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8.557683 - KABALEVSKY: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
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Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky (1904-1987)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2

An equivocal figure in Russian music of the Soviet era, Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky was born in St Petersburg on 30th December 1904. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory with both Nicolay Myaskovsky and Alexander Goldenweiser, graduating in composition (1929) then piano (1930), and was appointed a senior lecturer in 1932 and a full professor in 1939. Riding out the ideological storm of the 1920s as a member of both the progressive Association of Soviet Musicians and the ‘conservative’ Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, he found his mature style in the following decade, notably through two works which achieved international success: the Second Symphony (1934), championed by conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and Malcolm Sargent, evinces the drama and lyricism that Prokofiev made central to his music on returning to the Soviet Union; the opera Colas Breugnon (1938), based on the novel by Romain Rolland, combines Western European neo-Classicism and stylized Russian folk-music to potent dramatic effect.

Although his suite The Comedians (1940) has enjoyed a lasting popularity, and his work for the theatre and cinema gained an official approval such that he was one of the few significant Soviet composers not to be censored by the notorious ‘Zhdanov Decree’ of 1948 (though some commentators believe he only avoided being blacklisted by persuading officials to substitute Myaskovsky’s name for his own), Kabalevsky was unable to sustain a comparable level of success in his music of the post-war era. His later operas failed to hold the Soviet stage, and though certain piano works, notably the Second and Third Piano Sonatas (1945 and 1946), and the 24 Preludes (1944), have remained at the periphery of the modern repertoire, his greatest success was with such works as the Cello Sonata (1962) and the Second Cello Concerto (1964), whose often brooding and introspective manner feel essentially at odds with the rôle of the dutiful citizen to which Kabalevsky aspired as a Soviet artist, and that led him openly to criticize those younger colleagues who pursued a more experimental path in the 1960s and 1970s.

Seen from this perspective, Kabalevsky’s most lasting achievement was in the field of music education, notably his development in later years of a programme for music in schools which, along with his piano and choral output for children and young people, offers similarities with the didactic activities of older contemporaries such as Zoltán Kodály and Carl Orff. Save for some elegiac song-cycles and a Fourth Piano Concerto, he completed few significant works in the decade prior to his death in Moscow on 14th February 1987.

Although he composed four symphonies, as well as overtures, tone poems and suites, Kabalevsky’s sequence of concertos, four for piano, two for cello and one for violin, rank as his most significant orchestral music. Written in a direct and generally accessible manner, they respect the strictures of Soviet musical policy over the decades without being overly simplistic or meretricious. Indeed, the trilogy of ‘Youth Concertos’ (comprising that for violin of 1948, the first for cello of 1949 and the third for piano of 1952) is one of the few instances of ‘abstract’ orchestral music to have found official favour in the culturally fraught years prior to Stalin’s death in 1953. Composed at, respectively, the time of the Soviet leader’s accession to power and just before the climax of the ‘Great Terror’ aimed at purging all ‘undesirable’ elements from Soviet society, the first two piano concertos demonstrate the range of Kabalevsky’s musical idiom during probably the most eventful phase of his career.

The First Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 9, is among Kabalevsky’s earliest works. Written in 1928, and first given in Moscow on 11th December 1931 with the composer as soloist, it briefly earned him the cachet of being Moscow’s ‘answer’ to Shostakovich, who was Kabalevsky’s junior by almost two years. While Rachmaninov can be discerned in the melodic profile and orchestration, Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, already an international success, even though barely a decade old, is a yet more potent influence on the musical content.

The opening movement begins with a plaintive woodwind melody, soon taken up by the soloist then elaborated by the strings. A second theme for piano and strings is more capricious, gaining in rhythmic urgency before the initially pensive development section builds, via some dexterous passagework for the soloist, to a short-lived climax. The reprise ensues with an elaboration mainly of the first theme, leading to its emotive restatement. This dies away for a coda which, though beginning quietly, ends with a brief but forceful gesture. The halting theme that opens the slow movement is passed between various wind instruments, before being taken up by the soloist and given more expressive treatment. There follows a series of variations, energetic, wistful, passionate, lively, subdued (albeit rising to the main climax) and fatalistic, before the return of the introduction to create a satisfying formal balance. Following without pause, the finale begins with a quizzical gesture on woodwind, then the soloist bursts in with an insistent theme that is complemented by its poetic, slightly oriental-sounding successor. Initiated by a brief cadenza, the development rhapsodically draws on both themes, which the reprise then varies with intensifying effect. The soloist now initiates a lithe coda that brings the work to a decisive close.

The Second Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 23, was composed in 1935, and revised as late as 1973. It had its première in Moscow on 12th May 1936. Prokofiev is an even more pervasive presence, though, given the prevailing artistic climate when it was written, Kabalevsky is mindful to keep the harmonic dissonance on a tight if flexible rein. The first movement opens with a lively and capering theme, its fleet successor dealing mainly in rhythmic contrast. The development section adopts a notably sardonic manner, suddenly arriving at an expressive transformation of the second theme. This new-found mood is continued in an elaborate solo cadenza; then, after the climactic reemergence of the orchestra, the movement closes with a quizzical recall of the first theme. Cor anglais and brass unfold a haunting theme that is to dominate the slow movement. Taken up by piano and strings, then joined by brass, it builds to a heavily chorded statement from the soloist, forcefully underlined by full orchestra, before a regretful close. It remains for the finale to wrap up the piece in decisive fashion, its headlong theme taking in a number of subsidiary ideas, none of which can disturb the prevailing rhythmic motion on the way to a martial climax and a scintillating conclusion.

Richard Whitehouse

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