While the answer to the question, “What is it good for?” continues to be “Absolutely nothing!” where war is concerned, there’s a tiny sliver of comfort to be gained from the fact that the ongoing outrage perpetrated by the Russian regime has thrown a spotlight onto aspects of Ukrainian culture that were hitherto relatively unknown. The first wave of classical reacquaintance focused, not inappropriately, on Valentyn Silvestrov, but recently there’s been a second wave turning attention to Silvestrov’s important predecessor Boris Lyatoshynsky.
Born towards the end of the 19th century, Lyatoshynsky’s story is an all too familiar one, growing up in first Russian-, then Soviet-occupied Ukraine, and subsequently finding himself increasingly at odds with the Communist regime as his musical language developed beyond its woefully narrow strictures of timid acceptability. Denounced and ostracised, much of his music went unheard until decades after their date of composition, in many cases not until after Lyatoshynsky’s death in 1968.
His varied output, prominently featuring many songs and much film music, could be said to be dominated by the five symphonies that he composed throughout his life, between 1919 and 1966. Recordings of some (possibly all) of them were made from 1968 onwards and issued on the Melodiya label, but it wasn’t until a series of releases in the mid-1990s that the symphonies began to make any mark outside the Soviet Union. The first of these, issued by CPO in 1994, was a recording of Nos. 4 and 5 by the Kraków Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Roland Bader. This was followed almost immediately by a complete cycle performed by the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Theodore Kuchar, released on three CDs (one also including Lyatoshynsky’s stirring symphonic poem Grazyna) by Marco Polo. All of these recordings have recently been reissued, the Bader recording looking absolutely identical to its original release, while the Kuchar recordings, owned by Naxos (who re-released them in 2014), have now been bundled together in a Complete Symphonies box, nicely emphasising the bright colours of the Ukrainian flag. It’s therefore a timely opportunity to explore these symphonies that are in many ways just as neglected and unknown as their composer.
The first, and most important, thing to say about them is that they’re really good. The classical repertoire is littered with disposable, so-called symphonies filled with half-baked, reheated borrowings from more illustrious predecessors. Boris Lyatoshynsky’s symphonies are nothing of the sort, though in some respects they could be said to borrow from each other. Indeed, one of the most striking initial observations that leaps out from these five symphonies is Lyatoshynsky’s compositional consistency over what amounts to almost half a century. Put simply, there’s a great deal in common with regard to the way Lyatoshynsky constructs his symphonies and the details of their respective narratives. For the sake of brevity, i’m not going to go into great detail about each symphony individually (though it’s definitely tempting to do that), but instead examine some of their shared characteristics alongside some individual highlights.
With one exception (No. 3), they’re all in three movements, and the way Lyatoshynsky gets them up and running is striking. No. 1 is different from the rest, hardly surprising considering it was his first symphony, composed when he was only in his early 20s. The work begins almost in medias res, straight into an elaborate oboe line that’s immediately expanded by the strings, boosted by the brass, reaching a full-blown climax within 45 seconds. Displaying various harmonic and motivic hallmarks of the symphonies of Scriabin, to say it demonstrates enthusiastic exuberance would be to put it mildly. All of the other symphonies open with something less expeditious, before abruptly ramping things up. No. 2 (1936) has a low string idea, answered by muted brass and low winds, while No. 3 (1951, rev. 1954) is heavy, angular and seemingly imposing, though immediately falls back to gentle wind lines over tremulous strings. No. 4 (1963) is similar, opening with an aggressive, gnarly fanfare that’s instantly reduced to quiet tremolandos and almost absent-minded pizzicatos while the winds suggest opening ideas; No. 5 (1966), subtitled “Slavonic”, has the shortest introduction of all, a bold, heraldic opening begun by just the horns but with the rest of the brass soon piling on, making everything complicated.
