Controversial Comrade Kabalevsky

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

There are two reasons, I believe, for the utter neglect of Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987) in the United States. The first is a matter of political correctness, as we would call it now. The second, "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, 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, whose music Kabalevsky's sometimes resembles. But he was never drawn to radical musical language. And he was always a good tunesmith 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, Prokofiev 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 been issuing a multi-volume set of Kabalevsky's compositions, some of them new pressings of original Russian analog recordings featuring the composer himself conducting.

Concertos and Symphonies

The "Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 48" was the first piece by Kabalevsky that I ever owned, back in the LP period. There are five CDs of this work available now. I have the Analekta recording (AN 2 8702) with Angèle Dubeau, violin, and the Kiev Symphony Orchestra conducted by Igor Blazhkov. 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.

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 filmscore excerpts. His cello concertos are also uneven, in my view.

The Overture to "Colas Breugnon"

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 on Deutsche Grammophon. It comes with several other worthwhile Russian overtures, including Glinka's energetic "Rusland and Ludmilla" and Borodin's lively "Prince Igor."

The complete three-act opera "Colas Breugnon" is available on Olympia CD (OCD 291 A+B) with the soloists, choir and orchestra of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Dantchenko Moscow Music Theatre conducted by Georgy Zhemchuzhin. Although it is interesting and well-performed and would make a good gift for the opera lover who has everything else, it was recorded in 1973, and the sound isn't very good. In any case, my favorite melodies are all in the overture.

The Comedians

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."

The new all-digital Olympia recording (OCD 593) 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 (just under 14 minutes) which is also on this CD. It is based on a more interesting melody, knows where it's going, and gets there professionally, both from the point of view of composition and performance. Anatoly Sheludiakov is the pianist in both compositions. The Russian Cinematographic Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Walter Mnatsakanov for the entire disc.

My favorite piece on the CD -- and a true compact discovery for me -- is a romantic, lyrical eight-minute symphonic poem for orchestra called "Spring, Op. 65." The eight-minute composition contains one of Kabalevsky's most beautiful melodies.

The Requiem

Kabalevsky's "Requiem, Op. 72," completed in 1963, like Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," which received its world premiere a year earlier, is a memorial to those who lost their lives during World War II. Also like Britten's work, it is not a religious work, but a secular one. The lyrics are based on a poem written for the piece by Robert Rozhdestvensky. Kabalevsky worked on his requiem for more than two years and wrote, "I have never spent more time or effort on any composition."

This may well be Kabalevsky's finest work. It is certainly his biggest concert score. The piece is highly dramatic and somewhat operatic, reminding me of the Verdi "Requiem," my favorite piece in that form. The Olympia CD (OCD 290 A+B) has acceptable sound from an analog original recorded in 1964. The composer himself conducts the Moscow Symphony Orchestra with Vladislav Sokolov directing the Choir of the Artistic Education Institute. Valentina Levko is the mezzo-soprano; Vladimir Valaitis, the baritone soloist.

The current Schwann Opus catalog of CDs in print doesn't list another recording of the Kabalevsky "Requiem." In fact, it doesn't list the Olympia CD either. But as I had no trouble obtaining a copy, I would ignore Opus, if I were you, and just try ordering this two-CD set from a store or mail-order house yourself. That is, if you share my passion for dramatic requiems.

When you listen to this work, I think 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.

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