Kabalevsky: Complete Symphonies / Oue, Northwest German Rso, Et Al

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KABALEVSY Symphonies: No. 1 in c?; No. 2 in c; No. 3 in b?, “Requiem for Lenin”; No. 4 in c Eiji Oue, cond; Hungarian RCh; North German RP & Ch cpo 999 833 (2 CDs: 103: 38 Text and Translation)

When Bernard Haitink recorded the Shostakovich symphonies for Decca, many who had first learned these works from Mravinsky and Kondrashin felt that perhaps too much was lost in taming these works. While admiring the increased sensitivity to nuance and the glimpses into the tragic depths, we were disappointed in how the irony, wit, and ferocity, like the trumpet parts, had been muted. Of course, preferences aside, Haitink’s interpretive approach, along with the still unresolved dissident subtexts controversy succeeded in changing the way we perceived Shostakovich’s music. It worked because the qualities that subtlety and greater introspection can reveal were actually present in the music. Despite Eiji Oue’s labors to change opinions regarding this composer, I’m not sure the same can be said of the symphonies of Dmitri Kabalevsky.

This assessment has little to do with politics, though I can only imagine that what Kabalevsky chose to write had a lot to do with his. The extensive booklet notes by Christoph Schlüren mount a spirited defense of “bad guy” Kabalevsky, arguing he was charming, got on well with students, was popular with audiences, but was the victim of unfair protectionist Western critics (“puissant ‘opinionists’”) and assaults by “paranoid American moral arbiters.” He minimizes Kabalevsky’s involvement in the 1936 attack on Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as a matter of “infinite shades of gray,” stating further that there is no “incontrovertible proof” and therefore “innocent until proven guilty applies.” I am not convinced that any of these arguments are relevant to an assessment of ability. More to the point is a quote—as Dr. Schlüren eventually accedes that Kabalevsky was a willing functionary of a despotic system—from Fred Priesberg’s Lexicon of New Music (1958). “He was the only significant composer of the Soviet Union who never, not even in 1948, had to endure an official rebuke.” Why? Not because of talent superior to those, like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, who did. Out of conviction or cravenness, Dmitri Kabalevsky wrote musically reactionary populist symphonies extolling the virtues of the Communist state, the essential shallowness of which is confirmed right here in Oue’s earnest efforts to find more significance and depth. There is virtually none. Like Kabelevsky’s most popular works, The Comedians , the overture to Colas Breugnon , and the various concertos, the symphonies—or most of them—respond well to flashy, expressively volatile treatment that emphasizes their surface attractiveness. Unlike Shostakovich’s symphonies, they seldom reveal more when treated with greater respect.

That is the essential weakness of this release. Though he works with a plainly inferior orchestra, Loris Tjeknavorian’s (ASV 1032) intensely emotional, rhythmically thrusting accounts better represent Symphonies 1 and 2 than Oue’s more polished, restrained, and thoughtful ones. So, to a lesser degree, does Jarvi’s high-speed, technically proficient performance of the Second on Chandos (10384), and for much the same reason. Clearly, both know the strengths and limitations of the idiom and recognize the essential entertainment value of the works. Tellingly, the performance that comes off best in the cpo set is this world premiere recording of the Third, “Requiem for Lenin.” The solid, uncomplicated writing and almost religious solemnity respond well to Oue’s dark, serious treatment. After the heroic opening movement depicting Lenin’s career, it is—if one can ignore the overwrought text and the honoree—a stirring funeral cantata conveying sincere sorrow and insupportable sense of loss.

The Fourth is Kabalevsky’s most traditionally structured symphony and is less self-consciously brilliant than the first two. Schlüren suggests an autobiographical meaning, and there certainly seems to be an emotional connection here that is missing in the first two works. The symphony is based on themes from the opera The Family of Taras , which deals with heroic Soviet workers who fight and die to defend the Ukraine against the Nazi occupation. It would be churlish to dismiss this as mere propaganda, especially the intensely felt Largo, when one considers the impact this war had on all Soviet citizens. There is genuine poignancy here, and the funeral cortege near the end of the movement is heartbreaking, even if, here and elsewhere in the work, it is clear that Kabalevsky had been listening to Prokofiev’s music. The last two movements, however, take us back to the old Soviet Realist, though perhaps a rather sadder one. Once again, the material is better served by a more overt performance, such as that Kabalevsky led with the Leningrad Philharmonic (Olympia–OP) soon after the 1956 premiere. Oue’s restrained and weighty celebrations again leave us too much time to notice the seams and predictability.

So, am I suggesting that you pass over this release? Not if you are still interested in the work of this composer. It is currently the only way to hear his Third and Fourth Symphonies, and Oue does provide a reasonable sense of both. You will need to supplement it with the ASV recording to get the best case made for the value of the first two. The notes are extensive and informative, even if I can’t agree with all of the points or conclusions. The orchestra is only occasionally strained by the technical demands. The fine Hungarian chorus simulates sorrow for Lenin convincingly. The recorded sound is warm and refined. The choice is yours.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 999833-2

  • UPC: 761203983322

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Dmitri Kabalevsky

  • Conductor: Eiji Oue

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Hungarian Radio Chorus, Northwest German Radio Chorus, Northwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra