These symphonies are not masterpieces - but who cares?

Pierre Boulez is reported to have declared "I hate Tchaikovsky and I will not conduct him. But if the audience wants him, it can have him", and to have described Shostakovich's symphonies as "third-pressing Mahler". Boulez's attitude towards another great Russian symphonist was apparently only slightly less trenchant. In 1955 Boulez was touring South America as music director of Jean-Louis Barrault's Théâtre Marigny. During the tour Boulez was invited to conduct the Venezuelan Symphony, this was the first time he had ever conducted a full orchestra. The chosen programme was typically Boulez: Debussy's Jeux and Ibéria, Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. But the parts for the Bartók failed to arrive, so Boulez substituted Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. In Joan Peyser's unreliable 1976 biography of Boulez - which supplies the infamous Tchaikovsky quote above but not the Shostakovich - she reports: "He says that he promised himself he would never conduct [Prokofiev's Classical Symphony] again, and that he has fulfilled that promise. But the fact that he did conduct - even once - what surely must be the epitome of neoclassical music indicates that Boulez could compromise".

Prokofiev was a pupil of the underrated Alexander Glazunov, as was Nikolai Myaskovsky*. Boulez's views on Myaskovsky are not known; but the Russian composer's music is well worth exploring, and the current endemic over-supply of classical music means Evgeny Svetlanov's recording of Myaskovsky's 27 symphonies on 16 CDs can currently be bought for an unbelievably low price. These symphonies may not be masterpieces according to received wisdom. But the indisputably masterpiece-free zone of Facebook has an audience of 1.44 billion. Classical music wants a big new audience; so who cares about masterpieces?

* Varying transliteration means the composer's name is also spelt Miaskovsky, as in the Warner CD set seen in the header image. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


John Blackburn said…
Boulez brought many great things to music—championing the new, among them—but his musical tastes were clearly his own.

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