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Mark Sebastian Jordan
MusicWeb International, November 2008

Is there such a thing as karma? The case of Soviet composer Dmitry Kabalevsky certainly makes one wonder. In life, Kabalevsky played it safe, skillfully negotiating himself around the official condemnations that cut deeply into the careers and souls of his compatriots Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Such decrees by the powers-that-be even touched Aram Khachaturian, hardly anyone’s picture of a bold dissident. So, compared to them, Kabalevsky led a much more serene and successful life. But now that their struggles are known, Kabalevsky looks like a craven opportunist, calculating his value to the government and then sweetening it by writing ideologically praiseworthy works.

Well, what of it? If Kabalevsky committed the sin of not being a hero, he’s certainly paying for it now, dismissed as a lightweight laboring in the shadows of true geniuses. But doesn’t he at least deserve credit for being as good as he was? It seems to me that Kabalevsky figured himself out quite precisely: He was a lucid, talented composer with a gift for melody, and not a whole lot more. How many of us know ourselves well enough to make such an honest assessment?

The main item here is the winningly modest Piano Concerto No. 3, which Kabalevsky dedicated “to Soviet youth”. The three-movement work is melodic and attractive, with simplified piano writing to make it attractive for pedagogical purposes. Kabalevsky’s lucid reserve makes it a classical take on the mid-twentieth-century Russian style. Taiwanese pianist Hsin-Ni Liu plays the work with grace and style, neither trying to over-hype its modest dimensions nor underplaying its youthful high spirits. As pedagogical music goes, this is first-class, containing more than the passing echo of those Kabalevsky works which still hang around the fringes of the repertory, the Colas Bruegnon Overture and the suite The Comedians. The recorded sound is a little studio-bound here and throughout the program, but it is certainly passable.

As filler to the general program of Kabalevsky works, we hear the Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor by Rimsky-Korsakov next, a work I had never heard of, let alone heard, before this. It is in one-movement, built on one theme, but the sections give it a three-movement feel, with the first movement having a slow introduction. Rimsky was not a pianist, but, as his orchestrations show, he worked hard to master the sort of figurations which make his writing sound idiomatic for any instrument. And so it goes here, too. Though not flashy merely for showing off, there are considerably more virtuoso thrills here than in the Kabalevsky concerto, integrating the bravura of Liszt and Chopin into Rimsky’s familiar sound-world of fairy tales and exotic dreams. Considering that there’s no other concerted piano work that does this, it’s surprising that this piece isn’t more well-known. Liu, Yablonsky and Naxos deserve credit for drawing attention to it. Liu’s performance is broad and attractive. She finds alternately charming and feisty passages to show her mastery of the keyboard. The orchestral contribution is, however, a touch thin and tentative in places, particularly at the beginning. And when the violins play en masse, there is still a certain lack of body to their sound. Nonetheless, the piano is balanced well against the orchestral body.

Returning to Kabalevsky, we hear his piano and orchestra Rhapsody on the theme of his song “School Years”. The piece, written for use in a piano competition in 1964, is dedicated to “young musicians of the Volga region”. The song was evidently one of those best-years-of-our-lives, hail-the-alma-mater type numbers, and Kabalevsky’s variations on it are largely blue-skied and untroubled, eyeing the world from what the composer perceived as a child’s perspective. It’s all a bit too faux-naïve, really, if you think too much about it. But, as is so often the case with this composer, the work delights in the pure joy of melody, harmony and rhythm. While the world was careening through cold war anxiety, Kabalevsky chose to turn away from that vision and instead work with children, trying to make their world happier. One almost feels this undercurrent of seriousness emerge in the coda to the Rhapsody.

As further filler, we get Kabalevsky’s first major work, the Poem of Struggle from 1930, for chorus and orchestra. This is social-realist writing at its finest, which is to say from the top of the bottom-drawer. In trying to give Kabalevsky the benefit of the doubt, I’m willing to entertain the thought that perhaps he sincerely believed in the Russian Revolution, at least at this point in his life. But I suspect I won’t be the only one to falter when I see that this Naxos production, coming out of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with an all-Russian staff, chooses to close with a chorus singing, “Today in Dresden gunfire will sound / From rusty rooftops, and tomorrow / We will storm into Paris and Warsaw. / We will sail from London to New York / Under the banner of storms!”

Maybe Kabalevsky’s karma really has come home to roost.

Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, November 2008

The Russian Philharmonic plays with discipline and energy under their music director, Dmitry Yablonsky. …Hsin-Ni Liu’s playing is similarly bold in its dynamic contrasts, with less delicacy but more fire than Kathryn Stott’s. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Mike D. Brownell, July 2008

Kabalevsky was an interesting figure in that he was very active as a composer of large-scale concert works, but was also extremely active in the musical education of Russia’s children—much more so than virtually all of his many well-known contemporaries. The best way to contribute to this type of musical education is to ensure that young musicians have plenty of accessible repertoire. To that end, Kabalevsky wrote a great many works specifically for student players. This Naxos album features two of them: the Third Piano Concerto and the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra on the Theme of the Song “School Years.” While any student would be quite fortunate to have such works at their disposal, they are most definitely student works, and they sound like it. Technical bravura is kept to a minimum and musical interpretation needn’t go much further than making a march exciting. Still, fans of the composer will welcome this additional insight into his output. The album also contains another oddity of the repertoire: Rimsky-Korsakov’s piano concerto. Rimsky-Korsakov was a brilliant orchestrator—perhaps one of the best ever…he made great strides to learn how to write pianistically…from a performance perspective, all of the artists do the best that could be expected with the material they’re given. Liu’s playing is powerful and precise, though few challenges in musicality or technique are truly presented. The RPO performs admirably, staying out of the way of the piano when necessary.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2008

Dmitry Kabalevsky was a good servant of the Soviet Communist party, acting as its spokesman on musical policy, and composing works that would please their dictates. His detractors would describe his considerable output as watered-drown Prokofiev, though to many of today’s concert-goers that would be a positive recommendation. In unguarded moments I can sit back and enjoy his Third Piano Concerto, ‘Dedicated to Soviet Youth’. Yet to think that this clone of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov was still being composed in 1952 shows the extent to which Kabalevsky had become divorced from music in the free world. He was a pedlar of pleasing tunes that he strung together to form the conventional three movement structure, the central movement suitably creamy in texture. It was a style that was more at home in his Rhapsody for piano and orchestra dating from 1964, a happy and amiable score picturing his own childhood. Ending this Kabalevsky sector we have the moribund Poem of Struggle, a fatuous piecefor chorus and orchestra, that must have delighted the party hacks. Though Rimsky-Korsakov’s charming Piano Concerto may not have been among his finest creations, I hope this excellently played performance from Hsin-Ni Liu will be rescued and placed in more suitable surroundings. Born in Taipei in 1980, but musically educated in the United States, she has a formidable technique, and does everything possible to elevate the status of Kabalevsky’s music with some dazzling fingers and plenty of power. The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra is in robust form under Dmitry Yablonsky, and the recording quality is a cut above the average. Certainly if Kabalevsky is to your taste, this is one not to miss.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, June 2008

Here is an inexpensive collection of three works by Kabalevsky and one by Rimsky-Korsakov. The Kabalevsky Third Piano Concerto, dedicated to Soviet Youth, is well enough known. It is carefree, catchy, neatly romantic and wonderfully memorable. Hsin-Ni Liu despatches its 18:45 in machine-gun exuberance in the outer movements and in delicate pastels in the central Andante. From a dozen years after the Third Concerto comes Kabalevsky’s Rhapsody on the theme of the song School Years. It is dedicated to the Young Musicians of the Volga region. Like the much recorded Third Concerto it makes clever, sparkling and playful use of the woodwind.

The short Rimsky-Korsakov Concerto in one movement is pearly and has the tang of Borodin. The recording allows us to hear the key-click mechanisms of the woodwind soloists’ instruments. The performances are spot-on and seem well prepared yet not drilled to death.

Moving away from the concerto aspect of the disc the sequence ends with a final patriotic and dramatic gesture. Kabalevsky’s Poem of Struggle takes us back all the way to the 1930s; it is in fact his first major work. The text which appears in the last segment is bloodcurdlingly acquisitive with the international Revolution being taken to Berlin, Dresden, Paris and Warsaw…and then the Far East. It’s a fascinating novelty which speaks with the burning, fearsome and ruthless ardour of its Soviet times. The rushing militaristic writing is directly redolent of Myaskovsky’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies: the Red Flag whips in the wind of violent change. The piece is alive with the concatenating strenuous uproar of trumpet fanfares and tramping militia. The choir exude the fervour of the words which are printed in English but not in transliterated Russian.

Short playing time for which you have the compensation of three works for piano and orchestra. Add to this a very rare early Kabalevsky piece from the youthfully aggressive first maturity of the Soviet Union.

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