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Dmitry KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Overture Pathétique in B minor Op.64 (1960) [3:59]
Violin Concerto in C major Op.48 (1948) [16:17]
Rhapsody on the theme of the song 'School Years' (1963) [12:49]
Vesna (Spring) - Symphonic Poem Op.65 (1960) [6:29]
Colas Breugnon - Orchestral Suite Op.24 (1937) [19:58]
Yury Revich (violin), Magda Amara (piano), Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz / Karl-Heinz Steffens
rec. 2018, Ludwigshafen Philharmonie, Germany
CAPRICCIO C5347 [59:32]

This is the eighth release in Capriccio's ongoing survey collectively titled "Modern Times". Each disc presents an intelligently programmed overview of an individual 20th Century composer ranging from Vaughan Williams to Antheil, Dallapiccola to Dutilleux. The only other disc I have heard in the series is the rather good one of Ginastera's works and it follows the concept of the cycle by including rarities as well as more familiar repertoire. On the Ginastera disc it was an orchestral suite from the opera Bomarzo here on this new disc of Kabalevsky's music it is the Overture Pathétique and the Rhapsody on the theme of the song 'School Years' - always good to give a piece a snappy title.

Of these rarer works one is a hit - the Rhapsody - while the Overture - is about as full of empty musical rhetoric as it is imaginable for a piece to be, which is a shame as it is placed first on the disc. Kabalevsky is usually perceived as a composer willing to work within the Soviet system with little that overtly or implicitly was critical and whilst superb works such as his Cello Sonata and the Requiem reveal deeper more troubled waters the music of this disc concentrates on the 'public' composer. The musical material for both the overture and the symphonic poem Spring is drawn from the score to the 1957 film Sisters. Whatever the merits of the music in the context of the film the overture comes over as empty bombast. This is generic "dark and stormy night" music which struggles to stand alone. Kabalevsky's scoring is always effective and it is played with neat precision but a certain clinical objectivity by the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. For this music to work at all it needs to be played with a raw dynamism that typified Soviet era orchestras - polite bombast is not an effective combination. Spring appeared as a coupling with the two cello concerti on a Naxos disc from Igor Golovschin and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. As a stand-alone work it is substantially more effective than the overture. Golovschin favours a more lyrical and reflective approach to Karl-Heinz Steffens on this new disc - the Naxos performance runs to 8:08 to the new disc's 6:29. Where Golovschin is broad, Steffens lilts. Actually both approaches are beautifully played by their respective orchestras and both are very effective. If pushed, I prefer Golovschin's more expansive view although the argument for the extra urgency of Steffens spring awakening is valid too.

Kabalevsky's enduring fame - outside of Russia at least - rests on the overture to Colas Breugnon and the effervescent Violin Concerto. Both works are included on this new disc and both receive good if not completely memorable performances. The concerto is one of the triptych of 'youth' concerti that Kabalevsky wrote soon after the end of World War II. These are instantly accessible, tuneful and attractive works with the violin concerto the most enduring popular of the three. Technically this holds few fears for the soloists of today and here Yury Revich tosses off the solo part with easy nonchalance. This work does not aspire for greatness but again my sense is that it is most rewarding for the listener if the players perform it as if it were. Both Revich and the orchestra breeze through the work with a degree of detachment that makes the most of the work's melodic richness and light-hearted good nature but does not hint at any greater depths. Listen to the old David Oistrakh recording for something altogether weightier in concept but still with bubbling energy and humour. Oistrakh's pupil Lydia Mordkovich made a recording in the early halcyon days of the Chandos/Neeme Jarvi/Scottish National Orchestra collaboration that is nearly the equal of her great teacher. The Chandos disc still sounds very well even though it was recorded in 1990 and this is exactly the kind of music Jarvi did so effectively. As such, the new recording cannot seriously supplant that performance.

