Vasili Kalinnikov is mostly unknown these days, mainly because he was really only starting to show his potential when he tragically died of tuberculosis when he was only 35 years of age. Still, a few of his works are still heard today, with the most familiar (if ‘familiar’ is even a word that can be applied to him) to his Symphony No. 1 in G minor, which is the work on tap today.
This is one of my favorite of all Russian symphonies, because it just oozes “Russian symphony-ness”. Yes, that’s a term I just made up, but if you know what I’m talking about, then you get it! Everything you’d ever want in a Russian symphony can be found here: gorgeously lyrical melodies (including one that’s incredibly ear-wormy), a cyclic structure that sees melodic material from previous movements referenced and recast, terrific orchestration that uses the full complement of the modern orchestra and yet is very clear and precisely classical in its application, and most of all, that wonderful Russian fatalistic brooding that is yet somehow not entirely divorced from optimism. It’s not a challenging symphony, but it is a rewarding one, sure-footed and confident; it’s good enough that I think it should be heard a lot more than it is, and it’s good enough that I wonder what Kalinnikov’s later symphonies, say his fifth and sixth ones, might have been like had he lived to write past the second one.
OK, as I write this it’s late and I don’t want to miss the day, so here’s the Symphony No 1 by Kalinnikov. I will update this post tomorrow with a few more annotations, though, so tune back in!
UPDATE 4-13-13: OK, here are a few annotations. The symphony’s introductory passage sets the brooding mood quire nicely, and as you listen, make careful note of that first theme, because it will recur at the beginning of the fourth movement. Of particular note in the first movement, however, is the second theme (which in this recording comes at about the 1:07 mark). This lyrical tune, sung first by the cellos, sounds nice at first, but I have found over the years that after the movement is done, that melody lodges in the brain like few others. There then follows a third figure, similar to the first, that leads the movement into the development passage (after a repeat).
The second movement, the slow movement, is utterly lovely. I don’t like to indulge visual metaphors much when I discuss music, but the second movement suggests to me the lovely delicacy and fragility of something like, oh, a painted egg. Again, make careful note of that main melody, heard first by the oboes and the violins(at 14:11) and then echoed immediately by the lower strings, because that very melody will return as well in the last movement.
The third movement is a finely constructed scherzo, but the last movement is where everything comes together. After a reprise of the symphony’s opening bars, Kalinnikov launches into a brisk tune that almost has a folk-dance character (27:52) which almost immediately gives way to a more lyrical, but also dance-like, tune (28:09). And then, at 29:49, we hear that wonderful lyric theme from the first movement again, before being plunged right back into the dance. All this interweaves for a while, until Kalinnikov suddenly gets everything building up to the 33:20 mark, when the brass section starts to peal out that delicate, gossamer theme from the slow movement! No more ‘fragile painted egg’; instead now that same melody has all the force of great church bells. Things calm back down, as if Kalinnikov senses that we’re not quite ready for the church bells, so he builds again, starting at 34:16, but this time to gathering energy is undeniable, and again we crash into that slow movement theme, again pealed out by the brass, but if anything it’s even more bell-like (35:01).
Musical moments like the closing pages of the Kalinnikov Symphony No. 1 are why I love the Russian masters so much: the best of them seem to have an internal sense of dramatic pacing that allows them to close things out in the most satisfying of ways. This is a great symphony!