Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950): Violin Concerto, Op. 44
Mieczys∏aw Vainberg (1919-1996): Violin Concerto, Op.67
During the Week of White Russian Art in Moscow 1940, a youngpiano virtuoso and student of composition paid a visit to the doyen of Sovietsymphonism, Nikolay Myaskovsky. 'On that occasion a very warm and cordialrelationship began ... I was twenty years old but he was already over fifty; itseemed to me that he was like an old man.' Mieczys∏aw Vainberg, theyoungster, was very embarrassed when, on his departure, 'uncle' Myaskovskyhelped him with his overcoat. He did not yet know that this was the customamong Russians. As a Jew Vainberg had been forced to flee from his nativePoland after the German attack in 1939, and to forget the prospects of going tothe USA to continue his career as a pianist, but he had been receivedmagnanimously in the Soviet Union, where an offer was made to study compositionin Minsk with Vassily Zolotaryov, a disciple of Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov,and from there he had been sent to Moscow as a representative of the WhiteRussian musicians.
Vainberg was born in 1919 in Warsaw, where his father was acomposer and musical leader at a Jewish theatre; in 1881 Myaskovsky was bornjust outside this city, at the fortress Novo-Georgiyevsk, where his fatherserved as an officer. He began his career in the army and was already a lieutenantwhen he began his musical studies in St Petersburg at the age of 25; one of hisfellow students was Prokofiev, ten years his junior. They became good friends,but after graduation and at the outbreak of the First World War Myaskovsky hadto join the army again. As a lieutenant with the sappers he suffered severeshell-shock and was sent home, eventually to settle in Moscow, where he was tospend the rest of his life. In 1921 he became a Professor of Composition at theMoscow Conservatory. He was never an ultra-modern composer, hence the absurdityof the severe criticism he received for \formalism" in 1948. With 27 symphonieshe is considered one of the great masters of this genre in the twentiethcentury.
During the second half of the 1930s there was an importantupsurge of interest in violin music in the Soviet Union. The reason was simple:it corresponded to what was to be known as the famous Soviet Violin School: thecountry's violinists, with David Oistrakh at the head, were winning mostcompetition prizes around the world. It was for Oistrakh that Myaskovsky in1938 wrote his Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 44, and it was to him that itwas dedicated. This was Myaskovsky's first ever concerto. Before beginning itscomposition he had meticulously studied the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violinconcertos, as well as those by Prokofiev. His aim was to create a work of broadsymphonic format, and he was especially successful in the initial Allegro edappassionato, longer than the two following movements together - even after the composer (at Oistrakh'ssuggestion, subsequent to the premi?¿re) shortened the lavish solo cadenza forthe revised edition, which appeared in the following year. The cadenza even nowserves as an additional development of the movement's entire thematic material,and thus the large sonata form is combined with a brilliant solo part.
The r??le of dramatic content in the work is not at all thesame in the two following movements. The Adagio, molto cantabile is lyrical,but far from brooding. It possesses a kind of quiet optimism, which developsfurther into the dance-like and happy character of the finale, Allegro molto.
When the USSR became involved in the war in 1941 Vainbergwas forced to leave Minsk, and he instead moved on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In1943 Shostakovich, highly impressed by his first symphony, enabled him to takeup residence in Moscow, where he was to spend the rest of his life. In themeantime his family in Poland had been murdered by the Nazis, and in 1948 hisfather-in-law, the famous Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, was liquidated onStalin's order on the wave of rising Soviet anti-semitism.
A deep friendship was to characterize Vainberg'srelationship with Myaskovsky and Shostakovich, and he showed every newcomposition to them. Shostakovich also showed his to Vainberg, whom he held tobe one of the very best Soviet composers. When Vainberg in 1953 was arrested ona false charge as an "enemy of the people", Shostakovich courageouslyintervened for him with the secret police, but in the end it was Stalin's deaththat saved his life.
In a letter dated 1960 Shostakovich wrote to his friendIsaac Glikman: "I am very impressed by M.S. Vainberg's Violin Concerto,superbly interpreted by the Communist violinist L.B. Kogan. It is a magnificentwork. And I am weighing my words." The epithet "Communist" was an allusion tothe dedicatee -- Kogan's well-known sympathy for the regime. (The work was notgiven its first performance until early 1961, but it is possible thatShostakovich had heard it being played at the Composers' Union.) This was atthe beginning of Vainberg's most successful period as a composer. He neverjoined the Party and as an immigrant he was no favourite of the authorities,yet the foremost artists of the country were queuing up to perform new works byhim, and the vast majority of his compositions were indeed performed at themost famous venues in Moscow and elsewhere.
The Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 67, is a formally largework with four full-sized movements, built along classical lines. One strikingaspect is that the soloist is playing his highly virtuosic part almostcontinually through the piece; this is especially true in the first movement.This Allegro is constructed as a traditional sonata movement, with arhythmically strict first theme and a second theme with a fascinatingaccompaniment by celesta and harp. In the second movement, Allegretto, thetheme is initially presented without the soloist, then it is repeated over andover again in a variety of sonorities, until the movement ends with a shortsolo cadenza. The most romantic atmosphere is to be found in the Adagio, withdreaming, almost old-fashioned melodies; then the work ends with a finale,Allegro risoluto, with an effusive, joyfully dance-like character. A specialeffect is created by the appearance of one of the many "lesser" themes, whichturns out to be a loan from Mozart's "little" G minor symphony, and afterreflecting the first movement, the work ends with a beautiful pianissimo passage.
Both composers had a strong sense of the dramatic, but itwas equally their mild sense of humour that helped them through thedifficulties of life. Vainberg related Myaskovsky's reaction when they werestanding together at a meeting where the 1948 Party Decree against formalists --among them Myaskovsky himself -- was being discussed in a venomous atmosphere.Vainberg, in jest, whispered: "This is a historical Decree!", but in responseMyaskovsky hissed: "Not historical. Hysterical.".