Saturday, 11 February 2012

If You Like Borodin...

Russian music really is a treasure house full of unsuspected jewels. A few years ago I made the acquaintance of the First Symphony by the the sadly short-lived Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1901). Pleasingly, this endearing work is on YouTube and I want to share my mixed but largely positive feelings about it with you before introducing the Second Symphony.

Kalinnikov's Symphony No.1 in G minor (1894-95) is a work firmly in the Russian tradition, breathing the air of Russian folksong in a manner that reminds me of Borodin, though fans of Tchaikovsky will find this composer an agreeable companion. The work is winningly melodic and colourfully orchestrated.

The opening Moderato starts with an attractive folksong-style theme, presented in unison, but I bet it's the lyrical second subject that will really win you heart. It's one heck of a good tune! The strings get to sing it and the woodwinds decorate it. If you are familiar with the tunes of Borodin, this tune will doubtless strike you as being from the same family. OK. We've been introduced to the main themes. What happens next? A happy transition theme and some fist-shaking chords lead us into the development section, which is where the work's problems rise to the surface. Basically, these boil down to the statement that "Kalinnikov is not at his best when trying to be 'symphonic'". He starts to inflate his ideas and then blows them out of all proportion. Some of his climaxes are frankly unnecessary (as is that fugue). I find myself sighing with relief when the recapitulation gets going, and then relax and enjoy the tunes all over again - though giganticism does briefly return in the coda.

The Andante is a far more consistent achievement, and a real delight. It has an atmospheric quality only Russian composers (and Copland!) can capture - a nocturnal, open-spaces air, full of beauty and mystery. The opening, with its haunting ostinato on two notes and 'open' chords, is very beautiful and the gentle, nostalgic melody that wafts in is very lovely. Livelier folkish material follows, with a central Asian flavour - the sort of tune Russians did so well. Rename this movement 'More from the Steppes of Central Asia', set it free and let it win more hearts!

The Scherzo is a treat too. It too has a Borodin-like quality, with a vigorous 'Russian' main section and a 'Polovtsian' trio. The latter is particularly appealing.

The problems come back with a vengeance in the Finale. This is so strongly cyclic (i.e. recycling themes from earlier movements to unify the symphony) that it could be seen as a protracted summary of the three preceding movements, had it not some new material of its own. Unfortunately, the new material isn't very good. Moreover, the 'inflation' issue is once more the nub of the problem. Kalinnikov is attempting a grand symphonic finale and his method is to pile on peroration after peroration. Not content with twice out-Wagnering Wagner (think Tannhauser overture), he will not let the piece end without one final huge heave and a million cadences! The effect is an odd mixture of excitement and bathos. Still, there's so much good in the middle movements of the symphony, and that big tune from the opening movement is such a gem, that it's easy to let the composer off the hook for the failings of this movement.

What then of Symphony No.2 in A major (1895-97)? Well, it's a more consistent affair, though it lacks any extra-special moments - so some gains, and some losses. It follows much the same trajectory as its predecessor. 

The opening Moderato starts with imperious calls to attention but quickly turns these figures into an attractive, cheerful tune - namely the first subject - and carries us into the soundworld of Russian ballet, where Kalinnikov's art engages best, showing a flair for Tchaikovsky-style scoring and mobile bass figures. The second subject is cut from a familiar cloth - a broad string tune over a pizzicato accompaniment, firmly in the Russian Nationalist tradition, with Borodin again standing close by. As with the First Symphony, such melodic treats are soon given a full symphonic going-over, though this time less tiringly - though I could again do without the development section's fugue. Listen out for the lovely flute decoration of the main theme at the start of the recapitulation, which surely shows once more where the man's genius lies.

The Andante cantabile is, like the equivalent movement in the earlier symphony, a highlight. There's a gorgeous Borodin-like cor anglais melody set over a delicate, harp-rich accompaniment, which breathes that lyrical, melancholy, 'oriental' air that we musical Russophiles so love. We seem to be again on the steppes of Central Asia, possibly at night-time. The tune is passed around the sections of the orchestra, with some charming balletic exchanges and, yes, the odd BIG climax, and makes the movement a pleasure to hear.

The Scherzo makes me smile. Borodin wasn't a ballet composer but if he had have been he might have written something like this! The trio section is even better, bearing us back to the Polovtsian maidens with a tune of considerable catchiness which is given the Glinka treatment - i.e. repetition against a changing background. This tune is introduced by the cor anglais - a star instrument in this symphony.

Now it's Finale time again! How does Kalinnikov fare this time? Well, he wouldn't be Russian if he didn't invest a lot in his finales. A solo horn introduces it, though the cor anglais soon takes over. We briefly revisit (cyclic form again) the melancholy slow movement, then the main Allegro vivo theme leaps in like the heroic prince in a ballet. He soon meets his princess in the form of the lyrical second subject - a long tune over a very lively accompaniment. Linking passages bring ballet and symphony together - or at least side by side. It's fluent and quite enjoyable if rarely first-rate music. The balletic and purely melodic passages are the best, though this time the grand symphonic climax is genuinely exciting. So, though like its counterpart in the First Symphony, this finale is the weakest link, it's easily forgiven!

I hope you find these two symphonies as friendly and interesting as I did. Whatever faults they have are far outweighed by their rewards. 

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