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
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
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.
An ideal socialist realist work.