KABALEVSKY: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
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Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky (1904-1987)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
An equivocal figure in Russian music of the Soviet era,Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky was born in StPetersburg on 30th December 1904. He studied at theMoscow Conservatory with both Nicolay Myaskovskyand Alexander Goldenweiser, graduating incomposition (1929) then piano (1930), and wasappointed a senior lecturer in 1932 and a full professorin 1939. Riding out the ideological storm of the 1920s asa member of both the progressive Association of SovietMusicians and the 'conservative' Russian Associationof Proletarian Musicians, he found his mature style inthe following decade, notably through two works whichachieved international success: the Second Symphony(1934), championed by conductors such as ArturoToscanini and Malcolm Sargent, evinces the drama andlyricism that Prokofiev made central to his music onreturning to the Soviet Union; the opera ColasBreugnon (1938), based on the novel by RomainRolland, combines Western European neo-Classicismand stylized Russian folk-music to potent dramaticeffect.
Although his suite The Comedians (1940) hasenjoyed a lasting popularity, and his work for the theatreand cinema gained an official approval such that he wasone of the few significant Soviet composers not to becensored by the notorious 'Zhdanov Decree' of 1948(though some commentators believe he only avoidedbeing blacklisted by persuading officials to substituteMyaskovsky's name for his own), Kabalevsky wasunable to sustain a comparable level of success in hismusic of the post-war era. His later operas failed to holdthe Soviet stage, and though certain piano works,notably the Second and Third Piano Sonatas (1945 and1946), and the 24 Preludes (1944), have remained at theperiphery of the modern repertoire, his greatest successwas with such works as the Cello Sonata (1962) and theSecond Cello Concerto (1964), whose often broodingand introspective manner feel essentially at odds withthe r??le of the dutiful citizen to which Kabalevskyaspired as a Soviet artist, and that led him openly tocriticize those younger colleagues who pursued a moreexperimental path in the 1960s and 1970s.
Seen from this perspective, Kabalevsky's mostlasting achievement was in the field of music education,notably his development in later years of a programmefor music in schools which, along with his piano andchoral output for children and young people, offerssimilarities with the didactic activities of oldercontemporaries such as Zoltan Kodaly and Carl Orff.
Save for some elegiac song-cycles and a Fourth PianoConcerto, he completed few significant works in thedecade prior to his death in Moscow on 14th February1987.
Although he composed four symphonies, as well asovertures, tone poems and suites, Kabalevsky'ssequence of concertos, four for piano, two for cello andone for violin, rank as his most significant orchestralmusic. Written in a direct and generally accessiblemanner, they respect the strictures of Soviet musicalpolicy over the decades without being overly simplisticor meretricious. Indeed, the trilogy of 'YouthConcertos' (comprising that for violin of 1948, the firstfor cello of 1949 and the third for piano of 1952) is oneof the few instances of 'abstract' orchestral music tohave found official favour in the culturally fraught yearsprior to Stalin's death in 1953. Composed at,respectively, the time of the Soviet leader's accession topower and just before the climax of the 'Great Terror'aimed at purging all 'undesirable' elements from Sovietsociety, the first two piano concertos demonstrate therange of Kabalevsky's musical idiom during probablythe most eventful phase of his career.
The First Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 9, isamong Kabalevsky's earliest works. Written in 1928,and first given in Moscow on 11th December 1931 withthe composer as soloist, it briefly earned him the cachetof being Moscow's 'answer' to Shostakovich, who wasKabalevsky's junior by almost two years. WhileRachmaninov can be discerned in the melodic profileand orchestration, Prokofiev's Third Concerto, alreadyan international success, even though barely a decadeold, is a yet more potent influence on the musicalcontent.
The opening movement begins with a plaintivewoodwind melody, soon taken up by the soloist thenelaborated by the strings. A second theme for piano andstrings is more capricious, gaining in rhythmic urgencybefore the initially pensive development section builds,via some dexterous passagework for the soloist, to ashort-lived climax. The reprise ensues with anelaboration mainly of the first theme, leading to itsemotive restatement. This dies away for a coda which,though beginning quietly, ends with a brief but forcefulgesture. The halting theme that opens the slowmovement is passed between various wind instruments,before being taken up by the soloist and given moreexpressive treatment. There follows a series ofvariations, energetic, wistful, passionate, lively,subdued (albeit rising to the main climax) and fatalistic,before the return of the introduction to create asatisfying formal balance. Following without pause, thefinale begins with a quizzical gesture on woodwind,then the soloist bursts in with an insistent theme that iscomplemented by its poetic, slightly oriental-soundingsuccessor. Initiated by a brief cadenza, the developmentrhapsodically draws on both themes, which the reprisethen varies with intensifying effect. The soloist nowinitiates a lithe coda that brings the work to a decisiveclose.
The Second Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 23,was composed in 1935, and revised as late as 1973. Ithad its premi?¿re in Moscow on 12th May 1936.
Prokofiev is an even more pervasive presence, though,given the prevailing artistic climate when it was written,Kabalevsky is mindful to keep the harmonic dissonanceon a tight if flexible rein. The first movement openswith a lively and capering theme, its fleet successordealing mainly in rhythmic contrast. The developmentsection adopts a notably sardonic manner, suddenlyarriving at an expressive transformation of the secondtheme. This new-found mood is continued in anelaborate solo cadenza; then, after the climactic reemergenceof the orchestra, the movement closes with aquizzical recall of the first theme. Cor anglais and brassunfold a haunting theme that is to dominate the slowmovement. Taken up by piano and strings, then joinedby brass, it builds to a heavily chorded statement fromthe soloist, forcefully underlined by full orchestra,before a regretful close. It remains for the finale to wrapup the piece in decisive fashion, its headlong themetaking in a number of subsidiary ideas, none of whichcan disturb the prevailing rhythmic motion on the wayto a martial climax and a scintillating conclusion.Richard Whitehouse