September 13, 2012


Kabalevsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-4; Fantasy in F Minor after Schubert D940; Rhapsody on the Theme of the Song “School Years.” Michael Korstick, piano; NDR Radiophilharmonie Hanover conducted by Alun Francis. CPO. $33.99 (2 CDs).

Wolf-Ferrari: Concertinos for Oboe, Cor Anglais and Bassoon. Andrea Tenaglia, oboe; William Moriconi, cor anglais; Giuseppe Ciabocchi, bassoon; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. Naxos. $9.99.

Bizet: Orchestral Music—complete. Orquestra Filarmonica de México and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Enrique Bátiz. Brilliant Classics. $16.99 (3 CDs).

      These recordings offer fascinating chances to reappraise composers who, for political or musical reasons, are not usually seen in the lights highlighted here.  The political reasons apply to Dmitri Kabalevsky, the politically adept Soviet-era composer who managed to make peace with the vicious and stifling bureaucracy of Stalin’s dictatorship and to thrive in a system that caused tremendous hardship to Shostakovich, Prokofiev and many others – and brought death to some.  Kabalevsky cooperated fully with the “Socialist Realism” school of musical thought, in which works had to be readily accessible to all and supportive of Soviet ideals; he also headed or worked within various committees of apparatchiks that set policy and doled out punishments to the best writers, composers and other artists of the time.  For all these reasons, Kabalevsky’s own music has long been dismissed out of hand as propagandistic and superficial – including by many people who have never heard it.  This makes about as much sense as dismissing Wagner and Bruckner because the Nazis revered them; in fact, some people do just that.  But Kabalevsky’s ostracism hits somewhat closer to home, since his was not a towering genius and it is therefore fairly simple to relegate him to the realm of the second-rate Communist Party hack.  The truth, though, as shown in CPO’s excellent survey of his works for piano and orchestra, is far more nuanced and complicated.  Certainly Kabalevsky’s music is approachable, at times even naïve, in ways that make it less thorny and intense than the works of other Soviet-era composers; but these piano-and-orchestra works are scarcely without merit, and if simply heard on their own, stripped of historical and political associations – something that is easier to do 20-plus years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union – the pieces show excellent craftsmanship and a sturdy and altogether pleasant sensibility.  They are not great works, perhaps not even near-great, but they have much to recommend them and would, if programmed more often in concert, provide a pleasant alternative to the now-overplayed piano concertos of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and others.

     Kabalevsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, his longest, is a large-scale Romantic-style work that very clearly recalls Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev – in fact, Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 is the model for Kabalevsky’s middle, theme-and-variations movement, and Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 is something of a blueprint for Kabalevsky’s finale.  But the piano writing – Kabalevsky was a fine pianist – is attractively virtuosic, and if the overall effect of this work, which was first heard in 1931 with the composer at the piano, is of a throwback, it is a very well-made look in a rear-view mirror, filled with felicitous touches and fine piano writing.  Concerto No. 2, finished in 1935 and first played in 1936, continues to echo Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, but less strongly.  It has an especially complex and intriguingly constructed slow movement, which echoes both Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich but places Kabalevsky’s personal stamp on the material to which he refers.  Concerto No. 3, written in 1952 for young performers and dedicated “To Soviet Youth,” features memorable tunes, a finale with folklike elements, and considerable charm.  Concerto No. 4, composed in 1977-78 and first played in 1979, is also a “youth concerto,” but a very compressed one, its three movements lasting less than 13 minutes and featuring strong contrasts between lyricism and rather raucous dancelike tunes.  The Rhapsody on the Theme of the Song “School Years” shows Kabalevsky at his most Soviet: written in 1964, it provides well-crafted variations on a propaganda song that Kabalevsky had written in 1957 and that was very well-known in its time.  Despite the genesis of the tune, the variations are very well-crafted, including a siciliano, march, waltz and, near the end, some distinctively jazzy passages.  Also played here, in its world première recording, is a genuine oddity that shows both Kabalevsky’s compositional skill and the reason he was renowned for pedagogy.  The Fantasy in F Minor after Schubert D940 is largely a transcription, but where Kabalevsky chooses to change Schubert’s work, he does so to make it brighter, more optimistic and much less fragile: the Scherzo, for instance, is sturdy rather than, as in Schubert, subtle.  In this 1961 work, Kabalevsky makes some tempo changes and many alterations of emphasis, but – interestingly – leaves the resigned-sounding ending alone, although its pessimism is now at odds with what has come before rather than springing from it.  The erroneous timings in the CD booklet make it seem that Kabalevsky somehow lengthened the piece tremendously, to nearly 25 minutes; but in fact it runs fewer than 18 – the timings given for all three movements are, for some reason, way off.  Not especially notable on its own, this “rethinking” will be fascinating to anyone who knows Schubert’s original and wants to hear how Kabalevsky filtered it through Soviet sensibility of the mid-20th century.

