Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Spartacus - ballet in 3 acts (1954) [136:50]
RIAS-Kammerchor, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Michail Jurowski
rec. 6-9 February 1996, 14-18 February 1997, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem.
CAPRICCIO C5112 [75:47 + 61:03]  

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. 

Oleg Ledeniov 

An ideal socialist realist work.