Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Spartacus – excerpts (1956) [37:27]
I. Introduction – Dance of the Nymphs [5:12]
II. Adagio of Aegina and Harmodius [7:48]
III. Variation of Aegina and Bacchanalia [3:42]
IV. Scene and Dance with Crotala [4:07]
V. Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia [10:03]
VI. Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens [6:34]
Gayane – excerpts (1942) [35:10]
I. Dance of Friends [1:57]
II. Carpet embroidery scene [2:59]
III. Lezghinka [2:51]
IV. Uzundara [2:39]
V. Dance of the Girls [3:02]
VI. Scene and Dance [4:24]
VII. Aysha and Gayane [4:54]
VIII. Aysha's monologue [4:20]
IX. Dance of the Mountaineers [2:09]
X. Sabre dance [2:35]
XI. Hopak [3:17]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 1-2 July 2010, The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK
ONYX 4036 [72:48]

Georgian-born Aram Khachaturian never lost sight of his Armenian musical heritage, celebrated most memorably in the ballets Spartacus and Gayane. Despite his long list of compositions, these two works – or bits of them at least – are still the best known and most performed. This music is well represented on disc, the composer’s own performances – with the Vienna Philharmonic, no less – re-mastered and reissued on Decca Legends 460 315-2. We also have fellow Armenian Loris Tjeknavorian’s ASV (review review review) and RCA (review) recordings from the 1970s; these were much celebrated at the time, but now they tend to sound rather crude and overdriven.

Enter the Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits, who recently succeeded Marin Alsop as principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. He and the BSO certainly made a powerful impression at their Proms debut in 2009; that much-lauded concert included excerpts from Spartacus and Gayane. Given this general acclaim, it makes good sense to choose music from these ballets for their first recording with Onyx. And it needs to be something special, as the Alsop/BSO partnership was both popular and – in terms of recordings – very rewarding.

The story of Spartacus, the slave who led a revolt against the Romans, seems a natural fit for a Soviet composer writing in the mid-1950s. True, Khachaturian had been vilified – along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich – in the infamous Zhdanov Decree of 1948, but eight years later he was back in favour with the Party. It’s tempting to see these works as rather predictable prole-pleasers but, as with much second-rate music, they benefit from committed performances. The composer’s own recording – made in 1962 – is a case in point, helped by the glorious, full-bodied playing of the VPO.

The Bournemouth band are in fine fettle too, The Dance of the Nymphs rhythmically supple and well paced. The recording is spacious and detailed, although the thumping tuttis – and there are plenty of those in these scores – do reveal a softness in the bass at times. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it does rob the music of that last degree of tizz and tingle. That said, there’s real eloquence in the Adagio of Aegina and Harmodius – some lovely harp playing, too – and it’s in these low-key numbers that Karabits’ more restrained and detailed reading really pays dividends. Just sample the hushed final bars, which are most beautifully phrased and recorded.

But it’s the up-tempo numbers – such as the Variation of Aegina and Bacchanalia – that test players and engineers to the very limit. Despite my earlier caveats about the bass on this recording, there’s no lack of weight or excitement at this point; indeed, climaxes expand with impressive power and precision. The composer is also most persuasive here, although the Decca sound is inclined to harden under pressure. Both conductors are at their best in the glowing Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia, but it’s Karabits who really manages to convey the breath-bated thrall of the theatre here.

As for the gentle, rocking theme at the start of the Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens, it’s never sounded so much like Mahler. But any hint of bucolic charm is short-lived, the music building, Boléro-like, to a splendid close. The VPO are thrilling here, but they must yield to the BSO in terms of orchestral discipline and attack; and all praise to Onyx for capturing the energy and abandon of this drum-propelled, percussion-capped finale. Definitely no lack of presence or dynamics here.

Private passions and public duty lie at the heart of Khachaturian’s first ballet Gayane, the story of an Armenian girl who has to decide between her own feelings and the pull of patriotism. It must have been a potent mix for Russian audiences in December 1942 – the siege of Leningrad was just 15 months old – yet the ballet is remembered mainly for its ubiquitous Sabre Dance and Adagio. It’s very cinematic music, which is why Stanley Kubrick chose the latter to accompany shadow-boxing astronaut Gary Lockwood in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Inexplicably, Karabits has chosen to omit this lovely snippet, which the Viennese strings play with such poise and feeling.

That said, there’s plenty of enjoyable – if undemanding – material here. That said, the Dance of the Friends is a tad foursquare, and the bass isn’t terribly well-defined. By contrast, the carpet embroidery scene is both lively and bright, the show-stopping Lezghinka played with a brio – and that doesn’t mean breathlessness – that had me reaching for the repeat button. More than once, I must confess. A treat for hi-fi buffs and, more important, proof that this conductor and band can put on a real spectacle when required.

Musically the pieces that follow are pleasing enough, the steady rhythms of Uzundara and the Dance of the Girls deftly articulated, the brass in the Scene and Dance nicely blended. Despite some fine playing there’s no disguising the occasional lack of invention here, although Karabits does find a welcome degree of tenderness in Aysha and Gayane. But there’s a rumty-tum feel to some of Aysha’s monologue, which reminds me of run-of-the-mill French ballets of the 19th century; Spartacus, written 14 years later, is a much earthier and musically more diverse score. In that sense, Gayane is really a dry run for its more interesting successor.

Paradoxically, the Sabre Dance shows Tjeknavorian at his best and worst; yes, his is an exhilarating performance, but the sound is over-bright and it’s just too overheated for my tastes. The VPO are nowhere near as febrile, yet they still capture all the magnetism and drive of this iconic tune. The dance has also found its way into the cinema, most notably in the cleverly choreographed hula-hoop sequence from the Coen brothers’ film The Hudsucker Proxy. It does for the Sabre Dance what 2001 did for the Adagio. Needless to say, Karabits and the BSO are riveting here; thanks to the Onyx engineers they’re in a league of their own sound-wise, but some may find the composer’s own version runs at a higher voltage. That said, there’s no shortage of electricity in the Hopak, or Cossack Dance, that rounds off this marvellous disc.

As a recording and a performance this disc bodes well for the BSO/Karabits/Onyx partnership, and I look forward to reviewing their future releases. This is also the first Onyx issue I’ve heard, and it’s clearly a good-quality product. If they can do for this conductor and orchestra what Naxos did for Alsop and the BSO, then we’re in for a real treat. But please, no more Digipaks; they’re so low rent – and they look tatty in no time at all.

Dan Morgan

As a recording and a performance this disc bodes well for the BSO/Karabits/Onyx partnership.