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Nikolay MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 44 (1938)
Mieczyslaw VAINBERG (1919-1996)

Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 67 (1960)
Ilya Grubert, violin
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Rec. Studio 5, Moscow State Broadcasting and Recording House, February/March 2003
NAXOS 8.557194 [66’49]

Myaskovsky Comparison: Repin/Gergiev/Philips

This gem of a disc features two masterful violin concertos that are infrequently recorded and have never been paired together on record. Both Nikolay Myaskovsky and Mieczyslaw Vainberg were born in the Warsaw area and eventually immigrated to Moscow. Although different in age, the two composers became good friends. Vainberg went on to forge a close relationship with the famous composer Dmitri Shostakovich to the extent that they would share their respective musical drafts with one another.

Myaskovsky’s music has been criticized for its backward-looking nature and lack of great tunes. It is true that his music is steeped in the heart of 19th century romanticism, and there is little in his compositions that indicates he lived under the weight of the Soviet regime. However, there is sometimes a slight bow to 20th century aesthetics.

As for the "lack of great tunes" criticism, Myaskovsky’s three-movement Violin Concerto clearly puts that premise to rest. The abundance of memorable themes in this rapturous work is astounding, and the music flows beautifully throughout. Composed between March and June 1938, Myaskovsky dedicated the work to David Oistrakh who performed the premiere in Moscow on 10 January 1939. Being Myaskovsky’s first concerto, the results are all the more remarkable.

The 1st Movement Allegro is a 20-minute feast for the mind and heart replete with a 4-minute solo violin cadenza placed right in the middle of the movement. In the Introduction, Myaskovsky displays great strength and determination, giving way to the multi-faceted personality of the solo violin that takes us from tears and dismay to the heights of exhilaration. Although less than half the length of the 1st Movement, the 3rd Movement Allegro molto also contains a host of thematic material ranging from playful folk-dance numbers to pleadings of desperation. The central Movement Adagio molto cantabile is quite successful, but is limited in material compared to the outer movements. In any case, its primary theme is a lovely one of rapturous proportion.

Those of you who know Myaskovsky’s music through his symphonies will be surprised at the personal nature of the Violin Concerto. The symphonies were largely written for public consumption, but Myaskovsky clearly composed his Violin Concerto from the depth of his soul.

Dmitry Yablonsky has been recording the Russian repertoire for Naxos at a fast pace. Previous releases have included the Arensky Orchestral Suites, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, and two of Myaskovsky’s Symphonies. Yablonsky’s performances have tended to be on the serious side with some lack of exuberance. I am glad to report that there’s certainly no lack of aplomb or exuberance in his conducting of the Myaskovsky Violin Concerto, and some of the credit has to go the engineering which places the orchestra more forward than in most of Yablonsky’s past recordings. Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra push the music faster, but Yablonsky generates plenty of heat when needed. Further, Gergiev’s fast pacing in the outer movements sometimes results in a glossing over of important accent points.

Violinist Ilya Grubert doesn’t have the name recognition afforded to Vadim Repin, but he has excellent credentials and has also recorded for Chandos and Channel Classics. This is my first exposure to his artistry, and I am highly impressed. Intonation is excellent, rhythmic patterns compelling, and he does a great job with the myriad of themes in the solo cadenza of the 1st Movement and the playful nature of the 3rd Movement. Actually, I prefer Grubert to Repin who is high on the vibrato scale; generous doses of vibrato are not in my comfort zone, and Grubert’s gritty projections are more to my liking than Repin’s sweetness. A more concrete advantage for the Naxos offering is the adventurous coupling of the Vainberg Concerto over the Philips programming of the war-horse Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto as the disc’s coupling.

Concerning other recordings of the Myaskovsky Violin Concerto, let’s go back to the man who premiered the work. The Pearl label offers the Violin Concerto from a 1939 recording from Oistrakh with Alexander Gauk conducting. Anyone impressed with the work needs to have this historical performance, but the Naxos gives us a wonderful reading in modern sound.

Turning from Myaskovsky to Vainberg is like entering a different world. Instead of romantic utterances of 19th century sensibility we get hard-as-nails music fully reflecting an illogical, debilitating, and brutal dictatorship. You know you’re in for a tough listening experience when the work immediately begins with a tremendously concentrated force of energy marching forward and out for blood. Given that Vainberg was arrested in 1953 as an "enemy of the people", it isn’t far-fetched that the composer might have been thinking of himself as the intended prey. The second subject of the 1st Movement provides some relief highlighted by the accompaniment of a celesta and harp.

The 2nd Movement is an Allegretto and offers a theme subjected to a series of sonorities; this is bleak music that only becomes more desolate as it progresses. By the end of the Movement, the solo violin cadenza has shut down any trace of hope.

Next comes the 3rd Movement Adagio that also has a bleak demeanor, but there are a few rays of light and frequent yearnings that show that the heart still beats. Vainberg finishes his Violin Concerto with a 4th Movement Allegro risoluto that compellingly blends irony and humor in a powerful package.

I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Yablonsky’s performance of the Vainberg as I am with the Myaskovsky. When white-hot intensity could be forthcoming, Yablonsky is a little reserved. However, both he and Grubert get to the heart of Vainberg’s despair in the middle movements. There are no alternative modern-day recordings, but Olympia offers the performance by Leonid Kogan who Vainberg dedicated the work to in 1960. As with Oistrakh’s Myaskovsky performance, the Kogan is essential listening.

Overall, this new Naxos disc will receive some consideration as one of my Discs of the Year. The programming is an adventurous stroke I greatly appreciate, and it isn’t likely that the same coupling will be offered within the next few years. The performances are splendid, with the reservation I noted that Yablonsky’s intensity in the Vainberg Concerto is slightly lacking. As for Ilya Grubert, he is a first-class violinist who always gets inside the psyche of the composer and offers technically commanding readings. My recommendation is to snap up this inexpensive disc immediately.

Don Satz

We also offer reviews by Terry Barfoot, Kevin Sutton and Rob Barnett

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