Piano Concertos: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3,
Fantasy in F Minor after Schubert
Michael Korstick (pn); Alun Francis, cond; NDR Radio PO
CPO 777 658-2 (2 CDs: 116:08)
Among the principal Russian composers of the 20th century, Dmitri Kabalevsky was the Party man. I was astonished to read that in Zhdanov’s 1948 denunciation of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian(!), and others for being “formalist” and anti-nationalist, Kabalevsky’s name was removed from the list by the time it was published, to be replaced by that of the inoffensive Miaskovsky. Did Kabalevsky somehow affect the substitution of his old teacher on the hit list to protect himself? As Shostakovich’s music has outgrown the machinations that surrounded and frequently inspired it (as great art always will), it is equally possible these days to appreciate Kabalevsky while disregarding his political affiliations, interesting as they may be historically. (I recall an incident in the late 1970s when a young Russian pianist defected in Western Australia during a concert tour. The aged Kabalevsky was dispatched a few days later to try to talk him out of it. The Soviet
went home empty handed.)
Kabalevsky became known in the West on the basis of two orchestral works, the suite
and the overture to his opera
, and Horowitz’s recording of his Third Piano Sonata. Like the composers above he wrote his fair share of propagandist potboilers but, unlike Shostakovich, found it easy to simplify his basically optimistic style to produce music designed for young people, in line with official policy. His three so-called Youth concertos (Piano Concerto No. 3, Cello Concerto No. 1, and the Violin Concerto) are among his best works: tuneful, well crafted and succinct—not attributes to be dismissed lightly.
Michael Korstick and Alun Francis launch into the Third Concerto with gusto, emphasizing the Russian circus quality of the writing and giving the piece more backbone than usual. Kabalevsky was a virtuoso pianist, and a youthful firebrand named Vladimir Ashkenazy played the solo at its premiere. Korstick certainly has the facility to project the razzle-dazzle aspects of the work, and Francis ensures the first-rate NDR Orchestra is with him every step of the way. They are notably effective at the return of the big tune towards the end of the third movement: This Hollywood moment needs fearless attack and gets it in this performance.
The two earlier piano concertos are more elaborate affairs. The First begins gently with solo bassoon and clarinet, after which the piano quietly slips into the picture. A minor key tonality persists throughout its three movements, the second of which comprises a set of attractive variations. The subdued muse of the composer’s teacher Miaskovsky is much in evidence. As for the piano writing, it is a hybrid of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev but lacks the specific touches that give those masters their distinctive personality. Nevertheless, this is an appealing and unusual work for its time.
The Second (in its revised version of 1935) is a big public concerto in the approved Soviet format: energetic first movement, romantic second and joyful third. Kabalevsky begins
the Rachmaninoff Third with a simple piano theme in octaves over a string ostinato accompaniment, then builds to a second subject that is as fulsome a piece of pseudo-Tchaikovsky as the politburo could wish for. This in turn leads into a solo cadenza out of Prokofiev’s Second, and so on. However, despite the familiarity of its gestures the music never sounds stale, a tribute both to Kabalevsky’s technical skill and the memorability of his melodic ideas.
The Fourth Concerto of 1977/78 is subtitled “Prague” because it employs themes the composer jotted down on his travels to that city. This is a slighter affair, scored for piano and strings. Barry Brenesal (
30:6) describes it as “deliberately self-effacing” and finds nothing in the piece other than craftsmanship. I agree with him with regard to the third movement, which strikes me as pretty empty, but to quote from the liner note by Charles K. Tomicik: “If the piece is performed with drive and daring, it attains a sense of urgency and a hint of underlying anger which lends great affect to the sparse writing.” That is certainly how Korstick and Francis approach it, and once again their zest and commitment pay dividends.
The four concertos have also been recorded by Kathryn Stott and the BBC Philharmonic on two Chandos discs, conducted by Neeme Järvi (concertos 1 and 4) and Vassily Sinaisky (2 and 3). Stott is a cool, more brittle pianist. Her relative lightness makes the Third Concerto seem like a completely different work: an engaging divertissement. She is excellent in the First and Second concertos, is recorded beautifully, and has more substantial couplings including the Second Symphony, but I prefer Korstick’s greater vigor. All these works benefit from his hard sell, whereas Stott’s Fourth Concerto in particular is too pallid. As to Korstick’s couplings, they are certainly of interest if something less than masterpieces. The 1964 Rhapsody on a theme from one of the composer’s songs about the joy of Soviet school years is yet another work aimed at young people. It is fairly slight, but at 12 minutes does not outstay its welcome. (Just as an aside: did young people ever fall for this somewhat condescending stuff? They wouldn’t now! My own school years comprised equal parts joy, misery, and boredom. Admittedly I wasn’t educated under a repressive regime, though I thought it so at the time.)
The most substantial of the couplings is Kabalevsky’s transcription for piano and orchestra of Schubert’s F-Minor Fantasy for piano four-hands, written for Gilels. Kabalevsky turns Schubert’s melancholy work into a grand romantic concerto in the Tchaikovskian manner with soaring string lines, rhythmic climaxes supported by the snare drum, and so on. The biggest changes to the original take place in the finale, where Kabalevsky inserts a solo cadenza that quotes other keyboard works of Schubert. He also adds much felicitous orchestral counterpoint throughout. The transcription is neatly done and well worth hearing in Korstick’s robust performance. The result is hardly Schubertian but you can always go back to the original for that.
Korstick is an important pianist who has given us first-rate recordings of music off the beaten track, a series of Koechlin’s solo piano music, and the complete Milhaud works for piano and orchestra among them. His Kabalevsky is another such success, and another feather in the CPO cap. This set contains some very attractive music and is currently the best version available.