Darrell Ang Does Kabalevsky

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KABALEVSKY: Colas Breugnon Overture. Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2. Pathétique Overture / Malmö Symphony Orch.; Darrell Ang, cond / Naxos 8.573859

At a time when Shostakovich and even Prokofiev were undergoing censorship by the Soviet regime, Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987) was their darling. The reason was that most of his music was in a tonal and often jolly style that Joltin’ Joe Stalin and his Cultural Commie Brigade liked and felt was uplifting to the downtrodden masses in the Soviet system.

The Colas Breugnon Overture was, of course, his biggest “hit.” Among others, it was picked up and played often by Arturo Toscanini with his NBC Symphony. Toscanini may have liked it, but his musicians thought so little of it that, one night, they picked up a bunch of toy instruments and played it for the Maestro as a joke, bursting paper bags in place of the drum beats. To his credit, Toscanini thought it was hysterically funny and laughed, not least because, for all the noises that kazoos, penny whistles and Jew’s harps made in the music, they still played it exactly in tempo and rhythm.

Ang’s performance of the overture is lively but lacks the razor-sharp precision of Toscanini (who doesn’t?). Revisiting it, I can see why the Italian conductor liked it: it’s mostly a rhythmic piece, built around rapid syncopated phrases with lots of orchestral color. It’s a good “pops” piece but by no means a great composition. I was least happy with the way Ang conducted the lyrical middle section, in which he introduced moments of rubato to drag the pace a bit.

Happily, the symphonies are much better music, and these are what I was interested in hearing. The first, from 1932, was dedicated to the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which almost automatically made it favorable in the eyes of Stalin and his thugs. The music is clearly in a late-Romantic vein but not mawkish, and does not engage in cheap effects. Kabalevsky’s themes are interesting, Russian-sounding without resorting to pseudo-pop music themes à la Tchaikovsky, but almost close to the music of Medtner, another late-Romantic but interesting Russian composer who was persona non grata because he fled to France in the early 1920s and stayed outside the system. Nor is it as simplistic as most of Rachmaninov’s large-scale compositions. The pounding timpani near the end of the first movement was an interesting touch, but Kabalevsky did not overdo it; it quickly recedes as the movement ends quietly, only to move with very little pause into the brisk, Prokofiev-like second movement with its driving rhythms spearheaded by trumpets and high strings. A Russian folk song is quoted as a theme and developed in the slower section. The tension then rebuilds through a faster variation on the Russian theme with some colorful orchestral effects, including the use of trumpets at a distance at 8:42. Only the fast coda seemed a little “cheap” to me, using the excuse to write a rather formulaic ending.

The second symphony is more abstract in its themes and construction, though using similar driving rhythms. This work was premiered on Christmas Day 1934 by expatriate Russian-born conductor Albert Coates during his puzzling return to the Soviet Union when he was doing very well for himself in London and America (he re-fled the Soviet Union in 1936, but was never able to really revive his career). This work, too, was championed by Toscanini, and is a much worthier piece of music than the overture. More Russian themes and strong motor rhythms make their appearance, but this time the development is much more complex if not any more adventurous harmonically. Here, Ang’s conducting is pretty much spot-on, bringing out several salient details in the orchestration and providing a good driving rhythm, though once again he melts in the second movement. Yet this movement is also well-developed, showing that Kabalevsky did have talent even if it was ideologically driven. The “Prestissimo scherzando” sounds a bit like Tchaikovsky if Tchaikovsky had lived about 15 years into the 20th century.

The Pathétique Overture from 1960 shows little advancement in Kabalevsky’s musical vocabulary. The innovations of Stravinsky, Bartók and others did not affect him at all. and even the liner notes admit that it lacks the spontaneity of his earlier works though it attests to his “professionalism.”

Sort of a mixed bag, then; two good works (the symphonies) sandwiched in between two rather “nothing” pieces. The recorded sound is uniformly excellent.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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