Renoir Quartet

Nikolai Miaskovsky
Quartets n° 1 & 13

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Quartet No. 13, in A minor, Op 86

2.Presto fantastico
3. andante con moto e molto cantabile
4.molto vivo, energico

Quartet No. 1, in A minor, Op 33

5. poco rubato (ma Allegro) ed agitato
6.Allegro tenebroso
7.andante sostenuto
8.Assai allegro (quasi Presto)

Artistic director and sound engineer: Jean-Marc Laisné.
Recorded at the Saint-Marcel Lutheran Church in Paris,
15, 16 June 2009.
Booklet: Nicolas Southon.

AR RE-SE 2010-1

The other great Russian of the 20th century

The 1st and 13th String Quartets by Nikolai Miaskovsky

A steady eighth-note rhythm sets in on the viola and second violin. The song rises without delay in the cello. A song... a prayer rather, humble and resigned, but fervent. It unfolds the single essential notes of an immaculate A minor, barely iridescent in the other instruments with a chromatic oscillation. The first violin has crept into the polyphony. It now takes over from the cello in its prayer. And it continues, raised by an octave, still simply diatonic, vibrant, but modest when it rises to the treble. This nascent lyricism is suddenly interrupted: the A minor gives way to an unexpected C# minor. It is not a matter of wallowing in an ethos, but of exploring its meaning. The same elements are then presented in a different, attenuated, even more intimate light. Is it the veil of the viola's timbre, which in turn has taken over the prayer before being taken over by the violin; is it the chromatic oscillation, more marked this time, which soon returns to A minor in an inexorable fall? Against all expectations, the second thematic group in C major will bring out vehemence, a light, even a joy, that we had thought unattainable until then.

The opening moments of Nikolai Miaskovsky's 13th String Quartet, Op. 86 - his final score - bear the signature of a great master. The reader will have to excuse the peculiar tone of this exergue, which will not prevent him from being duly informed in the lines that follow. The present text was intended to convey (or attempt to convey) the impalpable but undeniable musical emotion of these admirable pages by Miaskovsky. One wants to hear in their simple, restrained and profoundly melancholic expression the awareness of a life that is coming to an end, of a work that has come to an end. A swan song, classic in its construction, to close the catalogue of a musician who had often been close to the avant-garde. Exhausted and suffering from cancer, Nikolai Miaskovsky knew his end was near when he composed his last quartet in 1949. It was indeed a matter of closing a life and its memory, a work and its echoes. Miaskovsky's 13th String Quartet was premiered five months after the composer's death on 8 August 1950.

The musical conscience of Moscow

Nikolai Miaskovsky was born sixty-nine years earlier, on 20 April 1881, in Novo-Georgievsk (near Warsaw, now called Modlin and located in Poland). The second half of the twentieth century has unfortunately neglected this giant, who along with his younger brothers Prokofiev and Shostakovich formed the trinity of Soviet music of his time. Firstly, because his work was not introduced to the West when it should have been. An inveterate sedentary, Miaskovsky did not bother to travel to make his music known (in the 1920s, for example, he declined Prokofiev's offer to join him in Paris). On the other hand, his vast output, in particular the massive body of his 27 symphonies, might have led one to believe that he was one of those academic musicians who was as prolix as he was impersonal. Enlightened music lovers know that this is not the case. Miaskovsky's style is less adventurous than Prokofiev's, more Germanic than Shostakovich's; but his output is above all a testimony to a very high artistic standard and to an original inspiration that is constantly challenged.

Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Nikolai Miaskovsky was initially destined to become a military engineer (like his elder brother César Cui). He did not give it up for good until 1907, which did not prevent him from deepening the passion for music he had nourished since childhood. From 1903 onwards, Miaskovsky worked on harmony with the composer Reinhold Glière in Moscow, and then for nearly three years with Ivan Krizhanovsky (a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov) in Saint Petersburg, where he settled in the autumn of that year. He was still officially a soldier when he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1906 to study analysis with Jāzeps Vītols, orchestration with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and composition with Anatoly Liadov. In the latter's class, Miaskovsky met Sergei Prokofiev, with whom he would remain close friends until his death. Everything seemed to oppose the two men: the reserve and languor of the former was matched by the causticity and energy of the latter, ten years his junior. Miaskovsky was, however, Prokofiev's only close friend and his main musical adviser - a kind of title of glory that will perhaps prevent him from disappearing completely from Western memories.

