Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky (1904-1987)
Violin Concerto in C major, Op. 48 (1948)
Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 77 (1964) *
Lydia Mordkovitch, violin
Scottish National Orchestra
Neeme Jarvi, conductor
Raphael Wallfisch, cello *
London Philharmonic Orchestra *
Bryden Thomson, conductor *
Recorded 1990, 1987 *
Chandos 10011 [46:10 - reissued 2002]
Overture to "Colas Breugnon", Op. 24 (1937)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 23 (1936, revised 1973) *
The Comedians, Op. 26 (1939)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D major, Op. 50 (1953) *
Kathryn Stott, piano *
Vassily Sinaisky, conductor
Chandos 10052 [61:45]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 9 (1928)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 23 (1936, rev. 1973)
In-Ju Bang, piano
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
Dmitry Yablonsky, conductor
Naxos 8.557683 [56:01]
Cello Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 49 (1948-49)
Cello Concerto No. 2, Op. 77 (1964)
Symphonic Poem: Spring(Vesna), Op. 65 (1960)
Alexander Rudin, cello
Moscow Symphony Orchestra
Igor Golovschin, conductor
Naxos 8.553788 [56:43]
Violin Concerto - Shaham/Pletnev/DG, Oistrakh/Kabalevsky/Classica D'Oro
Cello Concerto No. 2 - Shafran/Kabalevsky/Cello Classics
Dmitry Kabalevsky has not received very good press over the decades.
He is often referred to as a 'Soviet' composer, because he supported
the Soviet regime and even became a member of the Communist Party. While
Shostakovich and other Russian composers were dodging the oppressive arm
of the Soviet dictatorship, Kabalevsky embraced the arm and made a secure
spot for himself within the system. As the story goes, he even managed
to get his name taken off a list of unsavory composers in 1948 and
replaced it with the name of another composer. Other choice remarks
about Kabalevsky are that he was self-serving, sly, and opportunistic
to the extreme.
Of course, the above perceptions do not address Kabalevsky's musical
style or level of inspiration. However, these perceptions certainly
tend to lead to less than sterling opinions of his music. It is widely
thought that Kabalevsky churned out banal music in tribute to the
oppressive regime just to appease the authorities. As it currently
stands, both the man and his music are in the somewhat distasteful
category. Yet, some of Kabalevsky's music gets programmed and recorded
with regularity. It all goes to prove that good music can overcome the
low personality of its author, and Kabalevsky was definitely a fine
Listening to the recordings in the heading paints a fairly accurate
picture of Kabalevsky's musical style, artistry, and adherence to the
Soviet thought-system. Some of Kabalevsky's music does veer toward the
simplistic glorification of the Soviet dictatorship. The 3rd Movement
of the Violin Concerto is definitely in this vein, offering slap-happy
and mindless homage. At the other end are works such as the Cello
Concerto No. 2 that are rich in emotional depth and honesty of expression.
As I hear it, there are two ingredients that raise Kabalevsky's music
above the average middle period Soviet composer. One is his exceptional
gift for orchestration (particularly orchestral colours), and the other
is his ability to come up with a host of immediately fetching melodies
on just a moment's notice. Kabalevsky reminds me greatly of Mozart who
is the master of constant strings of fetching tunes, the main difference
between the two being that Mozart's melodies have true staying power.
Let's start off with the Chandos reissue of Kabalevsky's Violin Concerto
and Cello Concerto No. 2. The Violin Concerto is the most popular of
his works for solo instrument and orchestra; it's immediately likeable
with catchy melodies, soulful refrains, and exciting/tense virtuosity.
Although composed in the middle of the 20th century, the work hasn't a
trace of dissonance and harkens back to the heart of the Romantic era.
In the typical three movements, the 1st Movement Allegro molto e con
brio is high-octane music loaded with thrills and strong drive; the mood
is not gloomy but dominated by a soulful character. The 2nd Movement
Andante cantabile is in ABA form; the first section is in B flat minor
and has a warm and cantabile theme, while the second section in A major
offers enhanced vigor. In the return to the original cantabile theme,
Kabalevsky decorates the music with elegant scales and other embellishments.
These first two movements are quite attractive and do possess musical
substance, although their melodies are not particularly captivating.
The 3rd Movement Vivace giocoso is a bit of a disappointment with its
obvious slap-happy homage to the Soviet regime; given its minimal
substance, sound quality takes center stage.
In the Violin Concerto's discography, David Oistrakh is the dominant
and mandatory figure. Kabalevsky wrote the work for Oistrakh to play,
and his performance captures the colors and spirit of the music better
than any other on record. To her credit, Mordkovitch is not far behind;
she well identifies with the soulful 1st Movement, plays the 2nd Movement
beautifully, and engages in a wealth of tonal shading. Jarvi offers
expert support, driving his orchestra one minute and luxuriating the
next. With exceptional sound, this is a highly recommendable version.
I have included the Shaham/Pletnev recording for comparison solely as
an example of how not to play the work. Shaham's playing is rather
boring with little characterization or variety of tone, and the 2nd
Movement tempo is too fast to allow the music sufficient breathing room.
The Chandos coupling is Kabalevsky's Cello Concerto No. 2, a work that
I consider the composer's best and a must for Russian music enthusiasts.
Instead of the superficial utterances and glitter of the Violin Concerto,
Kabalevsky's Cello Concerto No. 2 offers an amalgam of mournful phrasing,
harrowing experiences, satiric wit, and tremendous tension and excitement.
These are real emotions that Kabalevsky is throwing our way, a rather
rare event in his musical repertoire. Particularly memorable are the
harrowing plucked strings of the 1st Movement and the satirical bite of
the alto sax in the 2nd Movement. However, be assured that every moment
of this 30 minute work is compelling.
Raphael Wallfisch and the late Bryden Thomson give us excellent
performances fully up to the Mordkovitch/Jarvi coupling. Thomson doesn't
get the greatest tension out of his orchestra, but the glorious Chandos
sound largely mitigates any deficit. Of course, the Shafran/Kabalevsky
collaboration is mandatory listening for the added terror it conveys,
but this historical recording can't possibly bring out the orchestral
colors as vividly as the Chandos.
Let's move along now to the two Kabalevsky Cello Concertos on Naxos
played by soloist Alexander Rudin with Igor Golovschin conducting the
Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Although the sound is somewhat constricted
in comparison to the Chandos version of Cello Concerto No. 2, Golovschin
offers greater tension than Thomson, and tension is one of the key
features of the work. There is also quite a difference between the
Chandos and Naxos couplings. As discussed earlier in the review, the
Violin Concerto is a flashy piece of music that sometimes gets lost in
banal declarations and surface glitter. In contrast, Kabalevsky's Cello
Concerto No. 1, written in the same year as his Violin Concerto, is a
rather soothing work without big climaxes although its 3rd Movement does
veer toward the flashy side of life. For my money, I'd select the Naxos
before the Chandos recording. The Naxos disc also offers the symphonic
poem "Vesna"; although a nice piece, I don't consider it of much
significance in choosing the Naxos.
That leaves two discs of Kabalevsky Piano Concertos, and again the choice
is between Chandos and Naxos which together cover all Kabalevsky's piano
concertos except for his 4th composed in 1972. Sad to say, the 1st and
3rd Piano Concertos have little to offer; each possesses little cohesion,
and the musical inspiration is rather low. I am not surprised with the
sub-par results for the very early Concerto No. 1, but the equally
deficient Concerto No. 3 baffles me. On the plus side, Concerto No.
2 is an excellent work: fetching melodies with musical arguments proceeding
in a natural manner.
The Chandos piano concertos disc gets the nod over the Naxos for
two reasons. First, the Chandos soundstage is fantastic and a "sonic
spectacular". Although detail is not as fine as in a typical SACD
recording, the expansiveness of the soundstage matches any SACD I have
heard; the Naxos sound is acceptable but a poor substitute for the
Chandos. Second, Vassily Sinaisky offers tremendous propulsion in the
outer movements of Piano Concerto No. 2. Listening to Yablonsky's
reading, you wouldn't know that there was any potential for strong drive;
in general, Yablonsky and excitement often don't merge. As for the
pianists, I didn't notice any strong differences.
1. The Cello Concerto No. 2 is a masterpiece. Kabalevsky's other
concertos are not.
2. With the above in mind, top honors among the four reviewed discs go
to the Naxos recording of Kabalevsky's two Cello Concertos. The Chandos
disc of Cello Concerto No. 2 and the Violin Concerto is not far behind
with excellent performances and sonics.
3. If the piano concerto is your favored genre, Chandos is the path to
take. In addition to better conducting and sonics than offered on the
Naxos disc, there's also the advantage of exceptional interpretations
of the two Chandos fillers - the Overture to Colas Breugnon and The
4. In the historical arena, Oistrakh and Shafran are the standards by
which all other performers are measured.
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