Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 1 in g; No. 2 in A
Neeme Järvi, cond; Royal Scottish Natl O
CHANDOS 9546 (75:10)
The story of Vassily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov (1866–1901) is a sad one. Like Mozart and Mendelssohn he died in his 30s, his musical promise unfulfilled. His childhood musical interests were encouraged by his father who played guitar and sang in a choir. As a teenager he entered the Moscow Conservatory, but was forced to withdraw due to financial hardship. He soon won a scholarship to the Moscow
Philharmonic Society Music School where he studied bassoon and played violin, bassoon, and timpani in a theater orchestra. Kalinnikov’s financial position was insecure, but his devoted friend and teacher, Semyon Kruglikov, provided assistance and would also come to his aid later in the composer’s brief life. Tchaikovsky thought highly of Kalinnikov and recommended him for the post of conductor at the Maly Theater in 1892. The following year Kalinnikov was appointed assistant conductor at the Italian Theater. He was forced to supplement his relatively modest income by giving private lessons in music theory.
As a child, Kalinnikov was sickly and the illness of his youth would follow him for the rest of his days. It finally got the best of him in 1893 and Kalinnikov was forced to move to the Crimea where he spent the rest of his life, depending largely upon his friends for financial support. In spite of his illness, Kalinnikov composed regularly and at the time of his death had a small, but enthusiastic following that included Rachmaninoff.
Somewhat of a nationalist, Kalinnikov eschewed the idea of following a strict program and chose to portray his native soil with music that evoked images and folk songs of his homeland. Kalinnikov’s reputation rests largely upon his songs and a single orchestral work, the Symphony No. 1 in G Minor. After reviewing the score, Kruglikov sent it along to several conductors with positive remarks. Kalinnikov’s symphony was refused an endorsement by Rimsky-Korsakov, though, because of what was termed technical errors. Some have suggested that these “errors” were not the fault of the composer but were mistakes made by the copyist.
The symphony first appeared on the program of the Russian Musical Society in Kiev, where the second and third movements were encored. The positive reaction of the Ukrainian audience led to a wider dissemination of the score. It eventually found its way to concert venues in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, and Vienna; it remains in the repertoire of Russian orchestras to this day. The most striking features of this work are the reutilization of material from the first movement in the symphony’s finale and the sweeping melody that is offered by the strings after the unison introduction.
The second symphony, though more developed and technically secure than the first, was less successful. It is what Lewis Foreman and John Cox refer to in their notes as “a comprehensive guide to Kalinnikov’s musical manners and shows his individual process of thematic transformation, his tendency to move into unexpected keys, and his disposition to build themes largely from seconds and thirds.” Like the two equally well-crafted and rarely heard symphonies of his countryman, Sergei Taneyev, the symphonies of Kalinnikov have never achieved much popularity outside of his homeland. Kalinnikov’s supporters posit that had he lived longer, his name might have been mentioned in the same sentence as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but we’ll never know.
Neeme Järvi’s recordings of these works date from the late 1980s, and though they are almost two decades old, they still outstrip the budget-priced 1990s competition from Theodore Kuchar and the Ukrainian National Symphony Orchestra (Naxos 8.553417). The Naxos recording is a minute longer than the Chandos in the first symphony and two minutes longer in the second.
Although the Kuchar CD is more laid back and certainly technically and musically competent, Järvi and his Scottish band bring more enthusiasm to Kalinnikov’s scores as well as a stronger sense of line and better pacing. In Järvi’s hand, the music is fervently and eloquently presented in a warm and seamless manner that is befitting. Other points in Järvi’s favor are the legendary Chandos sound and the superb acoustics of Caird Hall, Dundee, and Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow. While the Naxos does offer moments of inspiration, the Chandos is far superior and certainly worth the difference in price as well as a spot in our Classical Hall of Fame.
It’s difficult to imagine more successful interpretations than these by Järvi, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I were forced to eat those words in the future. Not that there’s any competition in the pipeline, but you never know what might pop up, so stay tuned.
FANFARE: Michael Carter
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in G minor by Vasily Kalinnikov
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Written: 1894-1895; Russia
Symphony no 2 in A major by Vasily Kalinnikov
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Written: 1895-1897; Russia
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