part in encouraging his style and driving him to consider his German-Jewish roots.

The Sonata was originally written for violin and piano and reworked for strings and harpsichord in 1969, some six years later. It is a work of what Schnittke calls polystylism. The second movement is a magnificent achievement by any standards complete with percussive tapping of the wood of the instruments. No, it is neither silly nor a gimmick but adds colour and tension to a fine piece. Only a prude would not respond warmly to this work. It is a terrific piece wonderfully played and the sound is faultless.

The slow movement, largo has some unbelievable chords, most arresting and powerful. The melody is choice. Just revel in it as I did. Here the soloist's tone is almost unbearably beautiful. The finale reverts back to the second movement with elements of jazz and the tango and, hold on, the climax is stupendous.

Thank God for composers like Schnittke who did not write ordinary music!

The same can be said of Edison Denisov who died in 1996. His was an amazing talent and he was not a limited composer. He wrote splendid operas (Confession is a masterpiece), film scores, ballets, chamber music, music inspired by folk music and religious music of a profound spirituality.

Here I want to make a personal appeal. Does anyone have on video the broadcast of the BBC Prom of a few years ago when Denisov's orchestration of Mussorgsky's song cycle The Nursery was televised. I am willing to pay handsomely for a copy.

The preoccupation with the Paganini Caprices for solo violin is amazing. Denisov's reworkings date from 1985 and he sets numbers 2, 21, 20, 9 and, of course, 24. This is truly a concertante work in which everything gels perfectly. Every note counts. That is the sign of a great composer.

A marvellous and varied programme, challenging and soul-satisfying in immaculate performances and with a superior sound quality.

David Wright

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