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Fikret AMIROV (1922-1984)
Shur (1948) [20:50]
Kyurdi Ovshari (1948) [15:50]
Gyulistan Bayati Shiraz (1971) [13:39]
Azerbaijan Capriccio (1961) [8:52]
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. 15-20 December, 2008, Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company, Moscow, Russia
NAXOS 8.572170 [59:11]

Experience Classicsonline
Fikret Amirov will likely inspire comparisons to Aram Khachaturian, as a result of his penchant for exotic folk-tunes and spectacular orchestration. But the comparisons will also likely be thanks to geographical convenience: both composers hailed from the Caucasus (Amirov from Azerbaijan, Khachaturian from Georgia) and both drew their inspiration from the musical traditions of their homelands. While it is true that anybody who likes Khachaturian, or Ippolitov-Ivanov, or indeed Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin, will love this music too, Amirov has a distinctive voice and to describe his work via comparisons is to shortchange it.

This CD compiles four of Amirov’s orchestral fantasies, entitled symphonic mugams. A mugam is, according to the booklet notes by Anastasia Belina, “a highly improvisatory … large rhapsodic musical form” alternating between song and dance episodes, popular in Azeri musical tradition. Amirov’s father was a mugam singer and creator of folk songs, and the younger composer, in adapting the mugam for symphony orchestra, seems to have taken the adjectives “large” and “rhapsodic” to heart. Shur and Kyurdi Ovshari, especially, are lengthy works which leap from one contrasting idea to another for quite some time before ending rather arbitrarily.

So I am afraid this is not music for those who like their works carefully structured, their tunes developed, or their transitions to lead with rigorous correctness from an idea to its logical counterpart. On the other hand, Amirov’s music is hugely attractive at the surface level, because many of the tunes are great, the dances are all energetic and brightly scored, and the parade of exotic sounds and colours never ceases.

Shur opens with an ominous drumbeat and extended dialogue between the bass clarinet and violas; over its course we encounter a good deal of sensuous music in the tradition of Scheherazade and Gayaneh’s Adagio, a tambourine-led dance episode, influences of Arabic music on the sleek string lines, solo episodes for flute and oboe, and a quiet ending. Kyurdi Ovshari opens with a sultry tease of a tune on the clarinet, but this melody only barely makes it to the fifth minute before being replaced by a full-string-section tune that actually reminds me of Gershwin and then a dialogue between the orchestra’s sections that is rather stop-and-go until a very surprising cadenza at 8:30 - I won’t betray the identity of the solo instrument. The last six minutes of Kyurdi Ovshari might be the most exciting music on the whole CD.

Gyulistan Bayati Shiraz begins quite ominously, with a moment in the spotlight for the double basses and a considerably more ‘modern’ tonal idiom. There are fewer tunes in this work, then, and more concessions to the music of Amirov’s western contemporaries, although his style is still very accessible. The surprise soloist from Kyurdi Ovshari returns to play a major role.

Azerbaijan Capriccio, the short final piece, bears a startling resemblance to many subsequent war movie soundtracks. The brash opening, then, makes me grin, as do subsequent allusions to Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto. There’s a lovely atmosphere in the episode after 2:40, and some really rip-roaring brass writing throughout. This shortest of the mugams quite concisely captures all the qualities that make Amirov’s music so much fun.

Several instruments of the orchestra benefit from more attention than usual due to their close connections with Azeri folk instruments: the violas, for instance, are called on to do their best to imitate the stringed kamancheh, and the flutes sometimes mimic the deeper, more soulful sound of the ney. The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra responds with enthusiastic, exciting performances, led by maestro Dmitry Yablonsky, who perhaps cannot save the first half of Kyurdi Ovshari from being a bit repetitive but who leads all the music with commitment and zest.

Sound quality is superb; in fact, this is one of the most clearly-engineered Naxos recordings I have heard. The parts of the orchestra are balanced very well, all of the dozens of solos sound quite natural without being artificially ‘enhanced,’ and the recording is close enough to make climaxes very exciting indeed. One can even hear the contrabassoon buzzing away like an intimidating insect in Kyurdi Ovshari. Several of Amirov’s symphonic mugams were previously recorded by Leopold Stokowski on the Everest label in the 1950s, and I have not heard those performances, unfortunately, but cannot imagine them being superior enough in playing or sound to justify the extra labour of trying to locate them.

This compact disc is well worth your time for several reasons: as an introduction to the lavish music of Fikret Amirov and as a free holiday through the sights and sounds of exotic Azerbaijan, and for a hilarious booklet photograph of conductor Dmitry Yablonsky. The music, the performances, and, yes, even the artist photo are each worth the price of admission, which means that for those interested in this type of music I can safely give this disc my strongest recommendation.

For those hungry for more Amirov, Naxos has recorded an elegiac symphony for string orchestra on a disc called “Caucasian Impressions,” and several works for flute and piano have appeared on BIS. But we are just scratching the surface. This album’s notes inform me that Amirov composed “operas, ballets, symphonies, symphonic poems, symphonic mugams, suites, piano concertos, sonatas, musical comedies … incidental stage music, and film music.” Looking online, I see there is a “double concerto” for violin, piano, and orchestra, a ballet based on the Arabian Nights, an “Azerbaijan” Orchestral Suite, and a handful of works for saxophone and orchestra. Naxos, please let this CD be only the beginning!

Brian Reinhart


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