br>Azerbaijani Piano Concertos
Fikret AMIROV (1922-1984) and Elmira NAZIROVA (b. 1928)
Piano Concerto after Arabian Themes (1957) [24:56]
Yasif ADIGEZALOV (1935-2006)
Piano Concerto No. 4 (1994) [28:08]
Tofig GULIYEV (1917-2000)
Gaytagi - dance for piano and orchestra (1958-60) [3:41]
Farhad BADALBEYI (b.1947)
The Sea for piano and orchestra (1977) [7:54]; Shusha (2003) [4:24]
Farhad Badalbeyi (piano)
Murad Adigezalzade (piano)
Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. Cadogan Hall, London, 9, 11-12 July 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572666 [68:52]
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: at the same time as there are people who seem continually to predict the demise of the recorded music industry or at least its ever further concentration on the so-called “core” repertoire, there are companies who delight in expanding our knowledge of music by exploring, discovering and recording the rare or the completely unknown. The standard-bearer in this laudable enterprise is Naxos which does the truly sterling work in shedding light on the most unusual works. Whilst those on this disc may not be world premieres how easy would it be to find them elsewhere I wonder. In an interesting interview recently Klaus Heymann, founder of Naxos, while conceding that he has accepted that he cannot record everything in Grove, much as he’d like to, he’s happy to continue to push the musical boundaries ever further. I, for one, applaud that sentiment. He has a lot to go at since he pointed out that the estimate is that since the Middle Ages around 2 million hours of music has been written whilst a mere 100,000 hours (!) of that has been recorded.

It was the humorist George Mikes who said that composers could be divided and then sub-divided into categories such as first rate, second rate first rate, first rate second rate, second rate second rate and so on, and that on such a scoring system Bach would be first rate, while Brahms might be classed as second rate first rate. I can imagine a lot of argument ensuing in the world of music over who was placed where! While, if using such a system, the composers represented on this disc may not be placed anything like as highly as Brahms, they are certainly worth hearing and produced some exciting music everyone can enjoy.

From the liner-notes I have learned something about the music of Azerbaijan: that it is particularly known for the mugam a centuries-old highly improvisatory form of art music and that the works on this disc have managed to incorporate the principles of this form into the western musical tradition to produce something both “worlds” can relate to. This is, in part due to the contribution of Soviet composers such as Reinhold Glière who was sent to republics like Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, as a “music development helper” to assist in creating a modern native classical music and for which he received an award from the Azerbaijani Republic in 1934. In mugam the performers consist of a hanende ensemble: tar, a plucked double-chested lute-like instrument widely used in Middle-Eastern art music, a bowed string instrument called kemancha and a tambourine-playing singer, the hanende.

The first concerto on the disc is the result of a collaboration between the composer Fikret Amirov and the pianist Elmira Nazirova - the inspiration behind Shostakovich’s 10th symphony in which the composer musically encrypted her name in the third movement – you really do learn something every day! In this concerto the piano is cast in the role of the hanende, carrying the “story”, and not only does it successfully marry the traditions of Azerbaijani mugam with the western musical idiom, it further incorporates several Arabian themes that Amirov collected on visits to Arab countries where he was struck by the similarities with native Azerbaijani themes. Those Arabian-sounding themes appear right at the start of the concerto, introduced by the orchestra and quickly taken up by the piano. They are themes you can immediately recall as the tunes weave and turn; think belly dancer and you will get the idea, and one is also reminded of Khachaturian’s Gayaneh as well as his music from Spartacus - though Azerbaijanis would probably be incensed that anyone should compare their music with that created in Armenia. In short all the music on the disc is unashamedly romantic, and why not. What is evident is that the composers are great at spinning a tune and masters at arranging them for an orchestra. The first movement is a lively and colourful statement of these Arabian themes which is followed by a more sombre mood in the second where there is plenty of drama, only for that mood to be dispelled in the final movement where the themes from the beginning of the concerto are restated in a conversation between piano and orchestra leading to a pulsating, energetic and exciting climax.

We remain in the same sound-world in the next work, Adigezalov’s 4th piano concerto; in fact if you didn’t know you could be forgiven for thinking you were still listening to the same concerto as before. This should not be construed as a criticism, except, perhaps of the listener, simply as a result of being unused to the sounds involved. Adigezalov, according to the notes, was an extremely prolific composer who studied composition with Kara Karayev who is, perhaps better known in “the West”. His works cover just about every musical genre from oratorios and cantatas to film music, including four symphonies and concertos for violin and cello as well as for piano. Once again the predominant sounds are firmly recognisable, even for western ears, as emanating from the Middle East and very lovely they are too. I was often reminded of Richard Adinsell’s Warsaw Concerto but I don’t mean it in a pejorative way though I know those who are “sniffy” about that work are so because they regard it as too “simplistic” but why do things have to be complicated to be more highly regarded? I am saying this because it is true that these works are uncomplicated and lack the degree of complexity that some regard as proof that a work is worthy. If you are not in that camp I urge you to give this disc a try as you will find much to enjoy if you appreciate a good tune well played and will find yourself humming several of the themes well after the disc is over.

To this heady mix of western musical traditions and Azerbaijani folk rhythms the composer Tofig Guliyev adds American jazz and this is very evident in his piece Gaytagi – dance for piano and orchestra which he originally wrote in 1958 for piano alone, orchestrating it in 1980 and quite brilliantly I must say. This exuberant piece explodes from the very beginning - think of John Adams’ Short ride in a fast machine seen through a Middle Eastern prism - and would make a superb encore piece with which to respond to an audience’s applause and it would be sure to delight them into answering with more and even louder clapping. It is great fun and even involves a resounding Hey! from the players seconds before the final notes.

The penultimate work on this fascinating disc is written and played by composer/pianist Farhad Badalbeyli, the pianist on all the other piano works apart from Adigezalov’s concerto. His work The Sea for piano and orchestra is even more reminiscent of the Warsaw Concerto with its lush and romantic scoring, full of sumptuous sounds that truly evoke the sea in its most majestic and attractive mood. The tumbling notes perfectly describe the sunlit lapping waves, with harp joining in to help describe it petering out suddenly at its close. The last work on the record is a piece of vocalise, also by Badalbeyli but without his pianistic input. It is entitled Shusha, the name of an ancient Azerbaijani city from which most of the country’s musicians and composers have sprung, including Fikret Amirov and the composer’s father, and which remains a symbol of the country’s artistic heritage. The piece is a sad lament for it following its capture in 1992 by Armenian forces, and ends with the only words in it “Where are you Shusha, ah my sunny Shusha?” It is sung by Joan Rodgers whose crystal clear soprano voice is absolutely perfect for this style of singing in which the voice becomes a true instrument soaring above the orchestra in a wonderfully evocative way and making the piece a powerful statement of regret felt by Azerbaijanis over their loss of a centre of their culture.

The playing by both pianists on the disc is faultless and the orchestra’s contribution shows that it has got inside the sound world as if “to the manner born”. This disc is a brilliant introduction to the classical music of Azerbaijan and anyone interested in exploring this little known corner of our musical world should hear it and they will find some romantic treasures that reward repeated listening and at the famously keen Naxos price represents no risk at all. I loved it.

Steve Arloff

This disc is a brilliant introduction to the classical music of Azerbaijan.

See also review by Rob Barnett