• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 36: Vasily Kalinnikov

Russian music has always resonated with me, and I consider myself a pretty good conductor of that repertoire. I seem to get Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev in ways that elude my understanding of Bruckner, Debussy, and Sibelius. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all!

One of my favorite Russian, Romantic symphonies is by a little-known composer named Vasily Kalinnikov. There actually isn’t a wealth of Romantic symphonies by Russian composers, because the symphony was considered a Western construct of the cultural and academic elite at a time when Russian composers were trying to find their own unique (read: non-Western) voice. That concern changed in the early-mid 20th century, when Soviet leaders were determined to prove that their composers—Myaskovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, et al.—could write symphonies to stand alongside the very best in the genre.

Kalinnikov’s name is not well known outside of Russia, as he left behind relatively little orchestral music. Like so many others of his time, Kalinnikov suffered from tuberculosis, and he died in 1901 at the tragically young age of 34. He wrote two symphonies, the First in G minor (1894-95) and the Second in A major (1895-97). Each is a masterpiece in its own right, and neither was published until after his death. This week, we’re covering the First Symphony in G minor.

The First Symphony adheres to the traditional symphonic form. There are four movements: an opening sonata-form movement (with a developmental fugue!), a slow movement, a scherzo, and a finale that revisits and transforms themes from all the previous movements. There is something about the slow movement that has always made me think of Danny Elfman….

I first encountered the final movement in an old transcription for wind band, complete with antiphonal brass! As a trumpet player, you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered the original does not call for the added brass…(sigh). I was finally able to conduct the entire work for the first time when I was a graduate student at Indiana, and I have been glad to revisit it a few times over the years.

The performance is by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Russian conductor Evgeny Svetlanov, who was one of the great champions of Kalinnikov’s music. Enjoy! :)

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