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Dmitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Complete Preludes
24 Préludes Op.38 (1943) [44:54]
6 Preludes and fugues Op.61 (1958-59) [18:19]
3 Preludes Op.1 (1925) [7:09]
4 Preludes Op.5 (1927) [5:33]
Michael Korstick (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln
CPO 555 272-2 [76:21]

In the emerging Kabalevsky series that CPO have embarked upon, Michael Kostick has started working his way through the piano music. He has received excellent reviews for his recordings of the works for piano and orchestra (CPO 777 658-2 review) and the Sonatas and Rondos (CPO 555 163-2 review) and I would refer readers to those for more background. This well-filled disc brings together the Preludes that Kabalevsky wrote over a 34-year period, beginning while he was a composition student of Georgy Catoire (1861-1926) and studying piano with the great Alexander Goldenweiser (1875-1961).

The first of his student preludes, listed as Op.1, were unpublished until 2014 and though they are a clearly influenced by Skriabin and Prokofiev they are well worth hearing. Early Skriabin inhabits the grandeur and lyrical yearning of the first whilst I am reminded of later Skriabin in the consecutive sevenths of the second. The last is a stark toccata. After the death of Catoire, Kabalevsky studied under Nikolai Myasovsky (1881-1950) in which time he wrote his Op.5 preludes. The influences are not so clear now and this is a concise little set of four. After the slow waltz of the first where the short melody is repeated in descending registers, we have a brief jazzy piece with a pentatonic feeling. The Romantic third prelude with its lilting, questioning melody and impassioned middle section is followed by an engaging dance that has the feeling of Medtner's Forgotten melodies.

The Preludes and fugues from the late fifties show Kabalevsky writing for the next generation of students. The fugues here are not entirely separate but grow naturally from the preludes and in first of the set the theme of the prelude returns to conclude the piece. To appeal to younger students, they have titles like Summer morning on the lawn, Becoming a Younger Pioneer or A feast of Labor. With some tricky writing – the tarantelle fugue of no. 2 for instance – these are not for beginners. They are all very tonal and were intended as a clear and approachable introduction to polyphony. In the introduction to these pieces, Kabalevsky gives a description of what a fugue and polyphony is and goes on to write detailed notes as to what each piece depicts. This is what he writes for the fourth, for example;  In the Young Pioneer Camp: “I don't think there is much to explain here: most of you have probably been at Young Pioneer summer camps and will easily hear in the Prelude and the fugue the sounds of the bugle, merry Pioneer songs and games”.

The largest set is Op.38, composed in the harsh, difficult climate of the Second World War. Kabalevsky was following a grand pianistic tradition with his set of 24 Preludes in every key – from Chopin and Alkan through to Skriabin and Shostakovich as well as less familiar collections from the likes of Stephen Heller, Walter Niemann, Felix Blumenfeld or Selim Palmgren, the concept has fired the imagination and produced some truly wonderful music. Yakov Flier was entrusted with the premiere and first recording (APR Recordings APR5665 Review). That these Preludes are not better known is surprising; there is a world of drama and passion, tenderness and violence, bitterness and joy within these pages. Admittedly, it is not a set for the faint of heart; Kabalevsky doesn't do anything by halves and many of these miniatures are fiendish in their demands. Take the 14th, prestissimo possible, with all of the challenge of Chopin's B flat minor Prelude and more. For a pianist, it must seem longer than its just-shy-of-two-minutes duration, yet even within the maelstrom of notes that are laid out before us, Kabalevsky introduces a delicate folk melody and this is the pervading theme of the set. All of the preludes are based on Russian folk melodies from the Rimsky-Korsakov collection - a sign of patriotism and of the inner strength of the Russian character, as well as demonstrating to the powers that be that his art, whilst being contemporary, acknowledged the rich vein of folk culture in his homeland. For me, the most touching in this respect is the opening C major prelude with its hints of Medtner. There is so much to enjoy here: the scintillating third prelude, quicksilver semiquavers over a left-hand melody, the phantasmagoria of the C sharp minor with its quick shifts of dynamic and mood. Kabalevsky's sense of humour is evident in many preludes like the merry bounce of number 9, the playful 11th, the 13th where the final theme from Stravinsky's Firebird creeps in unannounced or the 22nd where the changing time signatures and squashed semiquavers belie its simple melody and playful nature. The Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is echoed in the festive 21st prelude and the set closes in dramatic style with a clangourous prelude that gives way to a dark and dour march. Even the delicate world that this segues into cannot initially escape its relentless beat but the mood settles and, at the very last, reaches a gentle conclusion.

Michael Korstick is a pianist of immense talent. These works present no difficulty to him and he is fully attuned to the wealth of detail which lies within this music. His playing in the Op.38 set is at least the equal of Flier in his complete set or Horowitz in the selection of eight that he played in his Carnegie Hall recitals in 1947 (Sony Classical 8765484172). This is a disc of accomplished, exciting and idiomatic piano music that would grace any pianophile’s collection.

Rob Challinor

Editor's note

Though cpo describe this release as 'Complete Preludes' one of our readers, Jean-Paul Giraudet has pointed out that the album does not include the Four Preludes, Op 20 (1934) 

cpo reply

Dear friends, at the end of this review you mention that our album does not contain Kabalevsky's Four Preludes Op.20. This is correct and we have been aware of the fact. However, these pieces have never been published and the manuscript is unavailable. Michael Korstick's effort to gain access have been unsuccessful. We felt justified, therefore, to call this collection of Preludes "complete".

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