Vasily Kalinnikov: Symphony no. 1 in G minor

While I felt Arensky’s symphony last week had its shining moments (particularly the fourth movement) and Glazunov’s seemed a very ambitious young work, the far-less-known (in the West) Vasily Kalinnikov brings us a symphony number one that is tightly constructed, unified, and all-around captivating, instantly charming.

For one reason or another, this was a piece (like Glazunov’s) in my ‘Russian Symphony Playlist’ that I didn’t get around to listening to until much later than the others, kind of right up to the time I needed to get around to writing this, but it instantly blew me away (unlike Glazunov’s). We’ll talk shortly about why, but let’s chat about this Kalinnikov guy for a moment or two.

Born in 1866 to a policeman, he started studying at the seminary as a teenager but later discovered his love for music when (or around the time) he conducted the choir there. He later went to the Moscow Conservator, but couldn’t afford to study there, so instead he went to the Moscow Philharmonic Society School, where he was able to get a scholarship and study both bassoon and composition from someone who won’t make it in our radar for this Russian series (but who also taught Nikolai Roslavets in private lessons). He worked as a music copyist to make money and played bassoon, timpani, and violin in theatre orchestras.

He was going to get his big break, maybe, when Tchaikovsky recommended that he become director of the Maly Theatre, and later the Moscow Italian Theatre, but he either had to decline or resign shortly thereafter due to his worsening tuberculosis. At this time, he would have been about 26 years old. In the interest of his health, he moved to the warmer climate of Yalta, where he would spend the rest of his short life, and this is where he began to have the time to compose in earnest, it seems. The first symphony was completed in 1895, just six years before the composer’s death, just prior to his 35th birthday.

This symphony was premiered throughout Russia and even in Berlin and Vienna during the composer’s lifetime, but not published until after he died. Thanks to encouragement from one Sergei Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky’s publisher P. Jurgenson bought a number of Kalinnikov’s vocal works, and later both symphonies, increasing the fees he would have paid to the composer and leaving them for his widow. While the first symphony is performed with (perplexing rarity) in the West (including a November 7, 1943 performance under Toscanini), it enjoyed great success in Russia from its early days where the work and its composer still have a strong place in the repertoire and music history. More about that later.

The work opens with striking, dramatic unison strings, a big rich thing of beauty that feels like it has its roots in folk song, which in some ways lends instant legitimacy to the melody that opens the piece. There are two very clear themes for our first movement, cast in sonata form, the first unison, clean strings weaving a mysterious, ethereal and exotic-sounding melody before horns interject with an ominous song. This happens more than once before woodwinds enter to lighten the mood. There’s a tense bridge of sorts where the opening theme sounds crunchy and more aggressive, but this leads to a sweet contrasting melody, seeming to cover the same ground, but from a different altitude, with violins and flutes (piccolo?) playing in unison to give the melody a crisp, almost brittle timbre. Repeat of the exposition.

With these two incredible characters at play, how could this opening movement not be wonderful? Keeping in mind that our composer is still in his youth and also slowly dying, it seems one can hear the landscape that he hoped would help his condition: inspiring, clean, beautiful wide open spaces, a freshness and hope (as long as one ignores the end of the story). It’s the result of these two incredible themes, so distinctly different but also somewhat related, that pulls you full force into the story this symphony is telling. The first movement is not just the story of these two themes, but of what each one is saying, changing faces and giving us different looks at the same thing. And then, all of a sudden there’s this incredible contrapuntal passage in strings, just briefly, before a satisfying recapitulation.

As difficult to follow as the successful first movement may be, the second strikes the listener with an equally captivating idea. Harp (and first violin). How’s that for ethereal and magical? It’s chromatic and somewhat dissonant sounding, but leads us into a new kind of world, or at least a different section of the same world, walking from a wide open glorious sunny landscape into a misty wood. Spellbinding. There’s been an earthiness, a solid kind of organicism to the writing, and the second movement keeps with that. It sounds mysterious and almost somber at the opening, with a persistent, almost bordering on minimalist sort of ostinato before an English horn enters (with violas) in a delicate, almost solemn (typical English horn-type) solo, echoed by clarinet and cello. Things get super exotic after a key change, where oboe takes the lead atop pizzicato strings. This whole thing sounds so magical, and it feels at times like we have glimpses of the material from the first movement. The exposed woodwinds in this movement supports this woodsy, almost fairy-tale like feel. The movement is laid out in what feels almost like a sonata-type layout instead of a ternary form, with two subjects being presented rather quickly at the beginning. I don’t know. In any case, it’s a nice, pensive slow movement, incredibly mature-sounding, to me.

The third movement is a brighter breath of fresh air, a playful, almost boisterous scherzo, with plenty of reason to smile. It seems almost like our English horn returns to darken the mood, as the trio is a slower, almost medieval sounding thing, but no. It brightens up when clarinet enters, and the woodwinds swirl around each other momentarily. This feels like a passage I’d like to hear at a slightly more brisk tempo, even though I haven’t looked at the marking on the score. There feels like there might be three distinct sections to this movement, the actual scherzo, with a two-part trio…? In any case, it’s a really nice scherzo, much more scherzo-ish than Glazunov’s from last week.

The final movement begins with the opening theme from the first movement, but deviates quickly to something far more playful and finale-sounding. It’s a very simple, straightforward way to lead us right back to where we started from, something that feels like’ home’ to the listener, especially when that melody was such a success. While very little is as directly quoted in the movement, it uses similar ideas, always hovering around, suggesting themes from the opening movement while using strings and woodwinds similarly. It makes the middle two movements feel like a slight departure, a journey away from home for a small day trip, and then a return to familiar ground that feels welcoming but also fresh. The second theme later shows up with new string material overtop it, and it’s a wonderful way to cover lots of new emotional ground, and be expressive without giving the impression that the piece sprawls aimlessly around. It makes the entire work sound much shorter, as well, as does the fact that it’s just a real joy to listen to. There’s a lot of content to talk about in the fourth movement, all very Russian-sounding, some very Tchaikovskian. The work ends confidently, logically, and satisfyingly epically, without any unnecessary gushings or a plethora of codas.

Dan Morgan puts it fantastically well, and more succinctly than I have:

The Andante is one of the gentlest, most luminous idylls I’ve heard in ages. Fortunately Kalinnikov doesn’t overwork his material. The Scherzo is pliant and playful, the unmistakably masculine Finale beautifully toned, its sinew and muscle sensed rather than flexed for empty adulation.

This piece is very likely my favorite work of the whole series so far, or at least the one that pleasantly surprised me the most. Cohesiveness is a really wonderful thing, and to achieve that alongside the emotional scope it presents makes this work a real treat, and it really shocks me that a work of such elegance, simple grandeur (if that even makes sense) and imagination has not come to be praised in Western concert halls. I feel like it would be an instant hit, but apparently not.

Other fantastic program notes or tidbits about the piece can be found here, here and here. What a shame this piece hasn’t gotten more recognition, but how wonderful that this little series has led me to find it. It isn’t as epic a first symphony as Hans Rott’s, say, but an impressive work nonetheless. We shall see you next week for a far more well-known composer and two of his least successful works.

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