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Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Complete Symphonies and Orchestral Works
USSR State Symphony Orchestra (Nos 3, 19, 22), Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. 1965-1994, Grand Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Moscow.
ALTO ALC3141 [14 CDs: ca 21 hrs]

This complete set was originally issued by Russian Disc in 1993, and was very much of a rarity only available from International Records in the US, and from sellers in Russia on eBay. The set was then issued in 2008 on the Warner French label and reviewed here enthusiastically by Rob Barnett.

Nikolai Myaskovsky was a major Russian composer whose music bridges late Russian Romanticism to Soviet modernism embracing thirteen string quartets, nine piano sonatas, two cello sonatas, many orchestral pieces, a violin concerto, and a cello concerto, and twenty-seven symphonies written between 1908 and 1950. He was a leading teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire, tutoring composers like Khachaturian, Kabalevsky, Mosolov, Shebalin and many others. He was also a music critic, writing first about Stravinsky’s daring modernist ballets in the 1910s, He was a highly respected musician, whom Shostakovich approached for advice on almost all his works, and he studied with Prokofiev at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, starting a life-long friendship. In the pre-war years, he was the most popular Soviet composer in the West, and all the major conductors - Furtwangler, Klemperer, Walter, Stokowski, Ansermet, Stock and Wood - conducted his music. His popularity declined in the post-war period of the Cold War and much of his music was rarely heard in the concert hall. In recent years, there has been a revival of sorts, with many of his works being recorded and gradually achieving more prominence.

Evgeny Svetlanov had a mission to record all the Russian symphonies; his cycles of Glazunov, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Tchaikovsky are highly regarded, as are surveys of lesser-known music by Rubinstein, Arensky, Lyadov, Lyapunov, Grechaninov, Alyabyev, and much else besides. Few collectors will be aware that as a student the conductor wrote to Myaskovsky in his final years when he studied with Shebalin. When Melodiya reneged on completing these recordings in 1992, Svetlanov resolved to pay for the recordings out of his own pocket, and for some time the Russian disc sets lay gathering dust in his apartment near the Conservatoire until International Records in the USA agreed to handle their sale world-wide. The advent of the internet allowed these 16 CD sets in four volumes to achieve sales among aficionados of Russian music.

This newly refurbished complete set from Alto also recycles the very inclusive notes from the Olympia and Alto individual CDs from Per Skans and Jeffrey Davis, something the Warner and Russian Disk series lacked. Previous sets included short orchestral pieces, notably his early Alastor, and Silence, Links of a Chain, the Opus 32 set of pieces, and several other orchestral works. Here, only two orchestral works are included in this collection of fourteen CDs.

First, apart from cutting out many of the short orchestral pieces, Alto have generally cleaned up many of the wind and string solos, which they did in other recent issues of old Soviet Melodiya discs. The only problem with this is that I very much doubt if the technicians had access to the scores, which rather negates the purpose. Comparing them with my old CDs, I observe that they have not achieved any real gain here.

The greater part of these symphonies was set down in the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire in 1991-93, although several date from the 1960s, notably Nos 3, 22 and 27, which appeared on Melodiya LPs. That’s no matter, for these were great rarities in their day, and it is excellent that this milestone in Russian symphonic music is available again at an affordable price. To purchase the Russian Disc set cost almost £100 from Russian sellers, and the Warner set has become rare and expensive. This is the only complete set of all the symphonies, and to date, only Naxos have attempted to record most of the works, albeit with different orchestras and conductors, and I am not aware of Naxos wanting to complete the cycle. There are no alternative recordings of Nos 3, 4, 14, and 20.

Symphony No 1 is a great sprawling work in two movements, with some quite beautiful harmonies, difficult to forget and somewhat influenced by Tchaikovsky, but Romantic colours are distinctly present, and Svetlanov brings them all out splendidly. Naxos issued only recently a good recording by the Urals Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, but Svetlanov’s is excellent for introducing the listener to Myaskovsky’s symphonic canon.

The Second Symphony reveals the influence of both Scriabin and Tchaikovsky, yet also has much passion and heartfelt emotions marking Myaskovsky as already a late Romantic without any modernist habits. Around this time, he wrote Alastor based on Shelley – a pity this is absent from this set of symphonic works. With the Third, Myaskovsky showed himself to be a major symphonist; although it has only two movements, the second of those has a remarkable funeral march, one of the most remarkable in Russian music. Svetlanov’s recording is still the only one available and dates from 1965, although the box claims differently. The Fourth and Fifth symphonies date from the period immediately after the 1917 revolution and initiate the composer’s style of writing pairs of symphonies at the same time quite different from each other; the Fourth reflects on the sadness of personal loss and the Fifth contains a beautiful Russian kolyadka song from the western Ukraine and is one of the brightest pieces that he wrote, earning him many performances world-wide. The Fifth was called the ‘first Soviet symphony’; it is colourful, shares modernism with no little influence from Glazounov in particular and deserved to win the composer world-wide fame in the 1920s.

