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Kara KARAYEV (1918-1982)
Symphony No. 3 (1964) [25:35]
Leyla and Mejnun (1947) [13:42]
Don Quixote (Symphonic Engravings) (1960) [18:52]
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Yablonsky.
rec. Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow, 2-6 March 2008.
NAXOS 8.570720 [58:10]
Experience Classicsonline

This is fascinating. Karayev was a pupil of Shostakovich whose music is heavily indebted to the music of his native Azerbaijan. Little of his music has been reviewed so far on MusicWeb. The Editor tackled a now long deleted Russian Revelation disc “Russian Violin Concertos” in the site’s early days. This included Karayev’s Violin Concerto of 1968. The disc was in RR’s Rare Repertoire series and the Karayev shared space with concertos by Knipper, Khrennikov and Rakov. Karayev in fact wrote three symphonies. A work list can be found here. There is also an informative Wikipedia article where the the composer’s name is rendered as “Gara Garayev”.

If the symphony starts absolutely la (le?) Shostakovich, it soon veers off into a more overtly serialist world. This was one of the early Soviet works to use twelve-note rows. Motor rhythms emerge in what is essentially a collage of a movement. Piano clusters add colour. Some moments of strain in the violins presage an episode of true discomfort from this section in the second movement; just before three minutes in. 

The back cover of the disc refers to “the five-hundred-year-old ashug melody” in the second movement. What we get is a serialist’s take on ashug: “I wanted to prove that, strictly following twelve-tone technique, it is possible to write nationalistic music”, said the composer in relation to this movement. The music is appealingly charming, as it turns out, with frequent glances at a sort of distorted Prokofiev. I can imagine a performance of this music that dances just a little more, but in the circumstances it seems positively churlish to cavil. The “slow” movement - it is marked Andante - is the still heart of the symphony. It boasts a truly beautiful oboe melody, wonderfully played here, that alone justifies the purchase of this disc. The finale is generally contrapuntal, serious and contemplative. The major fugal part strains the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra players somewhat here, but it remains fascinating. This is particularly the case with the sparing use of the harpsichord and, in the slow, ruminative coda, the piano. 

The symphonic poem Leyla and Mejnun won a Stalin prize in 1948. Inspired by the twelfth-century Azerbaijani poet Nizami, Leyla and Mejnun relates a tale of “star-cross’d lovers” united in death. The opening section is deliberately oppressive; there then follows the struggle against fate before a theme of love joins the fray. If there is the odd touch of the pedestrian in the writing, it really does occur in passing. Generally there is plenty of character here. The quiet end is particularly memorable. 

Don Quixote carries the wonderful subtitle, Symphonic Engravings. The musical material comes from music to the film that carries the same name. The eight sections describe a sequence of Quixote’s adventures. A movement called Travels appears like a Mussorgskian “Promenade”. This is by far the most appealing music on the disc – some sections even verge on the carefree, and the musical language is more approachable than that of the Third Symphony. The movement entitled Aldonse is slow and of gossamer-light scoring with a lovely, winding flute melody, while Pavan reveals a very real nobility. The penultimate movement, Cavalcade takes us mightily close to the world of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet but it is the keening string laments of Don Quixote’s Death that make the greatest impression. 

It is repertoire explorations such as this that give hope in this recession-torn world.

Colin Clarke


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