Exile doesn’t just occur when you’re distant from your homeland. What about artists ignored or silenced inside their country? I never thought of it that way before reading Simon Wynberg’s excellent essay in the liner notes to ARC Ensemble’s new recording Chamber Works by Dmitri Klebanov. It’s much more than musicology, illuminating a terrific recording, the latest of their “Music in Exile” series.
The politics surrounding a work of art changes our reception of that art, especially when the life and career of the artist is impacted by non-artistic concerns.
Who is Dmitri Klebanov? Having listened over and over to this new CD, I am surprised at how good the music is from this unknown figure whom I’ve only discovered for the first time in 2021. You can take a step in learning about Klebanov and his music with this CD, a splendid introduction to a composer who deserves to be better known and more fully explored. The CD can be obtained through this website.
I’ll quote a paragraph from the RCM website that answers my question about the composer:
A casualty of Soviet-era cultural suppression and anti-Semitism, Jewish-Ukrainian composer Dmitri Klebanov (1907-1986) is among the scores of musicians whose works are largely forgotten and rarely performed. Fortunate not to have been among those artists and intellectuals arrested, killed, or sent to forced labour camps during Stalin’s brutal reign, Klebanov understood that his career and survival depended on producing works that glorified Soviet accomplishments. But he also managed to produce compositions that reveal a boundless imagination, a spirited vivacity, and melodic confidence, all of which justify his inclusion in the classical canon.
The CD and its performances are a step in that direction, of getting Klebanov’s music included in the classical canon. This excerpt from the CD is on YouTube.
You’ll recognize a melody from a Christmas carol in the opening to the first movement of the 4th String Quartet, a motiv developed further in that movement and then taken further in the third movement.
The quartet #4 (dating from 1946) is the earliest of the three big works on the CD, that also features trio #2 (1958) and quartet #5 (1965).
Listening to these marvelous pieces, I can’t help but muse about the cruel machinations controlling our access to great works of art. I’ve been listening to an old recording of his third symphony.
Klebanov composed nine symphonies, among works that have been suppressed, possibly lost. I am eager to find out more about this composer, to hear more of his music. I saw mention in Wynberg’s essay of piano pieces that I wish I could obtain to play: but when I looked in the U of T Faculty of Music online catalogue could only see one piece mentioned, the Japanese Silhouettes (also on youtube).
Popularity is a funny thing. Would we judge Khatchaturian solely on the basis of his Sabre Dance but forgetting his ballets Gayaneh or Spartacus, or Rimsky-Korsakov from the Flight of the Bumblebee while ignoring his operas, or Scheherazade? And when you insert politics into the discussion the picture is distorted much further, when we recall that a composer such as Klebanov was dissuaded or discouraged from purely artistic creation and required to promote Soviet ideals in his art. We need to remember that when listening to something like this melody for strings, one of the pieces that survived Soviet era censorship:
There are many wonderful moments on the ARC Ensemble CD. I find myself listening over & over to it, finding new depths every time through, in performances of wonderful commitment.
Klebanov reminds me of several composers, partly because he’s influenced, partly because he’s an original. Don’t be put off by the dates of these works, a period (1940s – 1960s) when the most dissonant of the modernists were at their height in Europe. Klebanov is more like Gustav Mahler or Dmitri Shostakovich. Like Mahler there are occasional suggestions of something spiritual or even religious in his music, yet he regularly dances back and forth between major and minor, playing with your expectations. Like Shostakovich the instruments are employed in the most flamboyant & virtuosic fashion even while employing soulful melodies, arching solos or unexpected dramatic effects from the players.
I happily play through the whole CD in my car, even if the latter two pieces (the trio and quartet #5) are my favorites. The trio is especially impressive. The second movement is a fandango in 6/8 that reminds me of the opening Bernard Herrmann wrote for North by Northwest, flamboyant, energetic, breath-taking. Just when you think you know who Klebanov is, he pulls back into something resembling a waltz, a bit of nostalgia Mahler would have approved of: before resuming the hair-raising chase worthy of Hitchcock. But for the next movement it’s moody and profound, more like Debussy or Ravel in its refusal to rush, self-possessed and confident. And the finale to this trio is like quicksilver, writing of gossamer fluidity. Again, just when I thought I saw where he was going with his ever darker phrases, we close with shimmering sonorities reminding me of Strauss or Korngold, a sweet glimpse of eternity.
For the Quartet #5 we’re in a more serious world, I think, less playful and more tightly controlled. There’s still melody but less of a need to entertain or be popular. Perhaps Klebanov felt he could safely express himself freely. The second movement sounds quite modern, as in modernist, reminding me of the despair in the orchestral introduction to Marie’s scene that opens the last act of Wozzeck, lost to the world and any clear tonal landmarks. Gradually we find our way into something more urgent, less Berg and more like Ravel in its willingness to play with us.
And then the finale seems like a parody of Schubert’s wild finale to his Death and the Maiden quartet, an acid trip with hell-hounds or the secret police in pursuit. Moods shift abruptly but deftly, the management of the materials so sophisticated as to take your breath away. I felt at times we were in the world of the late Mahler we hear in the 9th and 10th symphonies. In the last minute, has the nightmare finally caught up to us?
There’s a resolution but I can’t decide whether it’s happy or not. What do you think?
I will keep listening, and if I ever figure out the answer, I shall let you know.
The CD can be obtained through the Royal Conservatory’s website.