He was already fully involved in the musical life of his country when the First World War broke out. A graduate of the Conservatory since 1911, Miaskovsky was then the author of remarkable scores: three symphonies, two sonatas, a symphonic poem, a sinfonietta and melodies. He published critical articles in the important magazine Muzïka (directed by the musicographer Vladimir Derzhanovsky) and frequented contemporary music and art circles. The war and the Revolution interrupted this activity for a time. Miaskovsky was mobilised to the front in Galicia, then to the navy in Reval in Estonia, and finally to the naval command centre in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg), which then moved to Moscow. His father, a Tsar's general, was assassinated in 1918 by a soldier of the Revolution; the composer retained a fierce hatred of all forms of violence and oppression, which he expressed in 1923 in his important 6th Symphony, which quotes French revolutionary songs, Russian sacred songs and Dies Irae. After his demobilisation in 1921, Miaskovsky was appointed professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory, a position he held until his death. His students included Dmitri Kabalevsky, Aram Khachaturian, Boris Tchaikovsky and Vissarion Shebalin. Through his role as a teacher and his intense activity, particularly as a composer, Miaskovsky became a central and respected figure in the musical and cultural life of his country, whom some would call the 'musical conscience of Moscow'.

A music of inner withdrawal

However, the official recognition Miaskovsky enjoys should not be misleading. Although his relationship with politics would deserve an in-depth study, it can be said that the artist suffered from the repressive communist regime while doing what was necessary to adapt to it. The compromises to which his work bears discreet witness, and the more obvious self-censorship of his writings, go hand in hand with an attitude of spiritual resistance, which the authorities did not fail to identify, especially in certain symphonies: the 6th, judged to be too intellectual and psychological for the working class; the 10th, for its "morbid expression" and "pessimism"; the 13th, "dark and nervous"; or the 26th, based on old Russian themes, "gloomy". Indeed, many of these scores were dropped from concert programmes. Miaskovsky was also the target in February 1948, along with Shostakovich, Popov, Prokofiev, Shaporin and Shebalin, of accusations of 'formalism' by the Politburo's head of arts, Andrei Zhdanov, that Russian musical art was straying into a bourgeois, subjective aesthetic. Faced with the difficulty of meeting conservative and, in the final analysis, ill-defined expectations, Miaskovsky invented a music of inner withdrawal, especially as his character led him to solitude and melancholy. Leading a modest life, living with his sister without marrying, his only real horizon was probably his art, the object of such high demands and a quest that it did not bring him complete satisfaction.

Miaskovsky's early work shows him to be in touch with modernity, although distant from the new European currents - Impressionism, Neo-Classicism, Expressionism, Dodecaphonism - and he is sympathetic to the avant-garde, but the composer remains independent, seeking rather to combine the heritage of Russian music (including Pyotr Tchaikovsky) with a spirit of exploration devoid of systematism or intellectual pose. This first part of his output culminates in the 6th Symphony (1923) and closes with the 13th (1932), a farewell to modernism that still shows a desire to endanger tonality, as Miaskovsky himself explained. Then the 1930s saw his style simplify: he adopted a more openly tonal language and less sophisticated writing - as did his friend Prokofiev, who spoke of a 'new simplicity' in his Second Violin Concerto (1935). It is difficult to determine whether the musician's aesthetic evolution was intended to meet the expectations of the Communist regime; in any case, it was insufficient, as has been said, to win its approval in 1948.

