a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited by Fred Flaxman
©2002 by Fred Flaxman
"Controversial Comrade Kabalevsky"
MUSIC: Kabalevsky: Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra
[Olympia OCD593, track 6] [Down and under...]
MUSIC: [fades out]
FLAXMAN: Kabalevsky lived from 1904 to 1987. There are two reasons, I believe, for his utter neglect in the United States. The first is a matter of political correctness, as we would call it now. The second I call "musical correctness." But with the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and the demise of atonal elitism in the West, I think it's time to take a new look at this major 20th Century Russian composer, and a new listen to his music.
Kabalevsky was alleged to be a coward. He reportedly was seized by a trembling fear when the infamous, "historical" Communist Party decree of 1948 was issued, criticizing composers who didn't write for the common people. Kabalevsky expressed his gratitude towards the Party for opening his eyes to the errors of his ways, but he didn't have to alter his style at all, since his music was already very direct and accessible. In any case, people who knew him well maintained that it was not cowardice which motivated the composer, but a true, idealistic belief in communism.
By contrast, Kabalevsky's courageous teacher, Nikolai Miaskovsky [Mya-SKOV-skee], said the decree was not "historical," but "hysterical," a pun which evidently works as well in Russian as it does in English.
Coward or true believer, Kabalevsky wrote music which is undeniably fresh, delightful and fun. He sometimes made use of modern dissonances, as did Shostakovich [Shah-stuh-KOH-vihch], whose music Kabalevsky's sometimes resembles. But he was never drawn to radical musical language. And he was always a good tune smith and orchestrator. As a result, much of his music is immediately appealing to the audience for traditional classical, romantic-period compositions.
Kabalevsky's accessibility was looked down upon by the snobby, radical, musical elite of the West during his lifetime. But he was a big success in his own country, so Russian music lovers find it hard to understand why he is so ignored in the West.
Although I am not willing to claim that he is as important a composer as Rachmaninov [Rahkh-mah-nee-noff], Prokofiev [Pruh-COUGH-yef] or Shostakovich, I would like to point out several of Kabalevsky's compositions which I think deserve to be in the standard repertoire of symphony orchestras, more widely recorded, and in your CD collection. Many of these are available on the English CD label Olympia, which has issued a multi-volume set of Kabalevsky's compositions, some of them new pressings of original Russian analog recordings featuring the composer himself conducting.
The Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 48 was the first piece by Kabalevsky that I ever owned, back in the LP period. There are several CDs of this work available now. I have the Analekta recording with Angèle Dubeau, violin, and the Kiev Symphony Orchestra conducted by Igor Blazhkov [EE-gor BLASH-koff]. Despite the fact that this concerto was written in 1948, it sounds as though it were composed some half-century or more earlier. It is as romantic and tuneful as Tchaikovsky, and is sure to please the same audience. The two outer movements are arguably the happiest ever written for violin and orchestra, though who would want to argue the point? The middle movement is a melancholy contrast.
MUSIC: Kabalevsky: Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 48 [Analekta AN 2 8702, tracks 5, 6 and 7] [15:46]
FLAXMAN: Kabalevsky's Violin Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Opus 48. The violinist was Angèle Dubeau. Igor Blazhkov conducted the Kiev Symphony Orchestra on an Analekta compact disc.
Kabalevsky can be 100% 19th Century, as in this concerto, or he can be more dissonant and "modern," as in some of his chamber music and piano pieces. His symphonies, which fall somewhere in between, remind me, in part, of those by Howard Hanson, one 20th Century American composer who never went for atonal experiments either. There are some good tunes in Kabalevsky's symphonies and some exciting rhythms, but they are mixed, unfortunately, with moments which sound like uninspired film score excerpts. His cello concertos are also uneven, in my view.
Kabalevsky first attracted attention in the U.S. as the result of the overture to his opera Colas Breugnon. Arturo Toscanini conducted this brilliant showpiece all over the world in the 1940s and 50s. With its jazzy syncopation, this five-to-six-minute piece reminds me of the short overture Leonard Bernstein wrote much later for his musical Candide.