The Sixth Symphony became Myaskovsky’s first masterpiece and is one of the great 20th century Russian symphonies. It came after a spell of aridity when he was beset by personal tragedy and was caught up in the great transformations in Russia after the revolution. There are citations from the Latin mass, revolutionary songs and ancient Slavonic chant.  It is one of the longest in Russian symphonism, and has a remarkable choral finale; regrettably, Svetlanov uses here the 1947 revision in which the lament is transcribed for woodwind. There is another recording on Alto of the first recording of 1959 by Kondrashin which has the choral finale, so collectors may choose that in addition to this set. Certainly, Svetlanov produces a marvellous reading with his musicians on top form and well recorded. There are several other recordings including another on Melodiya by Kondrashin (albeit without choir), which was his last concert in the USSR before he defected in 1978. Polyansky on Vista Vera is also very good; there is another complete version with choir from Warner with Dmitry Liss conducting the Urals Philharmonic, but perhaps that by Neeme Järvi on DG is the finest modern recording using the complete original version. The Sixth reflects the tragedy of the intelligentsia after the revolution and marks out the composer’s conscience in Russian music.

The Seventh Symphony, in two movements and written at the same time, reflects a quite different idiom: there is a tranquillity and an other-worldly character to it, as if the tragedy of the Sixth did not exist. Myaskovsky’s Eighth from this period of the mid-twenties picks up the theme of Stepan Razin, the rebel who rose up against Catherine II. The score contains folk song arrangements and Slavonic chant, yet there are kinships with Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Rimsky Korsakov’s folk opera Sadko. As one would expect, Svetlanov brings out all the colourful harmonies of this beautiful music.

Once more, the Ninth and Tenth symphonies are two quite different works: one is folk-influenced, endued with colourful harmonies and resplendent ideas bouncing against each other, yet it seems that the composer was dissatisfied, as he wrote his Tenth, based on Pushkin’s poem (banned for many years by the Tsar) The Bronze Horseman, in modernist style. The work dates from the period when his music was under attack from the proletarian musicians who were trying to ban both his and other composers’ music. It embraces modernist structures in the twelve-tone style of Schoenberg and Roslavets. Of all Myaskovsky’s symphonies, this is the most extraordinary. The Eleventh Symphony follows its innovative orchestration, yet is dark and pessimistic, contrasting sharply with Twelfth which was subtitled ‘October’ and not the ‘Collective Farm’ as wrongly stated in the notes by Per Skans. Here, as suggested by the name, Myaskovsky returns to a traditional style of the nationalist school; it is colourful and bright in an accommodation with social realism. The Thirteenth Symphony, composed two years after the Twelfth, here returns to modernism and was called ‘fatalistic and bizarre’ by Myaskovsky and ‘Pages from a Diary’. It is a profound, emotional work, reflecting the events of recent years when he left the Conservatoire and was attacked by fellow musicians.

The Fourteenth Symphony is quite separate and, as the composer commented, ‘within it there is a pulse of life.’ This is more like a symphonic suite in five movements; is transparent, melodious and beautifully written - deceptively easy to listen to. Throughout there is a rhythmic lively dance-like flow and terrific orchestration. Its successor, the Fifteenth, is more philosophical, bearing the influence of Tchaikovsky in its flowing harmonies, and has a sad reflective transparency. It is complex in its orchestration, and in modernist style. Having taken over a year to write it, Myaskovsky still made alterations after its premiere in 1935. There is a wonderful waltz in the third movement and some beautiful harmonies with an expansive coda revealing his mastery. The Sixteenth became one of his most popular mature symphonies. It has a bewitching passage based on girls calling out to each other, noted down during a walk through his beloved Nikolina Gora countryside. There is, too, a citation of a popular song ‘The Planes are Flying’, which led to it being called the ‘Aviation’ symphony after the tragic accident of a new Soviet plane over Moscow.

Myaskovsky’s Seventeenth Symphony did not reproduce the same degree of success although it is philosophical and reflects greatly on the dark changes in Soviet life. Citations of the fate theme from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony are hinted at, and also of Mussorgsky’s Dawn on the Moscow River. Rather than emulating ideas, he uses these to identify his own themes. Overall, on repeated hearings the Seventeenth is revealed as a masterpiece in its deep emotional pull and its bright dynamic writing. Its successor was quite different and came to be called a ‘Song-Symphony’. The Eighteenth, in C major, became popular for its positive upbeat and its bright colours and evocation of the nationalist school recycles the Fifth. In some ways, the Nineteenth Symphony is based on the themes of its predecessor because it was commissioned by the Red Army for wind-band. The piece was written quickly and became immensely popular for its tuneful ideas and beautiful harmonies. The second movement contains a bewitching waltz, while the opening of the third movement has a kinship with the Skye Boat Song.

