Korstick Tackles Kabalevsky

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KABALEVSKY: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3. Rondo, Op. 59. Recitative & Rondo, Op. 84 / Michael Korstick, pn / CPO 555 163-2

Dmitri Kabalevsky was considered one of the “big four” of Soviet-era composers, or to be more precise, Stalin-era composers, but whereas Shostakovich and Prokofiev wrote meaty and often great music, Kabalevsky, like Aram Khachaturian, tended to write kitschy tunes that pleased the Soviet musikbureau and the masses but not critics as a whole. During the 1940s, his Colas Breugnon Overture and second symphony had a strong vogue worldwide; even the generally retro-repertoire conductor Arturo Toscanini performed them in America, and the former became so popular that even the NBC Symphony musicians lampooned it in a private little concert for the Maestro, playing it on kazoos and toy instruments (which apparently suited it very well, because even the sober-sided Toscanini laughed uproariously at the parody).

The liner notes claim that except for Scriabin and Prokofiev, “the piano sonata does not play a major role in the history of Russian music.” But this list does not take into account the most important Russian composer of piano music in his day, expatriate Nikolai Medtner, who wrote seven numbered sonatas plus two unnumbered ones (Opp. 22 & 30), a Sonata-Ballade, a Marchen-Sonate, two Op. 53 sonatas (Sonata Romantica and Sonata Minacciosa) and a Sonata-Idylle. Perhaps Korstick can turn his attention to the great and underrated Medtner next.

I took a chance on this CD for one reason, and that is Michael Korstick, who I consider the greatest of all living pianists (you may have your favorite, but he’s mine), and anything he’s touched I have been deeply impressed with. He has also recorded this composer’s piano concerti, a disc I missed hearing, and here turns his attention to the sonatas.

The music, as I hear it, is more harmonically modern and imaginative than his overture or symphony in places, but still tied to Russian folk songs in its choice of themes (whether original or not, they sound like folk songs). Yet Kabalevsky presents us with a stronger, more serious side here…or is it Korstick’s interpretations? He has the knack of making everything he play sound great and important; although I heard a few passages here and there which sounded to me flashy and in a sense superfluous, but he plays them with seriousness and manages to tie them to the more interesting material; preceding and following them. The slow movement of the first sonata, for instance, is pleasant but to my ears contains little substance, yet he somehow finds a way to make it sound substantive. Like certain earlier piano masters, i.e. Schnabel, Fischer and Gould, he’s such a great artist that he can turn even slight works into fascinating listening.

The last movement of the first sonata, clearly the finest of the three, is complex and interesting, and here Korstick shows why he is so good. Clarity of texture and a way of binding the music to reveal its structure are combined with a personal intensity and integrity.

Though written much later than the first sonata, the second and third are not really an improvement but, to my ears, more populist in approach and less interesting harmonically. There is more in the way of tunes and flash here, and although the music is nicely structured it doesn’t say much to me. Yet again, listen to the way Korstick plays them! His sense of musical drama leads him to take these scores and drive them with an intensity that is thrilling. He almost makes the fast section of the first movement sound like Prokofiev, and that’s saying something. Once again, it’s the last movement of the Sonata No. 2 that is the meatiest, and he makes the most of it.

In the third sonata, the second movement is more interesting than the first, and Korstick plays it with an exceptionally fine legato as well as a way of stressing certain notes in the opening melody. Near the end of the movement, I heard a motif that sounded like Alberich’s curse music from Wagner’s Ring. The last movement is a sort of hyper-sounding march in which Korstick has a ball, bringing out the music’s quirky humor.

The rondos are much in the same vein as the last movement of the third sonata, but in some ways denser as well as pianistically quite challenging. Korstick romps through them with élan, relaxing the tension for the rather unexpected quiet sections.

In brief, if you like Kabalevsky you’ll truly enjoy this album…and if you like Michael Korstick, you’ll also appreciate it for the way he treats the music.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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