     Reconsiderations of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and Georges Bizet involve musical forms rather than political issues.  Both composers are known for their operas – Wolf-Ferrari mainly for his notorious The Jewels of the Madonna and lighthearted The Secret of Susanna, Bizet of course for Carmen but also for Les Pécheurs de perles and La jolie fille de Perth.  Both composers wrote a number of operas that are rarely if ever heard: Wolf-Ferrari completed 13 in all, Bizet nine.  Neither composer is thought of as frequently working in purely instrumental forms.  But late in life, Wolf-Ferrari became focused on instrumental music and composed some very worthy pieces, including three wind concertinos.  All get very fine performances on a new Naxos CD; and all have a similar enough sound so that the Wolf-Ferrari style comes through clearly.  The oboe concertino, called Idillio, is in fact idyllic.  It is essentially a three-movement pastoral work, setting the soloist against an ensemble of strings and two horns; in fact, its brief Scherzo is reminiscent of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.  Even the slow movement is more dreamy than profound, somewhat melancholic but never depressive, and whatever clouds it brings are dispelled in the bright and lively finale. The work dates to 1932; a year later came what Wolf-Ferrari called a Suite-concertino for bassoon and the same small orchestra, once again offering a dreamlike and lyrical scenario throughout, withholding the comic and playful sound usually associated with the bassoon until the finale rondo.  And then in 1947, the year before his death, Wolf-Ferrari wrote a third concertino, this time featuring the cor anglais.  This work has some intriguing structural elements – for example, there is little dialogue between soloist and orchestra in the first movement but a great deal of it in the second, and Wolf-Ferrari’s operatic verismo roots show through in the third, which is marked Canzone.  Somewhat more intense than the other concertinos, the one for cor anglais nevertheless ends in a similarly upbeat way with a humorous rondo – although this one does have some dramatic elements as well.  The three pieces, taken together in this very well-played recording, show a side of Wolf-Ferrari that will expand the musical horizons of listeners who know him only through opera.

      Bizet’s non-operatic music, unlike Wolf-Ferrari’s, is mainly tied into his dramatic works.  Bizet did write two symphonies, the youthful and ever-fresh Symphony in C and a later, rather more ponderous and foursquare one called Roma.  Hearing the contrast between the two as played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Enrique Bátiz is an interesting experience: here is a situation in which Bizet’s later work did not improve on his earlier one – the opposite of the case with Carmen, which was his final opera and which stands far above his others.  The rest of Bizet’s orchestral music is offered by Brilliant Classics in performances by Bátiz with Orquestra Filarmonica de México.  There are only two Bizet orchestral works, other than the symphonies, that are not tied to the stage: the charming Jeux d’enfants, five short movements that the composer orchestrated from a 12-piece piano suite, and the tub-thumping Patrie Overture, written only a year before Carmen but without any of the opera’s subtlety.  Of the remaining Bizet orchestral works, the two well-known L’Arlésienne suites are taken from music for a play; the two even-better-known Carmen suites are of course from the opera; and then there are the prelude to Les Pécheurs de perles and a suite from La jolie fille de Perth.  That is all – music of variable quality and varying levels of interest, not all of it compiled by Bizet (the second L’Arlésienne suite was put together by the composer’s friend, Ernest Guiraud, after Bizet’s death).  Most of the music is tuneful, and even in the less-successful works, such as Roma, there are attractive elements.  But this collection makes it clear that even if Wolf-Ferrari’s skills and interests went beyond opera, Bizet’s basically did not: however you consider or reconsider him, he was, like his contemporary Offenbach, a stage composer above all.

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