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CD Review

Dmitri Klebanov

  • Japanese Silhouettes *
  • Viola Concerto
* Natalia Biorro, soprano
Mela Tenenbaum, * viola d'amore & viola
* Philharmonia Virtuosi/Igor Blazhkov
Philharmonia Virtuosi/Richard Kapp
ESS.A.Y Recordings CD1052
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Since only a very few will know even Ukrainian composer Klebanov's name, I'll relate a few biographical details. Born in 1907, he's contemporary with Shostakovich, and the musical idioms share similarities. Like Shostakovich, he also had to endure the politically corrupt "aesthetic" discussions of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist eras. The fact that this nonsense (what the hell is "bourgeois formalism" anyway?) had devastating, sometimes fatal consequences on artists' careers and lives infuriates me. Particularly in the last years of Stalin's rule, when he was probably insane, immense pressures were exerted on the various artists' unions to conform to God knows what, since, of course, nobody really knew the expectations of the government, except that Stalin's whims dictated them. In addition, a nice dollop of anti-Semitism (code word: "cosmopolitan," as a term of opprobrium, meant "Jewish") was stirred into the mix. The strategy adopted by the various unions and "locals" was to direct all criticism against one member, to protect the group. Klebanov became "It." From the uncredited liner notes:

According to Klebanov… the functionary who led the denunciations, a Comrade Dovchanko, took him aside to try and wrest some sort of confession from him. "Nobody is asking you to tell the whole truth," he was told. "All you have to do is make a small admission, for instance, that you are an American spy. Then they will leave you alone and let you go free."
Klebanov made no such admission, a steadfastness that probably saved him from arrest and "disappearance."

Pretty much until his death in 1987, Klebanov kept a low profile around his native city of Kharkov. Many of his publicly-performed works took place in the Ukraine and were, to a large extent, "official" pieces - a May First symphony, a Party ode, etc. However, he may well have had a "secret" artistic life. In the "thaw" of the 1980s, he managed the two works here. They show a big nature, more than capable of standing alongside Shostakovich and Vainberg. As Russia and particularly the old Soviet performance archives open up, we stand a good chance of finding more terrific compositions, written by people other than Prokofieff and Shostakovich. We tend to look at Soviet music as those two magnificent peaks, surrounded by the modest foothills of Khachaturian, Kabalevsky, and others. I've recently (within the past five years) discovered both Vainberg and Klebanov, and, on the basis of the few works I've heard, the landscape for me has already changed considerably.

String virtuoso Mela Tenenbaum inspired both pieces here, with the Viola Concerto written first. Klebanov conceived of the works for small ensembles, since conductor Igor Blazhkov told him that, according to union rules, a group of thirteen musicians or less got paid four times as much per player as those in larger ensembles and thus provided greater incentives to performance. So even the Soviet system occasionally ran on free-market principles. What may have begun in practicality resulted in works of grave and luminous beauty. The Japanese Silhouettes, for soprano, viola d'amore and mixed ensemble of thirteen players (including piano, flute, bassoon, harp, strings, and percussion), sets seven haikus in Russian translation. The composer paints a japonisme musical screen with help from Debussy and Ravel and loads of pentatonic themes, but the scoring is absolutely individual. Furthermore, here and there, especially in the solo passages for the violist, a very Russian melancholy sings out, and the latter lifts the work from pretty scene-painting to a meditation on the intense brevity of natural things. I think as well of the introduction to the fifth movement (on dusk in winter) for bassoon and bass. In fact, the entire movement breaks your heart, as the soprano and the instrumental ensemble fade to stillness. Natalia Biorro does well, but her voice strikes me at times as too big for the material (she's a Violetta). Still, she sings with great intelligence and sensitivity to the rhythms of the text. I just get the impression that she's holding way back. I'd love to hear a lighter, sweeter voice in this work. The viola d'amore part is not really a star vehicle, and Tenenbaum recognizes this. She plays as prima inter pares, with full, sweet tone and great articulation. Not many violists can take center stage, and, of those who can, few soloists willingly give up the spotlight when the music calls upon them to do so. Only one other performance with Tenenbaum's virtues comes readily to mind: Dennis Brain's unsurpassed account of the Strauss second horn concerto with Sawallisch (EMI CDC-7 47834 2). The joy of Blazhkov's reading comes from the ideal chamber intimacy of the ensemble. Everybody seems to be reading everyone else's mind.

The Viola Concerto is a different kettle of fish. The soloist gets an heroic part, which, due somewhat to the reduced string ensemble (again, thirteen players), sounds out in front of the mass. I consider this one of the great concerti for the instrument. In fact, I prefer it to the Bartók, just to give you some idea how looney I am about it. The general idiom resembles Shostakovich, but, really, the artistic personalities of the two composers differ. Klebanov's is less neurotic. No one listening closely would mistake one composer for the other. The work consists of three movements, with only the slightest pause between. The first movement opens in jagged anxiety, with many themes adumbrating a "Dies irae" quote, and ends in great tenderness, with a beautiful song in the solo viola. This leads to a recitative in the solo viola, punctuated by short phrases in the strings, for the opening of the second movement. This moves to an update of Borodin's and Rimsky's "Asian" music, begun in sweetness and growing increasingly restive, with increased dissonances that wouldn't have occurred to the earlier composers. The final movement begins with a somewhat traditional folky moto perpetuo, but it quickly becomes something much quirkier, with sudden tempo shifts and a profusion of material. Much of the latter, particularly that for the soloist, seems witty variations on beginner string exercises. The movement ends in medias res, a very bold stroke indeed. The comic version of it is Groucho's "either this man is dead or my watch has stopped," but it's not comic – more like a pulse monitor suddenly winking out. Klebanov has a fantastic talent for finding both moving harmonies as well as a great range of color - particularly rich colors - in the ensemble. Tenenbaum plays with an intensity that never lets up. Her technical focus - particularly the articulation and intonation of each note and her command of timbre - astounds me. Conductor Richard Kapp welds soloist and ensemble in a reading which emphasizes the integrity of the work, rather than a big-time, star "sheen." The concord of soloist and ensemble is absolute - again, the chamber ideal - and yet one never thinks of the players as automata. It's as if you had fifteen very close friends in your living room who played just for you. The rhythmic articulation of the strings in the very first measures of the first movement could have been sharper, with more bite, but that's a quibble. Everything darts to an ensemble groove very shortly thereafter. A great service paid to a magnificent work.

Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz