One of my earliest musical memories concerns the music of Kabalevsky. It was used to accompany puppet shows my Aunt took me to at the age of about five. The music was from the newly composed suite The Comedians
. How I found out the music was by him I can’t remember. It was because of those experiences that for many years I associated him specifically with music for children. The fact is that he had a facility for writing simple melodies that children can easily identify with. The first of the two discs, entitled Piano Pieces for Children Young and Old
shows that extremely well. The smile the music causes from the outset remains on your face throughout the entire disc. It is music that should be listened to with a child in tow, perhaps playing some along with reading a story would be a good mix for that before-bed session. I shall remember that for my new grandson born last week. The pieces here were composed over a very long period (1931-1974) showing that Kabalevsky enjoyed writing for children through much of his career. He also saw it as a duty, fitting in well with the Soviet concept of ‘Socialist Realism’ which held that music should ‘speak to the masses’. Together with that self imposed ‘duty’ he helped found the Union of Soviet Composers and spent much time teaching. Indeed many of these pieces are used as study pieces for would-be pianists today. I can imagine how much they would enjoy practising these rather than many of the more serious works used for the purpose. That they are for children and used in practice should not imply that they don’t require a decent technique to ensure that the maximum of the charm within them is extracted. That is in no doubt when played by someone with the talent of American-born UK resident Kirsten Johnson who specialises in ‘off-piste’ repertoire such as her discs of Albanian piano music (Kenge Rapsodi
), four discs of the complete piano works of fellow American composer Amy Beach (Volume 1
~ Volume 2
~ Volume 3
~ Volume 4
) and a three CD set of the piano music of another American, Arthur Foote (1853-1937) (review
). While it may be that many people would not want to listen to the entire disc at a single sitting, which I did enjoy doing, it is a pleasure to dip in and out.
The second disc of concert pieces shows Kabalevsky’s more serious side and these date from as early as 1925 when he was 21 to 1972 and 68. The Three Preludes for piano
are the earliest works, written while he was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory and they bear witness to a promising and prodigious talent. The Variations for piano in D major (Toccata) Op.40 No.1
, and number two from the same set from 1944, show once again the irresistible draw towards the childlike. Variations were a favourite genre for Kabalevsky and one at which he excelled as these delightful pieces clearly demonstrate.
The six preludes and fugues he wrote in 1958-9 show his mastery of this genre too with a recognisable nod to the baroque world of Bach & co but with a distinctively Kabalevskian flavour that makes them a joy to listen to. The Rondo in A minor Op.59
(1958) was written for the competitors to play at that year’s inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. It was famously won by Van Cliburn the tousle-haired Texan who Nikita Krushchev awarded the prize to, albeit somewhat reluctantly. It is packed with changes of mood as well as pace and would have been an ideal test for each competitor.
Spring Games and Dances
Op.81 is another piece that outwardly may seem a simple enough piece. Examination of it reveals its complexity as it lurches from gentle dances to breathtakingly exhausting games. It's all perfectly described in Kabalevsky’s engaging music. A complete contrast comes next in the shape of his Recitative and Rondo Op.84
which is serious in nature and embodies some writing that is more ‘modern’ than we have become used to with this composer.
The following three pieces are variations on folksongs from America, France and Japan. The first is based on the American folksong All the pretty little horses
which has been recorded by many a singer from Joan Baez to Charlotte Church. Here in the hands of a master craftsman the music takes on a whole new life, getting the maximum value from such an apparently simple tune. Children also enjoy playing this as YouTube videos show. The French folksong variations are similarly attractive and the original was probably discovered by Kabalevsky while he was researching material for his 1938 opera Colas Breugnon
from the novel by Romain Rolland. The final one, based on a Japanese folksong, has a distinctly Japanese melody which Kabalevsky cleverly dissects and reassembles in the most winning of ways. It's a textbook example of how to write a set of variations.
The final piece on this lovely disc is the last piece Kabalevsky wrote for piano in 1971/72. It is entitled Lyric Tunes
. Consisting of four sections Prelude-Waltz-Variations-Coda
it is a delicious little concoction, each part with its own distinctive contribution. The waltz is an especial delight.
Kabalevsky has often been characterised by his detractors as a Soviet apologist who towed the party line, rejecting the more avant-garde outlook of his contemporaries such as Prokofiev and producing works described as “popular, bland and successful”. One wonders if this was not simply sour grapes. It is telling that that description is attributed to that oft quoted source ‘anon’. In any event many of his works have survived the dustbin of history some critics from the past would have liked to have seen him consigned to. These vigorous survivors include his popular violin concerto (championed by Oistrakh) and the first of his cello concertos. 278 listings of available recordings on Amazon seem to suggest many people reject the bland image while helping to confirm the popular nature of his compositions. It is strange that, to some, being popular is in some way an undesirable label.
Kirsten Johnson clearly believes in the merit of Kabalevsky’s works for piano and these two discs confirm the justification of that view. She plays everything in a committed way that shows her love for the music and her obvious wish to share it with the public. I trust the public will respond accordingly.