The Twentieth Symphony in E major dates from the last full year of peace before the Nazi invasion.  Typically, it has a serene idiom less assertive than its predecessors, and long, flowing harmonies, while the Adagio contains some of his most gorgeous melodies. Initially epic and tranquil, a strength and power develop, and the finale has an energy and momentum showing the refinement of his symphonism. The short, sixteen-minute successor in the Twenty-First Symphony was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and yet again it is masterly conceived in its alluring orchestral colours. It was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1940.

The next symphony, the 22nd, dates from the first weeks of the war and reflects on the conflict and the defeats of the Red Army. It thus has a funereal mood, which continues into the second movement, while the finale gives rise to optimism and a triumphant paean to victory in the style of Shostakovich’s famous Leningrad Symphony. Its successor, the 23rd, was written in the Caucasus where he was exiled in 1941 and contains colourful folk melodies written in the nationalist style taken from Kabardinian folk songs and dances.

Symphony No. Twenty-Four marks a return to his finest work and is reflective of the war period. It is darkly tragic with a funereal tone in memory of his close friend who died during the war. The next symphony is a masterpiece with a profound humanity and some wonderful ideas whose warmth touches the heart. The Twenty-Fifth is reflective and there is an enlightenment absent from some recent works, opening on an adagio and a ‘theme and variation’ structure with a drawn-out folk song based on the ancient chant of the Old Believers. The first two slow movements are capped off by a brisk bracing optimistic finale; the symphony was called ‘a hymn to life.’ Myaskovsky’s penultimate symphony was based on Slavonic themes and has beautiful harmonies. The Latin Dies irae is heard throughout all three movements, along with echoes from his past student works, yet this was not popular; it was performed just once. The valedictory symphony – the Twenty-Seventh - was the composer’s farewell to the world and is darkly funereal in its opening bars, yet hope emerges in the slow movement, and the finale is robustly ebullient in its optimism and joyous idiom, as if casting aside all earthly worries and starting a new, happy and joyful life.

Overall, this set is an important release. At its price, with magnificent performances and recordings, it is essential for those interested in 20th century Russian music.

Gregor Tassie

Information received

We have been advised that the booklet accompanying this set may be missing some pages of the notes written by the late Per Skans. The pages in question are those covering symponies 4, 5, 11 and 12. However, the relevant pages can be downloaded from Search for Myaskovsky and then click on 'ALC 3141 extra pages'. We are grateful to Jan Arell for this information. 

CD 1 [76:46]
Symphony No 1, C minor, Op 3 (1908) [41:30]; Symphony No 25, D-flat major, Op 69 (1945-46) [34:53]
CD 2 [75:07]
Symphony No 2 in C-sharp minor, Op 11 (1911) [46’57], Symphony No 18 in C major, Op 42 (1937) [23.’55]
CD 3 [67’50]
Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 15 (1914) [ 46’24], Symphony No 13 in B-flat minor, Op 36 (1933) [ 20’30]
CD 4 [76’46]
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 17 (1918) [ 41’06] Symphony No 11 in B-flat minor, Op 34 (1931) [34’46]
CD 5 [77’32]
Symphony No 5 in D major, Op 18 (1918) [ 44’05] Symphony No 12 in G minor, Op 35 (1931-32) [ 32’35]
CD 6 [74’31]
Symphony No 14 in C major, Op 37 (1935) [ 37’16] Symphony No 22 in B minor, Op 54 (1941) [36’25]
CD 7 [72’48]
Symphony No 15 in D minor, Op 38 (1935-6) [38’31] Symphony No 27 in C minor, Op 85 (1950) [34’54]
CD 8 [ 67’26]
Symphony No 7 in B minor, Op 24 (1921-22) [23’48] Symphony No 26 in C major, Op 79 (1948) [42’43]
CD 9 [69’35]
Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op 28 (1926-7) [41’38] Symphony No 20 in E major, Op 50 (1940) [27’02]
CD 10 [77’14]
Symphony No 17 in G-sharp minor, Op 41 (1938) [47’49] Symphony No 21 in F-sharp minor, Op 51 (1940) [18’15] Salutatory Overture in C major, Op 48 (1939) [ 10’02]
CD 11 [72’36]
Symphony No 23 in A minor, Op 56 (1941-2) [33’15] Symphony No 24 in F minor, Op 63 (1943) [38’44]
CD 12 [ 70’09]
Symphony No 8 in A major, Op 26 (1924-5) [ 52’27] Symphony No 10 in F minor, Op 30 (1927) [16’45]
CD 13 [79’09]
Symphony No 6 in E-flat minor, Op 23 (1921-3, rev. 1947) [64’36] Pathétique Overture in C minor, Op 76 [13’45]
CD 14 [70’42]
Symphony No 16 in F major, Op 39 (1936) [35’46] Symphony No 19 in E-flat major, Op 46 (1939) [23’23]



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