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ARC Ensemble Resurrects a Ukrainian Composer Relegated to Obscurity through Soviet Repression

ARC Ensemble Resurrects a Ukrainian Composer Relegated to Obscurity through Soviet Repression

Published on September 24, 2021

Just Released: The World Premiere of “Chamber Works by Dmitri Klebanov”

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Chamber Works by Dmitri Klebanov CD Cover

“Chamber Works by Dmitri Klebanov,” the fifth recording in the acclaimed Music in Exile series by the ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) was released worldwide today. The album furthers ARC’s mission to explore how war, tyranny, and bigotry changed the course of musical history, and represents the first commercial release of these exhilarating Klebanov pieces. 

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. 

“Chamber Works by Dmitri Klebanov” begins the long-overdue process of gaining recognition for a composer undeservedly relegated to obscurity. Klebanov’s legacy includes nine symphonies, two concertos each for violin and cello, chamber pieces for violin and piano, several operas, and ballets, some one hundred songs, and nearly two dozen film scores. 

The highly respected ARC Ensemble – nominated for three Grammys and Germany’s prestigious OPUS Klassik awards and comprised of senior faculty and guest artists from The Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School – specializes in recovering and recording music suppressed and marginalized under the 20th century’s repressive political regimes. Due to ARC’s commitment to composers whose lives and careers were devastated by war, displacement, prejudice and racism, a growing number of hitherto unknown masterworks are now rejoining the classical repertoire. Recordings in the Music in Exile series have been named to multiple top classical albums-of-the-year lists, including those of the Boston Globe and New York’s WQXR-FM.  

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ARC Ensemble
ARC Ensemble: Erika Raum and Marie Bérard (violins), Kevin Ahfat (piano),

Steven Dann (viola), and Thomas Wiebe (cello).

“When we’re choosing a composer to record, we’re hoping to find those pulse-quickening moments that engage, affect, and, sometimes, overwhelm the listener,” says Simon Wynberg, Artistic Director of the ARC Ensemble. “In Klebanov’s work, we found that excitement, emotional appeal, and an inspiring honesty.”  

The recording is dedicated to the memory of Klebanov’s son Yuri, who provided scans of manuscript scores and filled in the blanks regarding his father’s family and career. “Yuri played an important role in the preparation of this recording,” says Wynberg. “He even emailed me scans of New Year and birthday greetings that Dmitri Shostakovich had sent to his father, and he recalled the two composers meeting at an Armenian retreat, where the guests included Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, Benjamin Britten, and Peter Pears. It came as a huge shock when Yuri died of COVID in Moscow on March 28, 2021.”

A conductor, pianist, violinist, and educator as well as a composer, Dmitri Klebanov displayed his musical gifts and passion at an early age. At 16, he was the youngest student in his class at Ukraine’s Kharkiv Institute of Music and Drama. By his graduation in 1926, Klebanov had composed two string quartets, a piano trio, several short instrumental pieces, and several songs, works likely lost or destroyed during WW II. He spent the following year as a violist with the Leningrad Opera Orchestra, working with a roster of extraordinary conductors that included Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, and Erich Kleiber. He returned to Kharkiv and his career was on the ascent in the ‘30s despite Moscow’s harsh crackdown on Ukrainian intellectual life. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Klebanov was among the more than 150,000 Jewish refugees evacuated to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Dmitri Klebanov
Dmitri Klebanov

On returning to a war-ravaged Ukraine, Klebanov wrote his First Symphony, dedicating it “To the memory of the martyrs of Babi Yar,” the massacre in which 34,000 Jews were slaughtered under Nazi direction. Premiered in 1947, the piece enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. Its acceptance was short-lived. Denounced as unpatriotic for commemorating Jewish rather than Soviet casualties, by 1949 further performances were forbidden. The Symphony was not heard again until 1990, some three years after Klebanov’s death, its impact overshadowed by Shostakovich’s symphony on the same theme composed 15 years later. 

With his symphony banned and Klebanov stripped of his posts at Ukraine’s premier musical institutions, Klebanov spent many years in de facto exile, composing forgettable, politically correct odes to Soviet socialist realism while his more independent-minded works received only occasional recognition. The cultural thaw during the Khrushchev era finally re-opened more professional doors and the composer was finally offered the directorship of the Ukraine Composers’ Union.  The catch: join the Communist Party, a definite dealbreaker for Klebanov. 

For this recording, the ARC Ensemble revives Klebanov’s vivacious String Quartet No. 4, the stunning Piano Trio No. 2, and boldly dramatic String Quartet No. 5, three pieces that offer a tantalizing taste of a composer worthy of serious attention.  

The charming and accessible Fourth String Quartet, completed in 1946, is a lively homage to much-loved composer and Ukrainian separatist Mykola Leontovych, who was killed by the state’s secret police. The piece draws on a popular Leontovych melody well-known in the West as the Christmas favourite, “Carol of the Bells.”  

The Fifth String Quartet, written in 1959, reflects a loosening of musical oversight – offending composers were now simply ignored and marginalized, rather than punished and persecuted – and Klebanov was freer to experiment with dissonance and bitonality. The opening motif sets the atmosphere for the rest of the piece’s spiky expressiveness. 

“Big-boned, unashamedly romantic, containing captivating themes, its probing, innocent melodies, constantly interrupted and challenged,” is how Wynberg describes the Piano Trio. The piece stands in stark contrast to a bombastic quintet written just four years earlier, in which Klebanov stifled his creative instincts to appease Soviet ideology. 

“It’s a paradox that in many ways we know less about 20th century than we do about the 19th and 18th,” Wynberg says. “For me, there is a moral obligation associated with the exploration of music suppressed for no reason other than a composer’s race or political beliefs.” 

The “Chamber Works of Dmitri Klebanov” recording features Erika Raum and Marie Bérard (violins), Steven Dann (viola), Thomas Wiebe (cello), and Kevin Ahfat (piano).  

The ARC Ensemble’s Klebanov recording is generously sponsored by George and Rayla Myhal & the Shevchenko Foundation. 

Learn more about the ARC Ensemble