Miaskovsky as he is

Miaskovsky's thirteen string quartets take place mainly in the second half of his career, particularly his last decade. To be perfectly accurate, however, it should be noted that the musician composed his very first quartet in 1907: a score which he revised and published in 1945 as Quartet No. 10, Op. 67 No. 1. In addition, Miaskovsky graduated from the Conservatory in 1911 with two new quartets, which in 1930 and 1937 became Quartets Nos. 3 and 4, Op. 33 Nos. 3 and 4 respectively. His other scores in the genre date from 1929 and 1930 (Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 33 Nos. 1 and 2), 1939 (No. 5, Op. 47), and then steadily spread out until 1949 (No. 13, Op. 86). His output of quartets thus reflects a large part of Miaskovsky's life and career, without however assuming the character of a diary, as with Shostakovich. Alongside the symphonies, which are by definition addressed to the masses, the musician's string quartets form the introspective part of his work: in an oppressive political atmosphere, threatening and inciting to self-censorship, the intimacy and confidentiality proper to the genre certainly allow Miaskovsky to reveal himself as he really is.

The String Quartets No. 1 and No. 13, both written in A minor, give us a perfect idea of Miaskovsky's two main styles. While Op. 33 No. 1 is still modern in its post-expressionist lyricism and language, sometimes bordering on atonality, Op. 86 shows the artist reaching a classical ideal through a balance of expression and simplicity, power and interiority. From 1929 to 1949, Miaskovsky evolved from a symphonic conception of quartet writing, carried by a demanding aesthetic, towards a conciseness focused solely on the perfection of the workmanship, the purity of the expressiveness, and freed from all modernist concerns.

The 1st String Quartet, Op. 33 No. 1 (tracks 5 to 8 of the recording)

We have seen that the position occupied by Op. 33 No. 1 in Miaskovsky's catalogue does not reflect the actual chronology of his quartet output, since three scores had preceded it, as early as 1907. Nevertheless, this work was the first of its kind claimed as such by the composer, a sign of his caution with regard to a form reputed to be the most demanding of all, when he had already completed his 10th Symphony (1927). This "first" Quartet is in no way a juvenile or hesitant attempt. Ambitious in form, symphonic in spirit and not devoid of shimmer, it is characterised by harmonic chromaticism, rich if not profuse textures, and tormented expression, which are offset by themes that are quite clearly identifiable because they are rich in contrast (as is often the case with Miaskovsky). Composed in 1929-1930, the work was published by Musgiz in 1932 and premiered in Moscow in 1934 by the Quartet of the Union of Soviet Composers.

In the introduction to the initial Poco rubato (ma Allegro) ed agitato, a sinuous motif gradually takes shape. It leads to the first theme, a long expressionistic melody, initiated by a fall of thirds, then exhibiting, undulating, wide intervals. After a reinvestment of the sinuous motif, marcato, appears the second theme, a sort of pentatonic rhyme. The development exploits these different elements by surrounding them with identifiable but constantly renewed textures, often based on ostinatos (tremolos, shimmering eighth notes, harmonic pedals). The second theme, re-exposed in a luminous A major, does not prevent the dissonant conclusion, with the enigmatic superposition of two fifths in semitone relation (A-E and B-F), emblematic of the underlying chromaticism of this page.

The second movement, Allegro tenebroso, in F# minor, serves as the work's scherzo. After the tremolo chord of its introduction, it progressively installs and densifies a motoristic texture, based on a chromatic and swirling motif. This reaches its expressive climax, marked by the quartet's maximum extension into the sound space, and then suddenly closes. A cello melody then appears in B minor, which immediately passes to the violin in G minor, and is taken up by the cello in C# minor. The motoric writing takes over again, bursting into full force with the swirling motif, and then giving way to the central part of the movement. Opened by a series of chords, it presents a popular-looking theme in different guises, but does not resist the onslaught of the motoric sixteenth notes, which seem to want to contaminate it. The third and final section of the movement essentially repeats the first, and closes with fragments of the swirling motif.

The Andante sostenuto is clearly jazz-oriented, at least in its extreme parts. This stylistic borrowing is anything but trivial: for the Communist authorities, jazz embodied a bourgeois indulgence that was perfectly condemnable and linked in essence to the United States. At the same time, Shostakovich was obliged to apologise for his arrangement of Tea for Two; he waited until 1934 to deliver his first Jazz Suite, thanks to a relaxation of the authorities. Here the accompaniment creates the colour of a stylised blues, anchored in the desolate tone of D minor. The violin, and further on the cello, declaim a sensual, nonchalant melody of an improvisatory character. A joint motif of four sixteenth notes unifies the central section, with the violin occasionally breaking into indecisive melodic fragments.

Finally, the Assai allegro (quasi Presto) has a rather complex structure, close to a rondo-sonata. Its various components are well-defined, yet make for a fairly easy listening experience - what follows is only a description of a formal and tonal structure, insufficient of course to convey the often dark beauty of this music. The refrain 'A' consists of two motifs, one breathless (C# minor and then A minor, the main tone), the other consisting of repeated and conjoined notes. A second section 'B' presents a popular-looking theme in C major. Return of "A", which travels in different keys (C# minor, G minor, C minor). A third section, "C," alternates an atonal chorale with a poetic theme presented in A major and then in C major. B' reappears, alternately in F major, A major and D major, and the final return of 'A', in A minor and D minor. A whiff of the atonal chorale of 'C', and the conclusion comes: a Stretto molto fugato from low to high, then a frenetic Prestissimo, closed by a dissonant chromatic motif, a kind of quartet coat of arms, before the final cadential gesture.

The 13th String Quartet, Op. 86 (tracks 1 to 4 of the recording)

Miaskovsky was most likely aware that he would close his catalogue with this 13th Quartet. To say that the work is a culmination does not therefore seem artificial. Nor should we forget the artistic condemnation of the composer for 'formalism' by Jdanov the previous year, even if it is difficult to determine its real repercussions on the aesthetics of the work. For whatever the case, Miaskovsky's natural evolution led him to find his own classical perfection. The year 1949 was a fruitful one despite his illness: the composer completed his 2nd Cello Sonata, and composed his 27th and last Symphony, his 7th, 8th and 9th Piano Sonatas, and this 13th Quartet. This final score marks a clear desire for a style stripped of all complication, which can be likened to a post-romantic aesthetic (in the sense of the anachronistic post-romanticism of Strauss's Four Last Songs, written the year before, and also corresponding to the composer's accession to his personal classicism). The language is of a limpid tonality, made up of unexpected harmonic relationships, enamelled with modal colours, through a clear, refined, sometimes contrapuntal writing, manifesting a search for synthesis, far from the often experimental character of Quartet n°1. Composed in 1949, the work was published by Musgiz in 1951 and premiered in Moscow in December 1950 (after Miaskovsky's death) by the Beethoven Quartet, which was also the dedicatee and creator of numerous scores by Shostakovich.

The magnificent opening of the first movement, Moderato, has already been mentioned in the introduction to this text, in particular the initial lyrical theme, in A minor and then in C# minor. Miaskovsky understood its expressive potential and exploits it to the full - we shall see how. This first theme is supplemented by another in C major, this one lively and optimistic, which begins with a highly identifiable jump of a fifth. It is worth noting that one section of this second theme consists of a slowing down of the melody, with the first violin hovering above the other instruments. These elements are combined in a rondo-sonata. The two main themes, in A minor and C major respectively, will be recapitulated in A minor and A major (the tonal resolution principle of sonata form); but at the same time, the periodic return of the first theme, always in the key of A minor, plays the role of a refrain (the rondo principle), when it appears at the beginning of the development, for example, or after the recapitulation of the second theme.

The Presto fantastico that follows has sometimes been called the 'fantastic Scherzo'. Some sources indicate that its material was originally conceived for a symphony. It is conceived in three main episodes, the third of which takes up the last two-thirds of the first. In its initial statement, this first episode is itself tripartite in effect: first a swirling texture, in an ever-changing rhythmic combination, then a passage in which the violin, and then the cello, launch a jolting melody, while the other instruments accompany them with repeated eighth notes; and finally a reprise of the swirling texture. The 'fantasy' is obviously in these elements. As for the central episode, it is a mysterious and sensitive waltz, evoking the world of Russian fairy tales according to some commentators.

