courtesy of Naxos of America
For those of my generation, the Soviet composer Dmitry Kabalevsky was responsible for one of the most popular pieces of orchestral music, whose title (as well as the composer’s name) was unknown to most listeners. That was because all of those listeners knew it as the theme music for a television game show called Masquerade Party in which celebrities would disguise themselves and members of a panel would then have to figure out who they were beneath the disguise. The music itself was a madcap Presto affair, which was the second movement, entitled “Comedians’ Galop,” from Kabalevsky’s Opus 26 orchestral suite The Comedians. During the Fifties and early Sixties, its popularity was rivaled only by the “Sabre Dance,” an equally wild and wooly affair extracted from the ballet Gayane by another Soviet composer, Aram Khachaturian, and frequently chosen to accompany daredevil circus acts.
Generations later Kabalevsky has become all but forgotten in the United States. The overture to his Opus 24 opera Colas Breugnon surfaces from time to time, usually through either broadcasting or a pops concert, while The Comedians is all but forgotten. However, at the beginning of this month, the Capriccio label, based in Austria, released an entire album of Kabalevsky’s music. The Colas Breugnon overture is included, but it is there as the beginning of a four-movement orchestral suite that the composer extracted from his Opus 24 opera. There are also two concertante compositions, the Opus 48 violin concerto in C major and the Opus 75 rhapsody on the theme of the song “Schoolyears,” scored for piano and orchestra. The remaining orchestral selections are the Opus 64 “Pathetique” overture and the Opus 65 symphonic poem entitled “Spring.”
All of these selections are played by the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz (state philharmonic of the Rhineland-Palatinate), based in Ludwigshafen am Rhein in Germany. The ensemble is led by chief conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens, who has held the position since August 1, 2009. The concertante soloists are violinist Yury Revich and pianist Magda Amara. The release is part of a series called “modern times,” which seems to be a project conceived by Steffens to review the nature of modernism during the twentieth century (possibly taking inspiration from Charlie Chaplin). According to my records, my first (and only until today) encounter with this series came with the release of an album devoted entirely to the music of George Antheil.
The Kabalevsky album definitely goes down easily on the ears. His themes are consistently accessible, and he clearly delights in using the full auditory spectrum of an orchestral ensemble. The basic units of his compositions, whether movements or sections, tend to be brief. He says what he has to say and then moves on to say something else. His Opus 48 concerto will definitely appeal to violinists who enjoy strutting their virtuoso capabilities, and audiences for such violinists will be easily won over by Kabalevsky’s upbeat rhetoric.
None of this, however, should suggest that the composer was in any way casual or sloppy in his technique. Every track on this album is clearly based on a solid foundation of technical discipline. However, the “program” for the entire album is just as clearly one that it not inclined to wallow in profundities. In other words this is a recording of good healthy fun, and it is nice to know that such recordings still get released from time to time.