The five sets of variations of opus 51, interspersed between other works on this disc, offer technical challenges within a framework of folk-song development. The Soviet music system encouraged composers to use folk melodies, making music accessible: ‘for’ the people and ‘by’ the people. To this end, Kabalevsky took Russian, Ukranian and Slovakian melodies as the themes for these sets of variations. The Seven Good-Humoured Variations on a Ukranian Folksong has a spiky opening theme and maintains this vivacity in the first four variations, but then turns to the relative minor for the fifth variation. After this introspective foray, the “good-humoured” melody returns for two more energetic variations in the tonic, with a brief coda driving to a solid finish.
The first set of Op. 51, Five Happy Variations on a Russian Folksong, is much less demanding but charming in its very simplicity. In the second set, Merry Dance Variations on a Russian Folksong, Kabalevsky wrote six variations on the light and airy opening theme. He used various devices, including syncopation, question and answer phrasing, minor tonality, and scale patterns in developing the melody. The “Grey Day” Variations on a Slovakian Folksong have a more plaintive theme, but this does not restrain Kabalevsky in trying to break free from the clouds and temporarily finding the sun, that is the tonic major, before a complete return of the soulful opening theme. The final set of op.51, Six Variations on a Ukranian Folksong, confirms Kabalevsky’s skill in this genre: the variations on the eight-bar theme are fresh and beautifully crafted, with various devices, such as doubling in thirds and the juxtaposition of major and minor, used to further a musical purpose.
The Six Pieces for piano (1971) “Children’s Dreams”, op. 88, are descriptive, with the opening piece, Dreams, setting the scene for scenarios about which children might dream. Who Will Win The Argument? is a super little tit-for-tat between two antagonists, portrayed by the high and low registers of the keyboard. At the beginning of Tale Of An Old Organ-Grinder is a bittersweet quote, “He dreamt of becoming a great musician, but his fate was to be a poor organ-grinder.” Contrasts is indeed that, sustained chords with legato melody which open the piece set against a phrase of dry, detached chords which starkly contrast. Curious Waltz is written in alternating bars of 2/4 and 3/4, giving the piece a wonky, yet hypnotic, lilt. With Naughty Boys, one wonders whether the dream is of a prior transgression or of future high jinks? Whichever the case, it is the boys who are naughty, not the girls!
Kabalevsky wrote anthems and songs for the Pioneers, a Soviet youth movement, and dedicated many concert works to Soviet youth. He was politically active, serving on various central music education committees, and received the Stalin Prize and the Order of Lenin for his services to music. From Pioneer Life (1931), op. 14, is a depiction of five scenes from Soviet youth activities. This 1931 version contains Pioneer Song, left out of the 1965 compilation.
The Thirty Children’s Pieces for piano (1937-1938), op. 27, are a well-established part of the pedagogical piano repertoire. Learned by students the world over, they offer delightful ways to develop a full piano technique and have proved the test of time. From the stillness of Night on the River and the cantabile of Sad Story to the aggressive War Dance and the fleeting Snow Storm, these pieces are perfect miniatures. Classics such as Sonatina, with its dotted rhythms and emphasis on the weak beats of the bar, and Songs of the Cavalry, with driving quavers galloping away, contrast with the mesmerising refinement of Lyric Piece and The Tale. Nimble fingers are required for the five-finger patterns of A Little Prank, and a sure sense of keyboard placement for the left-hand chords of Meadow Dance.
One of the most famous of Kabalevsky’s shorter pieces is Clowns, from Twenty-Four Easy Pieces for piano, op. 39. It is such fun to play! The fluctuations between major and minor tonalities and light accompaniment portray circus clowns in a humorous and skilful manner. Waltz and A Sad Story both have lovely melodies with simple accompaniments. Parallelism is a common trait in Russian music. Kabalevsky uses parallel 6ths in the middle section of A Sad Story, and then parallel 10ths throughout Folk Dance. Improvisation is exquisitely set with the right-hand following after the left on the off-beats for the first half of the piece, before swapping roles for the denouement. A Short Story pairs a legato melody with a staccato accompaniment, lending urgency to the tale. Galop, requiring five-finger dexterity, and Slow Waltz, demanding absolute control in note placement, bring on technique within a musical framework. A Happy Outing, is a boisterous romp, with the angular outer phrases linked by lyrical commentary in the parallel minor.
“In The Pioneer Camp”, Opus 3/86 was begun in 1927 and then revised in 1968. Kabalevsky paints a picture of life in a Soviet youth camp, starting first with waking in the morning to the sound of the bugle. In the Morning utilises a common device in Russian music, that of unison doubling but several octaves apart. Morning Exercises is a tongue-in-cheek look at group calisthenics. On the River has the young people boating, but seeming to fall out of the canoes quite a lot! Through Forests and Mountains describes a hike through the countryside, beginning in the tranquil forest, then climbing up the mountain, which requires more effort. Who knows what the Extraordinary Event is that Kabalevsky had in mind? But perhaps part of the training given Soviet youth was to be prepared for the unexpected. This piece tells of something extraordinary, and that is portrayed by repeated notes interrupted by rests, sf endings to phrases, restless triplet patterns and low left-hand octaves. We reach the end of our day in the pioneer camp with By the Campfire, a quiet, and slightly jazzy, evocation of the group decompressing after an active day.
Thirty-Five Easy Pieces, op. 89 (1972-1974) are some of the last pieces Kabalevsky wrote for the piano. Many are only two or three lines long. Little Hedgehog is marked ‘staccatissimo’, perhaps because touching a spike would make one pull back quickly! Little Goat Limping is in 5/4, the 3+2 shape of the melody perfectly describing a kid with a sore foot! The Little Juggler throws his three balls around the keyboard, with right-hand broken octaves and linking left-hand semi-tones facilitating the action. Chastushka, in Russian, is a short, humorous poem, and this piece mimics that musically. Stubborn Little Brother opens with the older sibling requesting something and the younger brother resisting, as depicted with the repeated D-flats. The older sibling tries again, but to no avail. He becomes more insistent, and keeps trying, but the little brother digs in his heels and refuses to give way. Rabbit Teasing a Bear-Cub has baby bear in the left-hand, with heavy crotchets, and the rabbit leggiero in the right-hand. There is interplay between the two, with the little bear trying to catch hold of the rabbit, but the bunny seems to escape in a flurry of notes up the keyboard. In 7/4, Almost a Waltz is an elegant, yet wistful, piece, imagining what might have been. In Melancholy Rain, Kabalevsky puts raindrops in the staccato left-hand, with the legato melody carrying on in spite of the relentless inclement weather.
Four Rondos for piano, op. 60 (1958) opens with a march in rondo form (ABACA). The dotted rhythm of the opening theme in E-flat major drives the march forward, with the B and C sections offering contrast and being dynamically more restrained. The second piece, Dance, is a lively allegretto, with the opening theme used in a truncated sonata-rondo form (ABACABA). Song, the third rondo (in ABACA form) is a genteel piece in G minor. The last of the set, Toccata, is a riveting work in A minor, with a staccato opening theme which unifies and compels the work to its conclusion.
©2014 Kirsten Johnson