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Dmitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Colas Breugnon,Overture Op.24 (1938) [4:51]
Symphony No.1 in C-sharp minor, Op.18 (1932) [18:49]
Symphony No. 2 in C-minor, Op.19 (1934) [23:14]
Overture Pathetique, Op. 64 [4:11]
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Darrell Ang
rec. 2017, Malmö Live, Malmö, Sweden.
NAXOS 8.573859 [51:31]

Dmitri Kabalevsky has always been popular in both Russia and the West, though not always for the same parts of his output. In the West he has been best known for pieces like the orchestral sections of his opera Colas Breugnon or the suite The Comedians. The symphonies have been less well-known, with the concertos somewhere in between. Perhaps even less popular have been his easy accommodation to the Soviet authorities and his questionable political behaviour towards his colleagues.

Politics are to the fore in Kabalevsky’s Symphony No. 1, written when the composer was in his late twenties. Dedicated to the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution, it is, somewhat predictably, in two movements - the first depicting the suffering of the Russian people under the Tsars and the second their liberation by the Revolution. The opening movement demonstrates imaginative development of the opening material, reminiscent of the composer’s teacher Miaskovsky (Kabalevesky had only recently graduated from the Moscow Conservatory). The mood is serious and the return of the movement’s opening material is very effective. The allegro second movement follows almost without a break from the first. Kabalevsky is frequently at his best in the slower sections of his pieces and the central section of this movement is no exception; the development is especially good, leading to the less impressive finale.

Two years later Kabalevsky produced his Symphony No. 2. It is a big advance over its predecessor - taut, fast-moving, and imaginative. It also has no programme. These factors made it popular in the West in mid-century and it was conducted by Toscanini (see link), Sargent, and Koussevitzky. The opening allegro movement has a great sense of urgency which is hardly ever extinguished and is ably contrasted with a lyrical second theme. The working out of these two themes is Kabalevsky at his best. The middle movement is sad, almost nostalgic, again reminding one of Miaskovsky. There are two central climaxes, the second somewhat dissonant, before a slightly agonized coda. The last movement has its serious moments but is to a great degree a headlong rush to the coda.

The Colas Breugnon Overture is Kabalevsky’s biggest “hit” and very well-known. More thoughtful is the Pathétique Overture, one of the composer’s last orchestral works and one of the best. These two works round out this disc and the overall effect is rather variable. Darrell Ang is a talented and prolific young conductor. I found his rendition of the Colas Breugnon Overture much too hurried and devoid of the lyricism found in the middle section of the overture. There is also a lack of contrast between the various sections of the Symphony No. 1. On the other hand, Ang makes a strong case for the Symphony No. 2, with great attention to orchestral detail and excellent tempi. Even better is the Pathétique Overture; indeed, this is the best recording I have heard of this piece. Part of the problem may be the sound quality; the usually strong sound of the Malmö Symphony is blunted on this disc and is slightly distant-sounding. At present the main alternatives to this disc, for the two symphonies, are the set of all four symphonies conducted by Eiji Oue (review) and the old disc by Loris Tjeknavorian. The latter holds perhaps the best performances but if Ang records the 3rd and 4th symphonies, with the same quality he brought to the 2nd that will probably make Ang the best way to go.

William Kreindler

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