NIKOLAI MYASKOVSKY – Something Special – SQ No. 1

Russian composer Nikolai Yakovlevich Myaskovsky [1881-1950] wrote thirteen string quartets. I am going to discuss his first which was written in 1911 and revised in 1935. Just as an introductory remark, I was surprised by the significant level of abstraction in this early work. Also, he doesn’t have that ‘heavy’ sound often associated with Russian composers. The work is in four movements.

The first movement is marked poco rubato, which I take to mean ‘a little freely’. It opens with a solo violin phrase before the second violin and cello add support. The violin melodies are taken up by the other players until a peace descends. A pastoral melody takes over, the intensity rises and the abstraction makes an appearance. Shimmering violins support a cello melody and the piece moves into an ostinato for a time. This mood is broken and a violin dialogue ensues; again, very abstract and slightly atonal.  Now we have a very peaceful passage, still abstract but quietly so. This is very attractive. Now the piece is on the move again but soon settles back into a pastoral feeling. As the ending approaches there is some gorgeous cello work, together with a response from the violins. The violins lament and the cello anchors an alluring mood which fades to a conclusion. I would have like to have heard the 1911 version of this movement; it’s quite beguiling at times.

A brief fanfare begins the second movement which is quite short. The viola is prominent and it provides the background for the melodic development. It actually sounds a bit like a bassoon! Things are quite intense for a time and there is a lot of rhythmic impetus. Insistent passages come and go, and the melodies do the same. Violin passages are quoted by the cello, and then passed around the ensemble. A surprisingly stately section comes out of nowhere but is soon overwhelmed by determined violin chords. There is a scurrying feeling for a time, which becomes rowdy. The cello repeats the opening theme and the violins join in. A subdued passage ends the movement.

The next movement starts with a funereal motif and the violin wanders around it until we have a solo violin passage. The violin is very prominent and the motif keeps returning. The cello now steps out to take over and it hovers over the music. Wonderful cello writing here! A long solo violin passage leads to an abstract mood where the violins mimic each other. The cello keeps up with a melody that creates a gentle chaos with the violins. The dynamics vary appreciably within the movement. Sometimes it’s like a whisper to a scream! A remarkably poignant passage ensues where the cello supports a solo violin. This is a beautiful piece of writing; the violin is just terrific. An ostinato is established by the cello and the opening motif returns. The ending is delicate and ephemeral.

The final movement opens in a disjointed manner and nothing seems to settle for a while. Eventually the cello and violins combine for a wonderful melodic section. Soon a degree of chaos occurs with quite violent interjections. Then the mood is cut back to almost nothing until the violin leads the ensemble into a slightly atonal passage which is quite evocative, if a little out of place. A measure of calm reappears; now it becomes folk-like, again, slightly atonal. A scurrying cello rushes toward the end which comes with a flourish.

This quartet piques my interest enough to say that I will be revisiting this composer’s work again. It is filled with contrasts: ostinati, abstraction, chaos, many melodies and great variations.

There are five individual CDs containing the complete quartets by the Taneyev Quartet. Volume 1 contains SQs Nos. 1, 2 and 3. They can all be found on Amazon US and UK. String Quartet No. 1 is available on Spotify and there are a handful of various quartet movements on youtube. I love the photo of Stalin accompanying the clips. Not sure how he would have reacted to this music. Apparently he didn’t think much of Shostakovich!

Listenability: Very enjoyable early modern quartet.

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