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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS

Dimitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in c sharp minor op. 18 (1932) [19:35]
Symphony No. 2 in c minor op. 19 (1934) [25:37]
CD 2
Symphony No. 3 in b flat minor for orchestra and mixed chorus - Requiem for Lenin op. 22 (1933) [19:07]
Symphony No. 4 in c op. 54 (1955-56) [41:12]
 NDR Choir; Choir of Hungarian Radio
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Eiji Oue
rec. 2001-2002, Großer Sendesaal des NDR Landesfunkhauses (1,2,4); Athanasiuskirche.
 CPO 999 833-2 [45:12 + 60:19]
Experience Classicsonline

Three of Kabalevsky's four symphonies were written in quick succession in the early 1930s in the run-up to the tenth anniversary of the death of Lenin. There is something of an incidental irony that this performance of the so-called Third Symphony deploys an Hungarian choir. In 1956 - the year of Kabalevsky's Fourth and last Symphony - Soviet troops moved into Hungary to stamp out the Hungarian Revolution. There were to be no more symphonies from Kabalevsky despite his living another thirty years.
And what of the music? The first two symphonies - neither of them of epic length - are like lost brothers of the early contemporary symphonies of his teacher Nikolai Miaskovsky. Kabalevsky is not given to expressionism or dissonance. He has none of the subtlety or complexity of another and far less comfortable contemporary, Feinberg. On the other hand Miaskovsky at the time of these Kabalevsky works had completed the symphonies 13 and 14 which in their introversion and dank gloom seemed to defy the state-approved stereotypes. Kabalevsky's music is more consistently nurtured in the warm mulch of Borodin, Balakirev and Tchaikovsky. It is only with very much later works such as the crushingly dark Second Cello Concerto that Kabalevsky feels free to explore the depressive dimension. In fact Kabalevsky can sound like Tchaikovsky reanimated and overdosed on steroids. Take the finale of the Second Symphony which at times seems to have had the Tchaikovsky Fifth as its soul model. Listen to the trumpets at 2:53 in the finale of No. 2 where even the sound of the instrument and the playing style seems to pay tribute to the cracked intensity of the Soviet tradition. Unusually the First Symphony is in two movements. It was written to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution and has many Miaskovskian fingerprints and there are not a few in the Second also. Both works are enjoyable in their own right and especially in these skilled, sincere and emotionally engaged performances. The central Andante of the Second Symphony at its climax rises to a sustained climax that recalls Khachaturian's rhetorical brass-saturated magnificence. Parts of the finale of the Second Symphony are skippingly playful and seem to put down a marker for the many works he wrote with Soviet youth in mind especially the piano concertos - usually carefree, catchy and memorable.
These two performances puts into the shade the enthusiastic but rougher versions by the Szeged Orchestra conducted by Erwin Acél and issued on a long gone Olympia OCD268. It's been a while since I last heard the ASV version of these two works (ASV CD1032). However my distant recollection is that the magnificent Tjeknavorian with his own Armenian Phil is pretty much in the same league as Oue and the NDR forces.
The 'Third Symphony' is in reality a twenty minute cantata for choir and orchestra written to mark the tenth anniversary of Lenin's death. This further breaks down into two movements. First comes a long earnest orchestral vorspiel running to almost seven minutes. Then there's a 12 minute sequence for choir and orchestra which could I suppose be played alone. It's a blazingly intense Marcia funebre in which the choir and orchestra assault the heavens in that heady mixture of lamentation and exultation. It's like a gorgeously overblown collaboration between Verdi and Berlioz updated and superheated over a soviet revolutionary brazier. Once again those trumpets scour the firmament (CD2 tr. 2 10:10) and the choir's strangely messianic message is that He lives! - Lenin lives! As with the First Symphony this work has also been affected by the violently protested urgency of Miaskovsky's Sixth Symphony of 1923.

As for the four movement Fourth Symphony it was written two decades after the 1930s trilogy. Its language has not undergone any sort of epiphany. It is, if anything, even more nationalist-emotional. The mature orchestral Tchaikovsky is never far distant but with chilly cross-currents from Miaskovsky. Original touches include the chiming episodes for the piano and harp at 6:10 in the first movement. The epic manner is best heard in the middle movement in which at 6:40 the whirring 'Requiem' drums thunder out again. They looking backwards to the Third Symphony and perhaps to the depredations of the Great Patriotic War then still fresh in the Soviet psyche. The third movement is spirited, bantering, mercurial, sweetly haunting, touching on the grand tragic-balletic manner of Khachaturian and optimistically energetic. The finale starts pensively but soon adopts the flighty Capulet style of Romeo and Juliet and - perhaps a more apposite parallel - that of the Prokofiev Seventh Symphony which also capitalises on the orchestral piano. Again it's a while since I have heard it but this performance strikes as no less committed than that of the composer and the Leningrad Phil recorded by Melodiya within a year of the premiere (Olympia OCD 290 nla).
This is the first time that the world has seen an intégrale of the four Kabalevsky symphonies. I am left full of admiration for the Oue's dedication in wringing from his choirs and orchestra a sound and vigour that has an authentically Soviet fervour. Nothing less is acceptable in putting these works across. One can only hope for similar missionary work for the symphonies of Knipper, Shaporin, Shtcherbakov, Peiko, Shebalin and Shtogarenko.
Provided you are not given to confusing despicable political alignment with musical worth you will be able to enjoy these works. Certainly after you have had your fill of the glorious Miaskovsky - whose lyrically wrought choral-orchestral Kremlin at Night I heard only recently - you must hear this; not to mention the First Symphony of another outcast: Tikhon Krennikhov.

Rob Barnett 

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