Cello Kabalevsky CC72940

Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904-1987)
Cello Sonata, Op. 71 (1962)
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Cello Concertino, Op. 132 – II. Andante (1953)
Vissarion Shebalin (1902-1963)
Cello Sonata, Op. 51 No. 3 (1960)
Marina Tarasova (cello)
Ivan Sokolov (piano)
rec. 2022, Studio of Victor Popov Academy of Choral Arts, Moscow, Russia
Shebalin: first recording
Challenge Classics CC72940 [63]

These three Russian cello works are linked by being dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave their premieres. As Tarasova states, ‘The depth of its philosophical thought is an invitation to meditate. Prokofiev’s Concertino is the most beautiful example of a rare combination – for him of lyricism and Russian “soil”. In Shebalin’s sonata, we experience programme music: images of old Moscow, the pealing of church bells, dances of buffoons. I feel that the freedom of will, which philosophers have yet to find, lies in the music of such geniuses!’ These three composers were connected with Nikolay Myaskovsky, who was a close friend and colleague of Prokofiev and the teacher of both Kabalevsky and Shebalin at the Moscow Conservatoire.

Dmitry Kabalevsky is most known for the brilliantly colourful Galop from his suite written for the theatre The Comedians and the Third Piano Concerto. In his youth, he was a member of the Soviet avant-garde, yet following his studies with Myaskovsky, he became more conventional. There is a rich vein of originality in his huge number of compositions yet they lack the genius of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. A distinct feature of his work was writing pieces for young people; his violin, piano and cello concertos are brilliantly scored showpieces for gifted young students. Kabalevsky was a gifted conductor, founding and leading children’s choirs until he died in 1987. He was a foremost educator and active member of the Composers’ Union, vice-president of the International Society for Music Education and awarded the Lenin Prize for his teaching of children.

I remember hearing his Second Cello Concerto which was on the fourth side of an HMV-Melodiya LP set along with Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony with Daniel Shafran accompanied by the Leningrad Philharmonic under the baton of Kabalevsky. It is an immensely moving piece combining both late romanticism and elements of modernism. His Cello Sonata is among his finest chamber pieces and composed when he was working on his monumental Requiem commemorating the Second World War. The sonata embraces a sadly reflective idiom. The opening Andante molto sostenuto is tragic and moving, with a tolling bell theme on the piano while the central Allegro con molto introduces a brighter harmony yet becomes aggressive with a dynamic momentum on the piano before we return to the atmosphere of the first movement in the Allegro molto which startswith a toccata on the piano and enhanced by a bright and breezy theme from the cello. There is a thrilling interplay between the two musicians before the return on the cello of the funereal idea from the first movement. It was premiered by the composer accompanying Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow in February 1962.

Prokofiev began composing his Cello Concertino following his writing of the Symphony Concertante for cello and orchestra but managed to finish only the second movement. Kabalevsky and Rostropovich completed the work based on his notes and from verbal directions to the musicians in his final weeks. It was originally planned as an orchestral piece but nothing was known about the orchestration, and Kabalevsky undertook writing the orchestral version while Rostropovich dealt with the cello score. The idiom has a long, drawn-out idea on the cello, which becomes intense, rising to a high note and closing suddenly.

Shebalin once belonged to a circle of futurists and was a very important composer in the Soviet period; his early works hint at Ravel and Debussy. He was one of Myaskovsky’s first students at the Moscow Conservatoire and a close friend of Shostakovich from the late 1920s. His First Symphony is an exceptional work reflecting his influence from Myaskovsky and his other five symphonies reflect his outstanding personality and originality. He wrote in diverse genres, and among his finest works is his opera based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. His work as a musicologist was significant, as he also completed Mussorgsky’s Sorochinsky Fair and orchestrated Salammbo. Shebalin was a respected teacher (among his students were Gubaydullina and Denisov) and became the rector of the Moscow Conservatoire, yet resigned after the 1948 Composers Union Congress when he was accused of being formalist and overlooking folk songs. He suffered a heart attack, leading to a decline in his composing.

The Cello Sonata is one of a cycle of three sonatas; the others are for viola and violin, and is dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich who premiered it on 5 November 1961 with Zeybtsev at the Moscow Conservatoire. The opening Allegro Assai is meditative, with its first idea dynamic and powerful, invoking the ringing of bells. The second theme is full of life, building to a lively climax. The Scherzo invokes Russian folk harlequins with an ostinato figure imitating bagpipes in a bright, breezy passage played at a brisk tempo, and reveals a love of rhythm. The Andante is reflective and opens at a martial pace with an old Russian folk song, then comes a treading march on the piano before the return of the mood of the first movement. It employs a rich harmony hinting at Mussorgsky. The Finale is upbeat with a jubilant idiom bringing together themes from the preceding movements, closing in C major. This sonata makes one want to hear more from this composer who is still little-known outside of Russia. 

Marina Tarasova studied at the Moscow Conservatoire with Natalia Shakhovskaya and Alexander Fedorchenko and won the Grand Prix in Paris. She is an enthusiastic interpreter of Russian and Soviet cello music and has recorded extensively for Olympia, Alto, and Northern Flowers, and more recently on Divine Art with Cello Suites by Bach. She has premiered works by Eshpai, Boris Tchaikovsky, Volkov, Chalaev, and Galakhov and has collaborated with Yuri Bashmet, Edward Grach, Pascal Devoyon, Mariss Jansons, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Mikhail Pletnev. She has given many concerts in memory of the victims of terrorism and charity concerts for the protection of animals and the environment both in Russia and worldwide.

Tarasova’s regular partner Ivan Sokolov studied with Mikhail Voskresensky at the Moscow Conservatoire and is a composer whose Viola Sonata won him an award at the Moscow Stam festival. The CD is in a cardboard envelope, and the 16-page booklet contains English texts with notes on the music and biographies about the musicians and black and white photos of the performers. The recording has a translucent acoustic picture with both musicians clearly heard as equal partners. Those who explore the lesser-known pathways of 20th-century Russian music will find much to enjoy here.

Gregor Tassie

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