Kees Bakels and the Malaysian Philharmonic’s Rimsky-Korsakov
has given me great pleasure since it first appeared. Those familiar
pieces are played – and recorded – with a freshness and spontaneity
that’s rare indeed, qualities I was looking for in these Kalinnikov
symphonies. Inexplicably, this disc has only just been released,
more than a decade after it was recorded; in the meantime several
versions have held sway, notably Neeme Järvi’s on Chandos
CHAN 9546 and Theodor Kuchar’s on Naxos 8.553417. So just how
well does this Johnny-come-lately compare?
Vasily Kalinnikov only wrote two symphonies and a handful of other works before he died of TB, aged 35. Given his dates it’s not surprising to hear frequent echoes of Tchaikovsky in these works; what is
unexpected, though, is the composer’s sustained creativity and flair. From the outset one is struck by the lovely, balletic nature of Kalinnikov’s writing and Bakels and his orchestra springs the dance rhythms with grace and charm. The Allegro of the first symphony is subtly aerated, the recording warm, full and detailed in the very best tradition of the house. But it’s the quality of the music-making that’s most remarkable – lithe, characterful and brimming with life.
Really, this is a first-class band. Bakels scales and phrases the music to perfection; indeed, there’s an almost classical proportion and quiet dignity to this symphony that puts Balakirev, Arensky and Kalinnikov’s more excitable rivals to shame. Ensemble is always crisp, strings silky smooth, timps taut and clear; the woodwind sound fresh and frisky too. In short, it’s hard to imagine this music better done. The Andante is one of the gentlest, most luminous idylls I’ve heard in ages. Fortunately Kalinnikov doesn’t overwork his material. The Scherzo is pliant and playful, the unmistakably masculine Finale beautifully toned, its sinew and muscle sensed rather than flexed for empty adulation.
What a splendid creation this is; in fact I found myself applauding silently at the close, wondering if the Second Symphony would seduce me so completely. The short answer is yes, it did. The skipping strings of the first movement are a balm to the heart and ear. These are eminently danceable tunes, which makes me think this conductor and band would be an ideal pairing in the Tchaikovsky ballets. The nimble reflexes of this orchestra – and its refined tuttis – never fail to impress, notably in that Tchaikovskian close to the first movement. And it just gets better: a light but languid Andante, a Puckish Scherzo and a thrilling, typically Russianate Finale.
Järvi is more red-blooded and thrustful, Kuchar comparatively rough and ready, yet no-one uncovers the gentle, cultured soul of this music quite like Bakels and his band. In this Arnoldian night of drear and dread such open-hearted, easeful music – played with great sensitivity and skill – is doubly welcome. Imbibe and enjoy, for this is a very special disc indeed.