Also structured in three parts, the Andante con moto e molto cantabile reminds us that Miaskovsky was a prolific composer of romances. The main theme of this slow movement, in A major, is one of them. Gently swaying, governed by subtle counterpoint that does not detract from its simplicity, it is stated a second time in a higher octave, more ethereal. After a transition, the central section presents a new theme, more linear but still simple, accompanied by eighth notes. Presented successively in different guises, in F# minor, D minor, B minor, it brings back the initial main theme. But it now benefits from the eighth-note accompaniment of the middle section. Its reiteration does not take place this time in the octave, but as in the original, before its fork towards the conclusion, secretly derived from the central linear theme, even if the final cadence alludes to the romance.

Miaskovsky's taste for mosaic forms akin to the rondo-sonata, both rich and complex but architecturally unobtrusive, shines through in the Molto vivo, energico finale. Its structure could be summarised as follows: A B A C B, then, in a kind of recapitulation (with tonal resolution), A B C B A. The borrowed keys contribute greatly to the dynamism of this development, where 'A' is a lively theme beginning with an ascending scale, always in A minor, 'B' a more lyrical melody characterised by its fall and tonal misalignments, and 'C' a vigorously chanted chord theme.

Nicolas Southon



"The Renoir Quartet, founded in 1995, is boldly proposing a programme entirely dedicated to Miaskovsky. All its members are members of Parisian orchestras. Their playing incorporates the transparency and whimsical liveliness that is as appropriate to late 19th century French music as to these two opuses. Quartet No. 13 draws its melodic and rhythmic delicacy from post-Romanticism. It is played with warmth, in a climate of happy serenity, refusing any dramatisation (although it is a testamentary work). The writing of the First Quartet aims to rival that of the early Webern and Schoenberg, while at the same time falling within the trend of futurism. The ensemble ensures with finesse and precision the links with the worlds of Roussel and Milhaud, avoiding both the drying up of the sound and an irrelevant exhibitionism. A remarkable disc. Could this be the first volume of a complete set?

Classica, July-August 2010, Stéphane Friedrich

"The rediscovery of Miaskovsky is in full swing. After the complete (twenty-seven!) symphonies by Evgeny Svetlanov (Warner), the cello sonata by Kanka (Praga, Diapason d'or), the cello concerto by Ivashkin (Chandos) and three admirable piano sonatas by Lydia Jardon (Ar Ré-Sé), two quartets allow us to rediscover this friend - and fellow student - of Prokofiev. A teacher in Moscow for nearly thirty years, with countless pupils including Shabalin, Khachaturian and Kabalevsky, is Miaskovsky merely the archetypal composer anchored in tradition and a homebody, a victim of psychological and aesthetic isolation contributing to his being confined to a massive, powerful and fundamentally tonal language? Nothing is less certain. For if this emblematic father of Soviet music, who hardly ever left the USSR, seems to be pursuing his quest outside of time, his thirteen string quartets bear witness to an intimate and profound nature, far removed from the problems illustrated in his "official" symphonic output as well as from the controversies of the time on the role of music in socialist society. We will be grateful to the Renoir Quartet, an excellent ensemble that made a name for itself at the Bordeaux International Competition in 2003, for choosing two scores of rare perfection in their writing, far from the brilliant but sometimes dull academicism of other pages by the composer. The Quartet No. 1 in A minor (1929-1930) is distinguished by its chromaticism and its harsh and complex expression, especially in its mournful slow movement. The interpretation, at once supple, nervous and stylistically polished, takes particular account of the restless melancholy characteristic of the best Miaskovsky. Similarly, in the final Quartet No. 13 in A minor (1949), which is neither darker nor less dynamic than the previous ones, the Renoirs underline the direct lyricism, the splendour of the inflections and timbres with a poetic colouring and a density that is in no way inferior to the very recent version by the Borodins, which is more "black" and tense (cf. No. 582)."

Diapason, July-August 2010, Patrick Szersnovicz