Whereupon, with essentially no warning at all, Lyatoshynsky floors it and the symphonies set off at great speed, always rhythmically-charged and boisterously peppered with accents. Yet this unexpected, almost non-sequitur, attitude taken after the introduction is a trait of what follows, these rapid allegros being undermined by lyrical ideas that appear regularly and just as unpredictably. Lyatoshynsky’s usual approach, heard in pretty much every movement of every symphony, is to pass these lyrical ideas from instrument to instrument, most obviously between the winds. Sometimes the passing involves repetition and / or imitation, other times it’s part of a broader melodic train of thought articulated by various voices in succession. Either way, it’s invariably a foil to the rapidity of the music, acting like a counterbalance to ensure each symphony doesn’t become too entrenched in a particular mode of action. Being first movements, one might expect that, though balanced in this way, the fast material would ultimately prevail. That’s certainly the case in the youthful No. 1 (which could hardly be more crashingly ebullient) but not anywhere else, Lyatoshynsky again defying expectations, favouring a variety of fizzles, descents or reductions so abrupt that they sound strange and enigmatic.
This sense of strangeness often appears in the central movements, which are usually slow. No. 1 explores a wonderful Scriabin-esque essay in overblown passion, with a veritable overkill of fanatical wind flourishes, and No. 2 is a similarly rich slice of neo-romantic ecstasy, but the rest are more nuanced and equivocal. No. 3 is gorgeous in the way its violin melody unfolds to an accompaniment of slithery winds, though Lyatoshynsky renders things askew, deconstructing and turning it into something more unsettlingly insistent. No. 4 moves in the opposite direction, initially seeming to be continuing the first movement in an ominous atmosphere of tremors and dark chords; yet this is transformed via bells, glitter and harp swooshes, becoming a fantasy world of mesmeric shimmer and, later, full force opulence. No. 5 inhabits a strange place where wind lines are passed over an omnipresent snare drum, before somehow finding their way through a modal chorale and an episode of pure mystery, evolving into a punchy fanfare before subsiding back, through gravitas, to where it began.
The finales (and, in the case of No. 3, movements III and IV combined) present various syntheses of these previously explored ideas and behaviours. They’re again unpredictable, switching from positions of strength to material that’s laborious (No. 1), transcendent (No. 2), weirdly fantastical (No. 3), nebulous (No. 4) or utterly oblique (No. 5 – which features a panoply of WTF twists in its closing movement), though the emphasis is always on power. There are times when the political machinations inflicted on Lyatoshynsky make their presence felt. Light, playful dotted rhythms in No. 3 become increasingly blank and militaristic (with faint hints of Shostakovich), coming in the wake of a main idea that’s pushed on with such force that it doesn’t so much seem “risoluto” as involuntarily compelled. Lyatoshynsky was instructed to re-write this finale – which originally included an epigraph, “Peace will defeat war” – twice until the Soviet authorities were grudgingly satisfied. It would be fascinating to hear the original version, but there’s no indication from the accompanying booklet of whether or not it survives; presumably not. Lyatoshynsky drives the finales of the last two symphonies to greater levels of energy and convolution. In No. 4 the tuttis become so complex it’s as if both the different sections of the orchestra and the various musical elements are all in competition with each other. No. 5 undergoes disquietingly massive mood swings, by turns heraldic, dreamy, boisterous and mesmerising before concluding with a gloriously leftfield intrusion of wild tubular bells, as its collection of ideas are finally woven together.
All of which really only scratches the surface of these marvellous, engrossing symphonies. It’s fitting that they’ve been treated to such powerful performances as these, played with absolute conviction by both orchestras and bringing excellent clarity to their wealth of inner details. It’s worth noting that, while the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra recordings are superb, the Kraków Philharmonic recording of Nos. 4 and 5 makes an even stronger impression. In the case of No. 4, Roland Bader’s very different approach to tempo makes a world of difference; he takes more time in the first movement, leading to a heightened, more compelling atmosphere and revealing extra details in the busier textures, but he takes less time in the second, with the result that the volatility of the music is really allowed to let rip. In No. 5, Bader retains a clearer distinction between the individual ideas when they end up intermingling, and with a stronger overall sense of the push-pull between different moods, which in the final movement becomes seriously unsettling.
These fine recordings are an excellent way to get to know the work of one of Ukraine’s most significant composers – often described as “the father of contemporary Ukrainian music” – and arguably it’s greatest symphonist. The Complete Symphonies, released by Naxos, are collected in a nice, cheaply-priced 3-CD box; each disc is also available separately, and both these and the CPO recording are also available as digital downloads.