Thursday, August 23, 2007

Nikolai Miaskovsky: An Appreciation

I have a soft spot in my heart for a certain period in Russian classical music: that transition from late Romanticism to early Modernism, when new languages and themes were beginning to emerge, but the old concepts, in their uniquely Slav tones, still had a powerful voice. Much of this music was written during the first half of the 20th Century, and is overtly tonal rather than avant-garde; of course, during the Stalin years, approved musical styles were often limited, with experimentation and innovation often frowned upon. Still, much early Modern Russian and eastern European music composed around this time has qualities of angularity and inwardness that I am attracted to; tendencies which only become more overtly developed, later in the century, in the Polish and Russian musical avant-gardes.

I recently rediscovered a piece I had loved and listened to often in my teens: Nikolai Miaskovsky's Cello Concerto, Op. 66. This is a late work for this composer, from 1944; it has been recorded numerous times, not least by Rostropovich. It's an unusual concerto in that it is in two movements, with an overall slow-fast-slow form, emphasizing lyrical melodicism over virtuoso technical display. Your typical concerto is in three movements, usually fast-slow-fast; Miaskovsky reverses those expectations to great effect, even as the conclusion of the second movement is a capsule reiteration of the first movement, a return to mood and theme.

The emphasis on melody does not mean this is an easy work to play, however, either interpretatively or technically; there are two extensive passages, for example, which require the soloist to play continuous double-stops in solo counterpoint. And sustaining an even voice throughout, in a piece that requires one to play with passionate intensity in every register of the intsrument, can leave a soloist wrung out and limp, afterwards.

Miaskovsky has been compared by some music critics to Tschaikovsky. I resist this comparison, in part because I think it's lazy and superficial, but also because it doesn't give Miaskovsky enough credit for having his own voice and style. There are many ways the two composers differ, to my ears, not least of which is that Piotr Illyich was a late Romantic, while Nikolai was an early Modern. Piotr was a populist, a crowd-pleaser; Nikolai was more of a classicist, occasionally astringent, often darker. He was also a professional teacher of music composition; among his students were Kabalevsky, several of whose piano pieces I played in my youth, and Khachaturian. One thing that Miaskovsky does share with his more famous predecessor is a love of dramatic climax; there are several points of dramatic tension and crescendo within Miaskovsky compositions that reach satisfying high points and resolutions.

The Cello Concerto is not a "happy peasant" work, or a folksy work, but a "dark and brooding Slav" work. The melodic themes often twist and turn in unexpected directions, and there is a great deal of unpredictable chromaticism. It is sometimes hard to pin down a tonal center, as the music can be modal and almost atonal; yet without ever losing its emotional charge. Miaskovsky was a composer whose music is always passionate and emotional, even at its most non-tonal, but eschews the overt necessity of a narrative-dramatic "program," or scenario. It's not about a story, it is a story. Following where Miaskovsky leads, during the Cello Concerto, you go on a long journey through several moods and tempi; arriving, at the last, having been through almost 40 minutes of compelling melody, at the last two chords of the piece. They are delicately soft, almost silent, the cello having risen in its last melodic line, growing ever softer, to hold a sustained final note in the violin register. Then, while the soloist holds that final note, the full orchestra very gently plays two final chords, separated by a silent pause.

Those last two chords, after all you have been through to get there, are themselves a compressed journey of tension-and-release, summing up all the strictures of tonal music with a precise, sure touch. And they are sublime and tragic enough to make one weep, they are so soft, so beautiful.

Perhaps it is the Slav soul, that dark soul, that sense of relentless tragedy despite everything, expressed in music, that is so affecting about this concerto, and other music from this period. Perhaps it is that fatalistic Russian sense of life and its shortness—no matter what else happens, the wolves are always and forever chasing the sleigh—or perhaps it simply that the history of Russia, in the first few decades of the 20th Century, brought out so much horror and shock, that it marked all the arts, for decades to come.

I don't know. All I have to show for it all is those last two chords in this Cello Concerto, that, every time I hear them, make me become still, and silent, and inward, and on the verge of tears. That is an honesty, a mature emotional honesty, that is all too rare in contemporary music; so we must treasure it, wherever we may find it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks. interesting.

7:16 AM  

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