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8.570822 - KABALEVSKY, D.: Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas (Complete) (Dossin)

Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky (1904–1987)
Piano Sonatas


Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky was born in St Petersburg on 30 December 1904. Having studied at the Moscow Conservatory with both Nicolay Myaskovsky and Alexander Goldenweiser, graduating in composition (1929) then piano (1930), he was appointed a senior lecturer there in 1932 and made a full professor seven years later. Riding out the 1920s ideological ferment 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 through two works which achieved an international success. The Second Symphony (1934), championed by Arturo Toscanini and Malcolm Sargent among others, evinces a drama and lyricism such as Prokofiev made central to his music on returning to the Soviet Union, while the opera Colas Breugnon (1938), based on the satiric novel by Romain Rolland, combines Western European neo-Classicism and Russian folk-music to potent dramatic effect.

Although his suite The Comedians (1940) has enjoyed lasting popularity, and his work in the theatre and cinema gained official approval so that he was among the few notable Soviet composers not to be censored by the notorious Zhdanov Decree of 1948 (though some commentators believe he avoided being blacklisted by persuading officials to substitute Myaskovsky’s name for his own), Kabalevsky was unable to maintain comparable success in his music of the 1950s and 1960s. His later operas failed to hold the Soviet stage, and though certain piano works have remained near the periphery of the modern repertoire, his greatest success was with such compositions as the Cello Sonata (1962) and the Second Cello Concerto (1964), works whose often introspective manner is essentially at odds with the rôle of the dutiful citizen to which Kabalevsky aspired as a Soviet artist, and which led him to criticize younger colleagues who pursued a more experimental path during the 1960s and 1970s.

Kabalevsky’s most lasting achievement was probably in the field of music education—notably with the developing in his later years of a systematic programme of music in schools which, together with his extensive piano and choral output for children and young people, offers many striking similarities with the didactic activities of such otherwise different contemporaries as Zoltán Kodály and Carl Orff. Apart from the Fourth Piano Concerto and several overly elegiac song-cycles, he completed only a few original compositions during the period prior to his death in Moscow on 14 February 1987.

Abstract instrumental pieces feature prominently in Kabalevsky’s earlier years, with the piano sonatas giving a good (though by no means inclusive) account of his development over two decades. Not the least of their attractions is the acuity with which they reflect the spirit of the time without venturing into overtly radical or inherently reactionary musical territory, and thereby enhancing the repertoires of pianists from both inside and outside the Soviet Union. Indeed, the last two sonatas have been championed by such contrasting pianists as Vladimir Horowitz and Benno Moiseiwitsch.

The First Sonata (1927) is among Kabalevsky’s earliest published works, with the influence of Prokofiev seldom far away. The first movement begins with a theme whose harmonic complexity is in contrast with its successor’s folk-like simplicity. The development uses both themes, reaching a notably rhetorical climax before heading to a modified reprise in which the second theme opens out into a brief but eventful coda. The slow movement begins with one of Kabalevsky’s most appealing ideas, melody and accompaniment distributed evenly between the two hands, which gains in emotional intensity before resuming its pensive course. There is a further climax, then a winding down to the wistful close. The finale starts in bravura fashion, though with a subsidiary theme that has overtones of French music from the period, before a passage of relative austerity presages a fugal treatment of the opening theme. After a modified reprise, the coda begins calmly but proceeds via ominous chords to the return of the main theme and on to a decisive close.

Along with the 24 Preludes immediately preceding it, the Second Sonata (1945) represents the peak of Kabalevsky’s writing for piano. The first movement begins with a strongly contrapuntal idea that is complemented by the suave but no less determined theme that follows. Dying away in the bass, this leads to a central section of forceful ostinato rhythms, reaching a culmination of considerable virtuosity at the height of which the reprise ensues. This time, the second theme is all but omitted to make way for a fateful coda. Taking its cue from this, the second movement opens in a mood of subdued melancholy over a somberly undulating bass. There is a more plaintive and open-textured central section that soon takes on greater eloquence, leading seamlessly into the initial music which this time builds to a climax of starkly repeated chords before the calmly fatalistic close. The finale banishes such introspection with a toccata-like drive such as the resolute second theme does little to dispel. The central span focuses on an elaboration of the latter, then the return of its predecessor ushers in a modified reprise which makes possible the surging dynamism of the closing pages.

Completed immediately afterwards, the Third Sonata (1946) could hardly provide a greater contrast. The first movement begins in a mood of Haydnesque equanimity that is continued by the capering second theme. A tensile development centres on the first of these themes, after which its successor is freely reprised on the way to a coda that unexpectedly tapers off into silence. The slow movement is pervaded by a calmly unfolding theme which is leant a certain gravitas by its methodical stepwise progression, for all that the central section introduces a degree of emotional anxiety which is leavened by a subtly elaborated return of the main theme and then thrown into relief by the inwardness of the coda. The finale once again dispels any such ambivalence with an agile theme that takes on greater character as it unfolds. The central section amasses real momentum, spilling over into a reprise of the initial idea and then a coda that steers the work towards its hectic conclusion.

In addition to the three sonatas, Kabalevsky also wrote two crisply neo-classical sonatinas that each provide a telling foil to his larger-scale symphonic works from the early 1930s. Thus in the notably brief First Sonatina (1930), the first movement pivots between its athletic and poetic themes with a telling poise and concision, before its successor unfolds in a mood of ruminative calm and with an unforced simplicity, while the finale recalls the opening with a polyphonic dexterity that is carried through to a breathless ending. The Second Sonatina (1933) is slightly more extended—the first movement highly resourceful in its imitative texture and laconic manner, then the central movement pursues a more relaxed but no less integrated discourse, while the bustling finale utilizes a whole range of contrapuntal devices on its way to an incisive close.

Richard Whitehouse

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