The second concertante work on the disc is the Rhapsody on the theme of the song 'School Years'. Kabalevsky was known as something of a specialist in the field of music for young people - as evidenced by the three youth concerti. This rhapsody is another example. According to the liner note, Kabalevsky wrote the original song 'School Years' which has the status of a near-folksong in Russia, as well as this work - in effect a sequence of 10 variations on the song framed by an introduction and coda - for the "Dmitry Kabalevsky Competition for Young Pianists" in 1963. This work encapsulates all of the composer's strengths; concision, attractive orchestration and effective writing for individual instruments, ebullient energy and melodic memorability. The liner also states the piece soon became "one of the most popular concert works of contemporary Russian music". The current catalogue seems to contain three other versions currently from Naxos, CPO and Alto but I know none of them. In isolation, this new recording strikes me as rather good. Again the soloist, here Magda Amara, is unphased by any technical complexities the score may contain. But crucially, when required, she injects the music with the all-important edge and muscle. Throughout the disc the Capriccio engineering is very good in a neutral concert-hall sense with inner detail well caught and balances between solo parts and the ensemble effectively managed. My only feeling is that the slight distancing of the orchestra reinforces the sense of occasional detachment with the bite and brio of the music diminished. But that is less the case in this rhapsody. The music plays continuously but even at first listen it is easy for the ear the hear the sequence of variations. Kabalevsky keeps the solo part nimble but lightly scored and Amara is excellent at allowing the brilliance of the writing to register with exactly the right combination of energy and bravura. Likewise the reflective variations are treated with touching simplicity. In much the same style as Shostakovch's Piano Concerto No.2 this does not aspire to be profound or indeed serious music instead it is light music of the highest order. The brilliance of much of the writing displays the qualities of both soloist and orchestra to best effect.

The disc is completed by a suite of orchestral movements from the opera Colas Breugnon. Back in the day when a concert would always start with an Overture the one provided for this opera was pretty much Kabalevsky's calling card to the West. It remains, with the likes of Candide and Donna Diana, one of the most enjoyable curtain-raisers ever written. An instant hit, it has been recorded by the likes of Reiner (twice), Toscanini and many others. As long as the orchestra have the technical resources - which here they undoubtedly do - its a near sure-fire hit. That said, go no further than the bizarrely stodgy and po-faced account from Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra on DG for evidence of how even the best ensembles can miss the point on occasion. Steffens here is no Reiner [particularly the Pittsburgh incarnation] and again the nagging feeling returns that a little more inhibition would lift a very good performance to the next level of engaged excellence. The remainder of the suite are three orchestral sections entitled The People's Feast, The People's Calamity and The People's Insurrection. Although by no means the composer's best known suite - The Comedians must take that accolade - there are other versions in the current and second hand catalogue. My only known comparison is from Vasily Jelvakov and the Moscow SO on Naxos but there exists versions on an old ASV disc from Loris Tjeknavorian in Armenia and CPO with Eiji Oue.

The music - the overture aside - is more overtly serious and descriptive than the two concertante works here. Again the new version is very well played and cleanly engineered but I find myself preferring the less sophisticated playing and engineering of the Moscow recording. Think of the difference between gaudy primary colours and a more nuanced pastel palette with Steffens the latter. I can imagine many listeners might prefer the poise of this new disc but I have always relished the attack and grit of the old Soviet-style playing [surely what Kabalevsky had in his compositional ear] and the 1995 Naxos recording enshrines that legacy in part at least. Steffens is tellingly slower than Jelvakov in the Overture but then substantially faster in The People's Feast and in both instances I prefer the Russian's choice. The third movement represents the impact of the plague and is rather melodramatic in a cinematic style but the new performance benefits from the extra detail the modern recording affords but I do like the way the stalking low brass registers in Moscow. The closing People's Insurrection again shows a basic difference in musical approach; the opening tempo Steffens chooses is positively perky with Jelvakov weightier and more determined which purely subjectively I find more convincing.

The liner of this disc in German and English only suffers from a rather clumsy translation into the latter; referencing Oistrakh's championing of the violin concerto we are told this; "bestow[ed] on it a special nobilation in the artistic sense". Elsewhere, Shostakovich's Festive Overture is called his Solemn Overture. The engineering is good throughout and the playing a model of modern technical mastery. At just under an hour's worth of music, another work would have been welcome in every sense. As a single disc survey of the range and variety of Kabalevsky's music this is a useful and well-constructed programme. Kabalevsky is well represented in the catalogue but his presence across numerous labels and artists means considerable duplication for the committed collector. My feeling is that the dedicated collector will be better served by other performances in every instance but those happy to have a single Kabalevsky disc in their collection will find much music to enjoy here.

Nick Barnard




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