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Dmitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Complete Piano Sonatas & Rondos
Piano Sonata No. 1 op. 6 [15:28]
Piano Sonata No. 2 op. 45 [21:43]
Piano Sonata No. 3 op. 46 [14:31]
Rondo op. 59 [5:16]
Recitative & Rondo op. 84 [6:32]
Michael Korstick (piano)
rec. 2014-17, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne
CPO 555 163-2 [63:54]

A quote from Presto Record Distributors concerning another disc that includes a work by Kabalevsky says: “Dmitry Kabalevsky – despite the vague name recognition a widely unknown composer of socialist-realist music – has rightly been forgotten, if only because of his actively unsavory, toadying, opportunist politics that netted him three Stalin Prizes and four Orders of Lenin. He was chummy with the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians when that seemed expedient and later a very active member of the Union of Soviet Composers.” The vitriol encompassed in that paragraph is not only undeserved. It demonstrates that the writer is less concerned with the music than the politics of the composer. This is an unusual way of writing up a disc the distributors wish to popularise since it is not calculated to drum up many sales. What it does do it seems to me is to transform him or herself into the very same type of vehicle that lead to the creation of ‘socialist realism’ in the first place and that curtailed the careers of so many genuinely good composers due to their ‘questionable politics’. Looking at the spelling of ‘unsavory’ it is clear the writer is American which perhaps explains the attitude. In Europe, at least, Kabalevsky was well known and well respected for his massive contribution to music for children. As I say there is no mention of his music in the writer’s comments so by extension we could say that Richard Strauss should be forgotten for similar reasons or Wagner for the ideas that so enthralled Hitler who considered him the greatest German composer and his personal favourite. Bruckner was another Hitler favourite and Herbert von Karajan joined the Nazi party to help further his career as did Karl Böhm and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf; what are we to say about all of them? Then there were Joaquin Turina, Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Rodrigo, each of whom reached an accommodation with Franco’s fascist Spain, as did Ottorino Respighi and Gian-Francesco Malipiero in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, so what of them? Are we to dismiss the gorgeous Concierto de Aranjuez because of Rodrigo’s links with Franco fascism or to reject Strauss’s Four Last Songs? Daniel Barenboim takes a much more artistically driven argument that enables him to programme Wagner’s music in Israel (despite its government’s antagonistic attitude to both composer and performer) and so should we all; ‘art for art’s sake’ is certainly applicable once the art has been created, even if guiding in a certain direction or away from another might have seemed desirable beforehand.

Along with Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian, Kabalevsky is considered one of the “Great Four” of Soviet music, a position that immediately brings into question the anti-Kabalevsky stance taken by the previously quoted critic. I enjoy much of Kabalevsky’s music and I can assure those, especially piano music lovers, who have not heard the works on this disc that they will find much to admire here.

The writer of the booklet accompanying this release points out that the piano sonata does not feature often in the Russian piano tradition, citing Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich as having penned but two each, while Scriabin wrote 10 and Prokofiev and Miaskovsky 9 each, making the three of them notable exceptions. It will doubtless have been Miaskovsky’s influence that had Kabalevsky write any. As Kabalevsky’s teacher, Miaskovsky also convinced him to try his hand at the larger forms he was better known for.

Booklet writer Charles Tomicik finds similarities and influences of Scriabin in the first movement of the first sonata, written in 1927, and of Rachmaninov in the second. While there are echoes of Rachmaninov again in the third and final movement, for the majority of it Kabalevsky establishes his own voice using shades of the folk song Ey ukhnem better known as The Song of the Volga Boatmen around which he improvises on the first four notes. Though not the case here, critics often look disparagingly at composers who draw inspiration or influence from others but it is both natural and beneficial that composers draw upon the rich resources that have gone before them; heaven knows what music would sound like if composers resolutely rejected any influence from the past (if indeed that were possible) but I suspect it would be artificial, not to say tedious in the extreme. Society as a whole builds upon the experience of the past, learning from it, improving on it where possible, rejecting the worst; not that it always gets it right, far from it, but it is a necessary process.

As an answer to the aforementioned critic who seemed to rubbish Kabalevsky for political rather than musicological reasons, it is pertinent to quote Tomicik who writes of this sonata: “Taken as a whole, this ambitious first work in large form by a young (23 year old) student of piano and composition is more than respectable. It already shows all the strengths and weaknesses of the future ‘state composer’: sovereign mastery of form, an exquisite talent for melodic invention and skilful dramaturgy, attractive writing for the instrument, as well as stylistic ambiguity and dependence on models by other composers bordering on plagiarism.” Despite the final words, Tomicik’s description of Kabalevsky shows he considers the composer a more than competent one who writes music that excites and pleases in equal measure. Tomicik also points out that one of the principal reasons as to why the first sonata has not established itself in the repertoire of many pianists is the failure of many of those who have recorded it to manage to adhere to the “composer’s extremely fast metronome markings for the outer movements (which, admittedly are extremely difficult to execute), and this results in falsification of their musical character”. I hope that the present recording helps redress that situation, for there is no doubt that Korstick nails it with a reading that brings out all the elements that Tomicik mentions, making a cogent argument in the sonata’s favour.

Following almost twenty years later with the second sonata, Kabalevsky this time takes more than a few leaves out of Prokofiev’s book, coming hot on the heels of the latter’s 8th sonata. Tomicik says that it could have been this sonata that gave rise to the comment by Heinrich Neuhaus that Kabalevsky was “the poor man’s Prokofiev”, a comment that caused lasting damage to Kabalevsky’s reputation. Though it was a backhanded compliment, it was a compliment nevertheless since being compared with Prokofiev even in that way is no mean feat, even if it does imply lesser achievement. Drawing inspiration and influences from Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov Kabalevsky creates a sonata that despite its “disturbing closeness to Prokofiev’s style” with “similarities to the central movement of the latter’s Eighth Sonata (that) are just too obvious” shows the composer’s ability to write music that is “very original and quite beautiful”. In addition he shows himself to be “a true connoisseur of the possibilities of the piano” and as Tomicik concludes if the listener can ignore the obvious nature of Kabalevsky’s sonata’s closeness to Prokofiev’s sonata they are “rewarded with a beautifully melancholic landscape painting and gorgeous sonorities”. I agree that the best way to enjoy the music is to clear your mind from trying to identify the hand of the greater composer and simply allow the music to work its magic, which it undoubtedly does. That central movement was a pause between the more demonic outer movements. When it comes to the final rondo movement again there are similarities to both Prokofiev’s sixth and eighth sonatas but despite this as Tomicik says the listener comes to the realisation that Kabalevsky has managed to write “a great piece of music” concluding that he “arrives at a recognisable personal style”. His former teacher Miaskovsky wrote appreciatively of it expressing his opinion that “By playing it oneself one arrives at a much better understanding of the individuality of the musical language and the fascinating approach”. Receiving a compliment like that from a composer held in such esteem as Miaskovsky certainly was must have done Kabalevsky a power of good, and deservedly so. This last movement also requires matching Kabalevsky’s metronome markings, once again testing the pianist’s ability to play at breakneck speed which fortunately Korstick can do with apparent ease.

The Third piano Sonata in F major, op.46 seems somewhat lightweight next to its siblings. Its date of completion, 1945, bears comparison with Prokofiev’s ninth piano sonata and Shostakovich’s ninth symphony which so disappointed the authorities who had expected a much more serious symphony that exemplified the Soviet army’s victory over Nazi Germany rather than what they considered to be a gay and frivolous offering. The public, however, take a different view. Just as Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s ninths were favourably received and soon found their way into the repertoire of pianists and orchestras alike, Kabalevsky’s third piano sonata was taken up by pianists like Yakov Zak who premièred it, and subsequently by Vladimir Horowitz and Benno Moiseivitch among others. By this stage Kabalevsky had established his own style. While this third sonata still has the motoric energy that identifies Prokofiev’s war sonatas, it has plenty of original ideas that help make it a thoroughly original work that has the heart pounding and the jaw dropping at the fearsome energy that has to be shown by the pianist.

The disc is completed by Kabalevsky’s Rondo, op. 59 and Recitative and Rondo, op. 84. It is interesting to read that the first piece was commissioned by the authorities to be the compulsory work to be prepared by the candidates for the 1st International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. By choosing Kabalevsky to write it, the Soviet musical establishment hoped to showcase what they considered (with more than a little justification) the superiority of the “Russian piano school” and its representatives. The rondo is certainly a tour de force in its conception and execution, so it must have come as a terrible shock to the regime when by unanimous agreement the jury chose of all people the 23-year-old Texan Van Cliburn as winner. Khrushchev is said to have asked whether he really deserved the prize; when told that he did, Khrushchev resignedly retorted “Then give it to him!” It is hard to understand why such an exciting piece should, after the competition fall into oblivion. That is why this disc is so enjoyable. I really hope that Korstick having helped rescue it encourages others to consider recording it and playing it in recital.

Another piece that adds weight to the idea that the Soviet Union trained more than one generation of great pianists is the Recitative and Rondo, op. 84. Kabalevsky wrote it for another competition that bears his name, a youth competition in the town of Kuibishev at the confluence of the Volga and Samara rivers (renamed Samara in 1990). The piece is preceded by two lines from the poem Twenty Years by Mikhail Svetlov: Two generations met face to face and greeted each other like old friends. Explaining the nature of the piece the composer wrote “The idea has determined the contrasts in the content and form and, consequently, in the interpretation. The Recitative, serious to the point of austerity, is offset by the uninterrupted driving motion of the Rondo. To give expression to this contrast, to sense the images of the two generations and to combine them in the joyful coda – this is the task of the performer”. As we have now seen in the other works, Kabalevsky’s metronome markings demand exceptional dexterity when it comes to darting up and down the keyboard in the Rondo while by contrast the Recitative calls for long flowing lines played in the gentlest of fashions, allowing for the contrast between the two to make an indelible impression while truly testing the performer’s ability. I imagine any young pianist who could bring this piece off successfully should have a great career ahead of them.

Charles Tomicik concludes his notes by writing that while Kabalevsky’s sonatas and rondos arguably do not belong to the “canon of the 20th century’s greatest masterworks they are, nevertheless, interesting documents of the times of their creation...” a comment I consider as damning with faint praise, especially when he adds “...and they are extremely attractive virtuoso works of greatest craftsmanship which are highly rewarding for the listener, not least because they are literally custom-tailored to the instrument”. It is almost as if at times he has also fallen into the trap of being reluctant to give Kabalevsky credit where it is due unless he counterpoises it with a somewhat disparaging comment. Music should not be brought down to the level at which we are encouraged to mark each work in terms of merit alongside others placing this work above or below that one, since it robs us of the chance of judging on its own merit. When these works are taken in that context they are more than worthy of a listen but give lasting enjoyment especially in the hands of a pianist of such fantastic ability of Michael Korstick. I consider the disc as a real gem that should delight all lovers of solo piano music and urge readers to discover that for themselves.

Steve Arloff



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