Forgotten Composers, Part 2: Vasily Kalinnikov

Levitan, "The Quiet Abode"
Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov is one of the tragic might-have-beens of Russian classical music.  Born at a pivotal time in Russian musical history (1866), he was poised to become part of the second generation of great Russian composers following the Mighty Five (Rimsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky, etc.).  Instead, tuberculosis laid him low at 34 with only a handful of works to his name.  Nevertheless, in his brief lifetime he found champions in Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rachmaninov, the latter of whom particularly helped him financially (and posthumously helped support his wife).  Given a normal lifespan, he may have developed into a second Rachmaninov, or abandoned tradition entirely and embraced modernism like his contemporaries, Scriabin and Stravinsky.  Even Stravinsky, after all, began in a very traditional manner, with his early Symphony in E flat giving absolutely no hint of the sumptuous melodies of The Firebird, much less the earth-shaking rhythms of The Rite of Spring.  Most likely, however, Kalinnikov would have continued in the vein of Borodin and Tchaikovsky, writing haunting, folk-inspired works that would make even McCarthy nostalgic for Russia.  

Always a poor man, Kalinnikov came from the ‘people,’ hence his love of Russian folksong evidenced in his two colorful symphonies.  Yet Kalinnikov was also a native of Oryol, birthplace of Turgenev, so something of that author’s cosmopolitan nature extends to his music.  No mere provincial, Kalinnikov bridged the gap (much as Tchaikovsky had) between the Russian school and the Germanic symphonic tradition.  His earliest orchestral works, The Nymphs (based on Turgenev) and Epic Poem exemplify this—works very much cut from the same cloth as Borodin and Glazunov, yet with a remarkable talent for melody and drama.  The Nymphs, especially, opens with a driving figure, though this quickly dissolves into a trademark Kallinkovian melody.  If anything, Kalinnikov might be accused of being too melodious, as his works are unfailingly gorgeous; the rich, colorful paintings of Isaac Levitan are an obvious comparison.  Perhaps for this reason Kalinnikov would have shrank from the aesthetic of Modernism—though he would have fit in nicely with the conservative tastes of the Soviet regime (much as Gliere, born a decade later, would shift seamlessly from late Romantic to decorated Soviet composer). 

His masterpieces were all written between 1894-1898, a mere four years, while suffering from ill-health and taking treatments in Yalta.  The first of these is the monumentally appealing First Symphony (1894/5), one of the best first symphonies written by any Russian composer in the 19th century—including Tchaikovsky.  While not original in the manner of Borodin’s First, it follows the well-worn tradition of Russian symphonies with one unique innovation: wall-to-wall melody.  Taking a cue from Liszt, Kalinnikov plays with cyclic form with a theme that returns throughout, returning memorably at the end of the symphony.  But one hardly notices this technique for all the hummable tunes!  The symphony opens with an epic, “far away” theme, as if the prelude to a great adventure.  Yet this is immediately cast aside for the great “tune” of the symphony—a seductive, slightly Eastern tune which you will recognize immediately, though you’ve never heard it.  It’s that perfect, lodging in the mind forever and celebrated each time it returns.  The first movement develops the theme and runs it through several dramatic episodes, concluding with a joyous fugue on the opening motif.  Yet the second movement is the jewel of the entire work: it opens with a clockwork rhythm in the strings and harp, over which a plaintive, folk-like aria descends through the orchestra.  It’s reminiscent of a lullaby, yet more comforting than despondent.  Pizzicato strings brush this aside and another melody enters, even more lovely than the last, full of incredible yearning (on the oboe--later taken up by the strings).  Later on, in my favorite episode, a flute takes up this theme while the strings provide ecstatic accompaniment—it’s a moment of sheer gooseflesh.  Tchaikovsky couldn’t touch this: it’s a chaste, innocent love song, but no less beautiful for that.  I secretly wonder how much Rachmaninov modeled some of his famous melodies after Kalinnikov!  The third and fourth movements are more conventional, taking a page from Rimsky’s and Borodin’s symphonies, though both are embellished with great melodies and orchestration.  The coda of the finale is stunning—and the theme of the opening comes back for a glorious apotheosis. 

His Second Symphony is just as satisfying, if a touch more subtle.  Here he seems to be striking out on his own, pushing drama aside for a more lyrical, thoughtful symphonic essay.  The main theme of the first movement is extraordinary: no composer of the time could have written it, yet it seems so simple, almost a folksong embellished a late Romantic orchestra (and yet, not quite).  The slow movement is another highlight, not surprisingly, and the most dramatic movement of the four.  The third movement sounds almost Mozartian, while the fourth is big and bright—also a touch of Mozart, maybe the 39th?  That these symphonies are relatively unknown is shocking and absurd.  They are every bit the match for Borodin’s 2nd, Rimsky’s 2nd (“Antar”) and Tchaikovsky’s first three.  Any audience would be charmed by these compositions, perhaps mistaking them for one of the aforementioned composers—and happy to add another romantic to their collection.

Two final works complete the Kalinnikov survey: his incidental music for the play, Tsar Boris, and the masterful tone poem, The Cedar and the Palm.  The Overture from the incidental music is occasionally recorded, most notably by Neeme Jarvi with the Scottish National Orchestra.  It’s a powerful, dramatic work, balancing melody and bombast in equal measure (a near equivalent would be Tchaikovsky’s March Slav).  The incidental music is high quality stuff: a brooding, Gothic intermezzo follows the overture, which is in turn followed by light marches and Russian folksong.  More original is his tone poem, which contrasts the “Russian” Cedar with the “Oriental” Palm, a great chance to play the dramatic against the melodic.  It’s close in spirit to Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, though the “Palm” theme is loveliness itself.  Kalinnikov, like Rimsky and Rachmaninov, excelled in orchestration, making otherwise simple music sound vivid and complex—all the more so in this modest, yet exciting score. 

The best of his music is available on 3 discs/downloads: the complete symphonies are recorded beautifully by both Theodore Kuchar with the Ukraine National Symphony (Naxos) and Neeme Jarvi, with the Scottish NSO (Chandos).  Jarvi recorded the Tsar Boris overture along with The Cedar and the Palm as fillers the original CDs of the symphonies, but these are no longer available—though you can find used copies on Amazon.  He also recorded the extremely rare Two Intermezzos for Orchestra as a filler for his recording of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony (again, long gone—look for a used copy).  However, you can find all the rest of his music on a Marco Polo disc by Jancsovics and the Budapest Symphony.  The recording is typical of Marco Polo (fair at best), but the orchestra plays well and the works are divine—five moments from Tsar Boris, the Epic Poem, Cedar and Palm, and the early The Nymphs.  For an $8.99 download it's well worth the price, and a great way to rescue an unjustly neglected master from obscurity.