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Dmitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
String Quartet No 1 in A minor, Op.8 (1928) [29:31]
String Quartet No 2 in G minor, Op.44 (1945) [33:23]
Stenhammer Quartet
rec. 2015, Petruskirche, Stockholm
CPO 555 006-2 [62:58]

In the pantheon of Soviet-era composers, Kabalevsky is a name which will be familiar to most lovers of classical music, despite his somewhat compromised reputation and/or low profile (at least in the west). So far as I am aware, this reputation sees him as an enthusiastic embracer of ‘Socialist Realism’, prolifically producing superficial and optimistic – if not na´ve - music which sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from that of relatively introspective Soviet composers like Shostakovitch (with composers like Prokofiev somewhere in the middle). Is this reputation fair?

Kabalevsky was certainly reasonably prolific (his works extend to 102 opus numbers) but, despite an extensive discography (largely Russian) his reputation outside Russia seems to be based on only a small corpus of works. This includes his concertos, the Overture to Colas Breugnon, The Comedians ballet, a handful of piano pieces (some of which were championed by Horowitz) and a few songs. As for being an embracer of Socialist Realism, well, Kabalevsky’s hands were probably tied. In fact, in 1948, when Andrei Zhdanov declared his resolution on the direction that Soviet music should take, Kabalevsky was originally on the list of named composers who were regarded as being most guilty of the opaquely-defined crime of “formalism”. Moreover, it may have been only as a result of the composer’s connections in official circles that his name was removed from the list. He was incredibly hard-working and much-travelled throughout his life and it is somewhat surprising that he found the time to compose at all. Renowned as a much-admired teacher at the State Conservatory, he also embraced a wide range of literary and cultural roles – including being a member of the World Council for Peace. As regards his position on the Soviet musical spectrum, the contents of the present disc suggest to me that at least some of his music is much closer to that of Prokofiev in style and temperament than is generally assumed, but the debt may be, at least partially, owed by Prokofiev.

CPO have recently been doing a lot to improve the composer’s discography in the west, as evidenced by Rob Barnett’s recent review of three Kabalevsky recordings by that label, including this one. I hadn’t heard the two quartets before and, so far as I can tell, their only previous commercial recording was by the Glazunov Quartet on the Olympia label. The First Quartet dates from 1928, at a time when the then 24-year old composer was studying with Miaskovsky, although it may have had its origins several years earlier. At any rate, this is no mere student work. It is clearly in the Russian tradition and all four movements make extensive use of folk material. The work begins with an Andante introduction to an Allegro moderato that sounds very like the style of Prokofiev’s First Quartet (which actually came three years later). This is followed by a furious Scherzo movement, marked Vivace, with a Molto meno mosso trio. There is a slowish Andantino third movement and a finale marked Allegro Assai, where I had some fun trying to work out the time signature(s). The composer obviously suffered some problems with the work and, in a letter of 13 years later, he was to remark to Miaskovsky: “How difficult it was to write this quartet. I did not expect that it would take so much energy”. Whilst I found the work slightly less memorable than Prokofiev’s First Quartet, it is highly accessible and more than justifies repeated hearings.

By 1945 Kabalevsky had taken up residence in The House of the Composers in Ivanovo, about 250 km north east of Moscow. This was a retreat whose goal was to help struggling Soviet composers at a difficult time and Kabalevsky’s neighbours included Shostakovich and Prokofiev. This time it was Kabalevsky’s turn to be influenced by both composers. His Second String Quartet has five movements, following the example of Shostakovitch’s Ninth Symphony – although the rather inward sections in the first movement and moments in the last movement (see below) are the nearest we get to the world of Shostakovitch’s quartets. Also, according to the booklet notes: “The actual motto [theme] of the quartet……makes no secret of its origins in Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto”. In fact, Prokofiev may also have assisted Kabalevsky with various other suggestions, at least resolving a long struggle the composer had with the coda of the slow movement Adagio molto sostenuto. At any rate, Kabalevsky succeeded in producing a multi-layered, rhythmically interesting and highly accessible work of “extraordinary eloquence”, influenced by the horrors and end of the Great Patriotic War but not necessarily limited to those experiences.

The long first movement is marked Allegro molto ed energico and it begins with a resolute three-chord statement and moves through interesting tempo and mood changes before coming to a scorching end. This is followed by a determined Andante non troppo movement, then by a Scherzando leggiero – which consists mainly of ghostly scampering. The afore-mentioned slow movement is muted and emotional, before we move to the Adagio introduction to the last movement. This turns into a Vivace giocoso optimistic, skittering march which, nevertheless, seems to make occasional slight nods to baleful passages from Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, a work that also recalls the horrors of the war but actually dates from fifteen years later.

Kabalevsky dedicated the quartet to the famous Beethoven Quartet. Unlike the Shostakovich symphony, which was nominated for the Stalin Prize in 1946, Kabalevsky’s quartet actually won it. Good though the Shostakovich symphony is I think the quartet probably deserved the trophy.

The only available competition for these performances comes from the Glazunov Quartet on an Olympia CD dating from 1993. This CD seems to be out of the catalogue at present, although odd copies may be available (at a high price). Performances are pretty similar to those of the Stenhammer Quartet, with timings on the Olympia disc (30:07 and 36:31 respectively) slightly slower overall that those on the CPO disc. However, the timings of individual movements are not consistently faster on the latter. I slightly preferred the more inward playing of the Glazunov Quartet in the Andante introduction to the first movement of the First Quartet but, overall, honours are pretty even, with both groups providing very listenable performances. Both recordings are similarly slightly astringent but this is not a problem and the ear soon adjusts. To my ear the CPO disc sounds significantly more open and this is definitely preferable. Also, there is a noticable edit preceding the final chord of the first movement of the Second Quartet on the Olympia disc. The copious (but overblown and tedious) CPO booklet notes, in very small print, are provided in German and laborious English translations.

To my ear these quartets are as fine as those of other leading Soviet era composers (certainly as good as any by Miaskovsky or Glazunov) and rival the Prokofiev quartets for interest. They suggest that Kabalevsky’s music has been unfairly neglected, based on a western reputation that is not wholly justified – if at all. This is a fine disc, well worth a listen.

Bob Stevenson

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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