I never saw the ballet Spartacus in its entirety, but
love the chunks that I have heard. Usually these were the Adagio
of Spartacus and Phrygia, Aegina’s Variation and
Bacchanal, and the Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens.
I liked these, and was always curious about the entire ballet
and wondered why it’s always the same small subset selected
for performance. If these selections were an indication of the
quality, maybe the rest was not inferior? After listening to
the entire ballet I can say that the rest may not be inferior,
but that it is the right to choose the selections for concert
use. This is apparently one of those ballets which cannot be
appreciated without the visual component; its music alone cannot
hold one’s attention over its 2.5 hours, unlike the magnificent
ballets of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. It is just not diverse
enough, and though each separate scene provides interesting
listening each is interesting in a very similar way.
In the Soviet Union Spartacus was much trumpeted and
acclaimed as almost the best ballet of Modern times, and I can
see why: it is an ideal socialist realist work, bombastic, easy
to grasp, perfect music to be consumed by the Proletariat. We
know close to nothing about the music of Ancient Rome, so Khachaturian
had more or less to invent the entire style. What he chose is
highly rhythmic, accentuated, often repetitive, with simple
harmonies, and with motifs that may be square, yet are catchy
and hummable: a perfect recipe for success in the Soviet Union.
It should have completely removed the stamp of formalism, which
was inexplicably placed on placid Khachaturian in 1948. It seems
that following this condemnation the composer deliberately simplified
his style to the minimum. Anyway, the music is inspired, and
can serve as an example of a socialist-realist creation where
real talent made the art believable.
The story is loosely based on the eponymous book by Raffaello
Giovagnoli, a popular one in the USSR, and on several historical
chronicles, especially that by Plutarch. The good guys are Spartacus,
a Thracian gladiator, the leader of the revolt of the slaves,
and his lover Phrygia. The bad guys are the Roman general Crassus
and his mean girlfriend Aegina. There is love, treachery and
the righteous wrath of the masses. Even though the hero dies,
the message of the ballet is optimistic, as it is bound to have
been in a truly Soviet work of art.
The music is grand and energetic, with a black-and-white, martial
character. It has some longueurs and a few moments of banality.
Still, it’s not all a victory lap: there is suffering,
struggle and pain, and the music of the struggle breathes with
a realistic infectious enthusiasm and sings the certainty of
victory. The cymbals get little rest, and there are so many
culminations on the way that they start losing their sting.
The orchestration is heavy and colorful, with a lot of work
for the brass and the percussion. A chorus is employed at strategic
points, to remarkable effect. So it is more or less 2.5 hours
of oomtza-oomtza and boom-boom. Many dances are
march-like. Khachaturian was never far from traditional Armenian
music, and there are some Armenian-hued melodies and intonations,
although due to their exotic character they can as well double
as Ancient Roman. The seductive saxophone accompanies the nymphomaniac
Aegina when she dances for Crassus. The Dance of the Gaditaniae
sounds like a creative answer to Ravel’s Bolero.
For those who love the Sabre Dance (who doesn’t?)
the score has the Dance of the Greek Slave(s), where
the composer employs similar effects, though the result is less
catchy. Some parts like the General Dance in Act III
have rolling minimalist appeal.
The performance is solid and enthusiastic and has real drive.
The soloists are expressive, and the balance of the orchestra
is good. The brass is bright and golden. It is possible that
in order to make this music less trivial some non-trivial conducting
decisions should be made, but Michail Jurowski gives a faithful
account, without surprises. He conducts Aegina’s Variation
quite slowly, at least slower than I am used to. This number
does not really take flight, and is not as fiery as it could
be; it smells of Minkus. The ensuing Bacchanale, however,
is fast and wild enough. The heavenly Adagio of Spartacus
and Phrygia is as magical as ever. This is definitely the
highlight. It has its own internal dramatic development, and
in a good performance can be a cathartic experience. It is full
of profound tenderness and sincere love.
The recording is clean and realistic. The booklet contains the
biography of the composer, the history of the creation of Spartacus,
and a synopsis of the ballet, all of it in German and English.
If you miss the times when everything was simple, and the world
was divided into the imminently doomed Bad Guys, and the Modest
Heroes of Everyday Labour, then this music can definitely bring
you much enjoyment. That said, there are longueurs, so think
twice - maybe the suites extracted from the ballet are still
the better choice.