Dmitry Kabalevsky’s 24 Preludes, Op. 38, are a minor masterpiece in twentieth-century piano music. The form itself, a cycle of preludes encompassing every key, has a distinguished history dating back through Chopin, Alkan, Scriabin, Rachmaninov and other great pianist-composers. Kabalevsky’s place in that heritage is both chronologically and stylistically closest to Dmitry Shostakovich, author of twenty-four Preludes, Op. 34. But a more detailed recipe for this music reveals broader influences: begin with the atmospheric miniatures being written by numerous performer-composers at the dawn of the century, stir in the emotional power and mammoth chordal writing of Rachmaninov, mix in a hearty dollop of Shostakovich’s harmonic style, and garnish with a touch - but just a touch - of jazz. If this concoction sounds appetizing, do not hesitate.
The preludes are ordered, as Chopin’s were, around the circle of fifths: the first is in C, the second in A minor, the third in G, and so on. Some are just forty seconds long, and only three preludes pass the three minute mark. The music is consistently tonal and, were it not for the infrequent intrusions of jazz syncopation and style, the cycle could have been composed many years earlier than their true dates of 1943-4. As befits the genre, the set encompasses a wide range of languages and emotions.
The very first prelude is simple, elegant, and perhaps meant to be rather naïve, almost like a children’s tune. The third feels like a modern tribute to Chopin’s etudes; in the middle section of the fourth we can feel the influence of Rachmaninov, the keyboard mimicking the sound of the march. Prelude No. 8, built on a simple left-hand ascending scale, is rather mysterious in mood, while its successor wears a smile; the tenth piece, in contrast to both, plunges into the emotional depths, its chords echoing like sinister bells.
The second half begins with another contrast, between the dark, morose thirteenth prelude and the fourteenth, which is rather amusingly marked “As fast as possible.” (By this point Kabalevsky’s harmonic language is so complex that, although the slow, dark work feels as if it is in minor mode and the following prestissimo
feels like a relief, it is in fact No 13 which is in a major key and No 14 which is not.) No 16 is one of my favorites, a menacing but slightly silly drumbeat-like figure with a final coda that is over-the-top. Its successor recalls the simple tune clocks play at the top of the hour, while No 19 is a jovial battleground between classical propriety and jazzy playfulness. The very last prelude, marked Allegro feroce
, is indeed ferocious; it favorably compares with some of the most emotionally charged solo works of Rachmaninov, who is quoted at least once in its course (from his Prelude in G sharp minor). This titanic closing work is not a miniature, as many of the others were; it lasts a full four minutes and ensures that Kabalevsky has indeed saved best for last.
The four preludes, op. 5, are rather less interesting, but have the virtue of brevity, and the second of the set is a very good example of the spirit of jazz lingering over the keyboard. Kabalevsky did not, like Shostakovich, compose an additional set of 24 preludes and fugues, but he did write six works in the dual form, collected together as the Op. 61. Each of these has a propagandistic subtitle aimed at pleasing the Soviet authorities, such as “Becoming a Young Pioneer” or “At the Feast of Labour,” but the musical content has no programme. Surprisingly, these Preludes and Fugues are generally tender and lyrical in vein, and the fugues are so pleasantly constructed that they do not sound like fugues at all.
Alexandre Dossin’s piano is, unfortunately, captured in rather poor sound reminiscent of the glassy recordings of the very early digital era. The acoustic is very bright, and the piano sounds rather thin, rather than the rich, full quality one would hope for. Worst of all, the upper registers are quite clangy, and the lower ones far less prominent, dulling the impact in this darkly Russian music. In concert, the tenth or twenty-fourth prelude Op. 38 might overwhelm us with its power; this recording puts such passages at a disadvantage.
But the deficiencies in sound do not conceal the fact that Dossin is a superb pianist, something collectors may already know from his two prior albums. Indeed, he is as convincing an advocate for this music as we can hope for at this time, sculpting the darker preludes in fire and ice. If any criticism is to be made, it is that some of the light-hearted or humorous works - such as Op. 38, Nos 2 and 11 - can be slightly too “heavy” and do not smile as broadly as they could. But this does not make Dossin a second choice in this music; Christoph Deluze, in one of the few other widely available recordings of Op. 38 (Pavane
), is even more heavy-handed in the playful preludes.
Dossin’s is by far the most affordable set of Kabalevsky’s preludes available, and, as far as my research indicates, is one of just four recordings of the set of twenty-four in 50 years. The four preludes, Op. 5, have been even unluckier; the only competition whatsoever is the performance by Christoph Deluze. There are historical recordings of the work with formidable reputations, by Nadia Reisenberg (Ivory Classics 74002) and Yakov Flier (APR5665
), which I have not heard but now will seek out. If the repertoire intrigues you, however, do not hesitate to give this excellent disc a listen.