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Dmitry Borisovich KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D major, Op. 50 (1952)* [18:45]
Rhapsody on the Theme “School Years”, Op. 75 (1964)* [12:09]
Poem of Struggle, Op. 12 (1930) [9:09]
Nikolay Adreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, Op. 30 (1883)* [14:06]
Hsin-Ni Liu (piano)*
Gnesin Academy Chorus
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky.
rec. Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow, Russia, 10-15 June 2005 and 29 November 2006.
NAXOS 8.557794 [54:09]
Experience Classicsonline

Is there such a thing as karma? The case of Soviet composer Dmitry Kabalevsky certainly makes one wonder. In life, Kabalevsky played it safe, skillfully negotiating himself around the official condemnations that cut deeply into the careers and souls of his compatriots Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Such decrees by the powers-that-be even touched Aram Khachaturian, hardly anyone’s picture of a bold dissident. So, compared to them, Kabalevsky led a much more serene and successful life. But now that their struggles are known, Kabalevsky looks like a craven opportunist, calculating his value to the government and then sweetening it by writing ideologically praiseworthy works.
Well, what of it? If Kabalevsky committed the sin of not being a hero, he’s certainly paying for it now, dismissed as a lightweight laboring in the shadows of true geniuses. But doesn’t he at least deserve credit for being as good as he was? It seems to me that Kabalevsky figured himself out quite precisely: He was a lucid, talented composer with a gift for melody, and not a whole lot more. How many of us know ourselves well enough to make such an honest assessment?
The main item here is the winningly modest Piano Concerto No. 3, which Kabalevsky dedicated “to Soviet youth”. The three-movement work is melodic and attractive, with simplified piano writing to make it attractive for pedagogical purposes. Kabalevsky’s lucid reserve makes it a classical take on the mid-twentieth-century Russian style. Taiwanese pianist Hsin-Ni Liu plays the work with grace and style, neither trying to over-hype its modest dimensions nor underplaying its youthful high spirits. As pedagogical music goes, this is first-class, containing more than the passing echo of those Kabalevsky works which still hang around the fringes of the repertory, the Colas Bruegnon Overture and the suite The Comedians. The recorded sound is a little studio-bound here and throughout the program, but it is certainly passable.
As filler to the general program of Kabalevsky works, we hear the Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor by Rimsky-Korsakov next, a work I had never heard of, let alone heard, before this. It is in one-movement, built on one theme, but the sections give it a three-movement feel, with the first movement having a slow introduction. Rimsky was not a pianist, but, as his orchestrations show, he worked hard to master the sort of figurations which make his writing sound idiomatic for any instrument. And so it goes here, too. Though not flashy merely for showing off, there are considerably more virtuoso thrills here than in the Kabalevsky concerto, integrating the bravura of Liszt and Chopin into Rimsky’s familiar sound-world of fairy tales and exotic dreams. Considering that there’s no other concerted piano work that does this, it’s surprising that this piece isn’t more well-known. Liu, Yablonsky and Naxos deserve credit for drawing attention to it. Liu’s performance is broad and attractive. She finds alternately charming and feisty passages to show her mastery of the keyboard. The orchestral contribution is, however, a touch thin and tentative in places, particularly at the beginning. And when the violins play en masse, there is still a certain lack of body to their sound. Nonetheless, the piano is balanced well against the orchestral body.
Returning to Kabalevsky, we hear his piano and orchestra Rhapsody on the theme of his song “School Years”. The piece, written for use in a piano competition in 1964, is dedicated to “young musicians of the Volga region”. The song was evidently one of those best-years-of-our-lives, hail-the-alma-mater type numbers, and Kabalevsky’s variations on it are largely blue-skied and untroubled, eyeing the world from what the composer perceived as a child’s perspective. It’s all a bit too faux-na´ve, really, if you think too much about it. But, as is so often the case with this composer, the work delights in the pure joy of melody, harmony and rhythm. While the world was careening through cold war anxiety, Kabalevsky chose to turn away from that vision and instead work with children, trying to make their world happier. One almost feels this undercurrent of seriousness emerge in the coda to the Rhapsody.
As further filler, we get Kabalevsky’s first major work, the Poem of Struggle from 1930, for chorus and orchestra. This is social-realist writing at its finest, which is to say from the top of the bottom-drawer. In trying to give Kabalevsky the benefit of the doubt, I’m willing to entertain the thought that perhaps he sincerely believed in the Russian Revolution, at least at this point in his life. But I suspect I won’t be the only one to falter when I see that this Naxos production, coming out of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with an all-Russian staff, chooses to close with a chorus singing, “Today in Dresden gunfire will sound / From rusty rooftops, and tomorrow / We will storm into Paris and Warsaw. / We will sail from London to New York / Under the banner of storms!”
Maybe Kabalevsky’s karma really has come home to roost.
Mark Sebastian Jordan

see also review by Rob Barnett



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