I have a 1994 all-digital recording of the Breugnon overture with the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Pletnev [Mee-khah-EEL PLET-ni-eff] on Deutsche Grammophon. It comes with several other highly attractive Russian overtures, including Glinka's energetic Ruslan and Ludmilla and Borodin's lively Prince Igor.
MUSIC: Kabalevsky: Colas Breugnon Overture [DGG D 106957, track 5] [5:31]
FLAXMAN: The Overture to Colas Breugnon by Dmitri Kabalevsky. The Russian National Orchestra was led by Mikhail Pletnev on a Deutsche Grammophon compact disc.
You are listening to Compact Discoveries. I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman.
FLAXMAN: Probably due to the repeated use of its gallop movement by circuses, Kabalevsky's most popular work today is his suite for orchestra, Op. 26, The Comedians. This is filled with catchy tunes from one end to the other, clothed in delightful marches, waltzes, intermezzi, pantomimes, gavottes and scherzos. If you like the Hary Janos Suite by Zoltán Kodály (which you should certainly add to your collection if it isn't there already), I think you'll appreciate The Comedians.
MUSIC: Kabalevsky: The Comedians, Op. 26 [Olympia OCD 593, tracks 7-16] [16:41]
FLAXMAN: The Comedians, Suite for Orchestra, Opus 26, by Dmitri Kabalevsky. The Russian Cinematographic Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Walter Mnatsakanov [VAL-ter Mn-at-sa-KAN-off] on an Olympia compact disc.
This all-digital recording starts with the Pathétique Overture, Op. 64, a melodious four-minute curtain-raiser. The second work is Kabalevsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 9, a pleasant enough piece, pastoral and romantic in mood, but one which lacks clear direction and inspired melodies. Unfortunately, at 33 minutes plus, it is the longest piece on the CD.
I much prefer the Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra on the theme of the song 'School Years,' Op. 75, a shorter piece which is also on this CD. I used a very short excerpt from the Rhapsody to open this program. The Rhapsody is based on a more interesting melody than the Piano Concerto, knows where it's going, and gets there professionally, both from the point of view of composition and performance.
But my favorite piece on the CD - and a true compact discovery for me - is a romantic, lyrical symphonic poem for orchestra called Spring, Op. 65. The eight-minute composition contains one of Kabalevsky's most beautiful melodies.
MUSIC: Kabalevsky: Spring, Op. 65 [Olympia OCD 593, track 5] [8:20]
FLAXMAN: Spring, a symphonic poem for orchestra, by Dmitri Kabalevsky. The Russian Cinematographic Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Walter Mnatsakanov.
MUSIC: excerpt from Kabalevsky's Rondo in A Minor, Op. 59 [Olympia OCD 267, track 1]
FLAXMAN [over the music]: I'm going to bring this hour to a close with an excerpt from Kabalevsky's Rondo in A Minor, Opus 59. Completed in 1958, it was written for the very first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. In this Olympia compact disc the performance is by the Scottish pianist, Murray McLachlan.
After listening to this program, I hope you'll agree that, coward or not, Comrade Kabalevsky deserves another hearing - this time a fair trial in an unbiased, apolitical, court of musical public opinion.
Thanks for listening to Compact Discoveries. Your comments are always welcome. E-mail me through my website: www.fredflaxman.com, where you'll find lots of Compact Discoveries articles. This program was written and produced by your guide, Fred Flaxman, and is a production of WXEL-FM, West Palm Beach, Florida.
MUSIC: [fades out at 58:00]
MUSIC: Villa-Lobos: excerpt from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 [EMI CDC 7 47433 2, track 1]
FLAXMAN: The Brazilian composer Hector Villa-Lobos was so prolific, you may need a guide to pick out his real gems. I volunteer! Join me, Fred Flaxman, next time for Compact Discoveries when our theme will be "Viva Villa-Lobos!"
TAG: [Sunday at 7 p.m. on 90.7, WXEL-FM.]
MUSIC: fade out at 30 seconds
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