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Aram Il'yich KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
The Battle of Stalingrad Suite (1948–50) [29:48]
Othello Suite (1956) [33:41]
Viktor Simcisko (violin) Jana Valaskova (soprano)
Slovak Philharmonic Chorus
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
rec. Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, 6-8 July 1989, 22-24 June 1992.
NAXOS FILM MUSIC CLASSICS 8.573389 [63:14]

This disc was one of Ian Lace’s Recommended Original Film Score Recordings when first issued at full price as Marco Polo 8.223314. Here it resurfaces at upper bargain price.

Khachaturian, like many another composer, major and lesser, in Soviet Russia, turned his hand to the cinema and did so pretty extensively. This was a great leveller, a ready source of income and a means of reaching out to mass audiences across the Union. The pity is that we see so few of those films. If we think at all about them we much more readily accept seeing them written off as the work of political hacks. The composer’s first effort – of eighteen - was the film Pepo written for the Armenian Film Board a few years before his First Symphony (1934). His last film dated from 1960.
 
Here are suites assembled from the music for two of Khachaturian’s cinema scores. They are played for all they are worth. Adherents of this composer and of twentieth century music of the USSR will want to hear how he fared in dealing with the silver screen.
 
The Battle of Stalingrad original score ran to some two hours. The titles give us some impression of what is featured in this suite: I. A City on the Volga - II. The Invasion; IIIa. Stalingrad in Flames; IIIb. The Enemy is doomed; IV. For our Motherland; To the Attack! - Eternal Glory to the Heroes; V. To Victory - VI. There is a Cliff on the Volga. Much of this is urgent and not specially subtle – then again this is not meant to be about subtlety. The music often has a furious seething energy typical of the militaristic bravado found in the music for the Roman legionaries in Spartacus. We also hear little half-echoes of The Great Gate of Kiev. There are some glowing interludes such as that to be found in the almost Bridge-like battlefield bleakness of tr. 3 and at the close of tr. 4 (Eternal Glory to the Heroes). There are also moments that seem to evoke the composer’s great ballets – especially Spartacus. The cheery brassy march that is To Victory is noticeably purged of the ferocity to be found in the turbulent flag-waving first movement. This could almost be a march by Arthur Bliss. There’s a brass band version of the suite on Lawo which Nick Barnard did not think much of.
 
Both Chandos and Capriccio have done extensive series of the film music of Shostakovich. No such thorough efforts have gone in Khachaturian’s direction. There has been this single disc from Naxos and some film suites from ASV. Indeed fifteen minutes of Loris Tjeknavorian’s take on The Battle of Stalingrad was issued on Alto. It was originally issued with the Second Symphony.

If the Stalingrad score’s gaudy virtues are embraced, often at the expense of the more understated and nuanced, Othello from 1955 is much more multi-faceted. This is as befits a presumably fairly classy Shakespeare film in a translation made by Boris Pasternak – he of Doctor Zhivago fame. The Prologue and Intermezzo is especially touching with a memorable tolling solo violin which returns in the finale. There’s also some extremely inventive writing in a mode recalling Prokofiev who had died two years before this film. The Desdemona Arioso is a swellingly emotional vocalise for soprano with orchestra with more than few links with the famous Adagio from Spartacus. The little Venice Nocturne (tr.4) is a lovely miniature, showing as does much of this score, that Khachaturian is much more than a peddler of crushingly loud music. The grey psychological aspects of Nocturnal Murder make way for the intensity of Othello’s Despair. The urgently rushing A Fit of Jealousy will have you thinking of the ruthlessly athletic music for Crassus in Spartacus. If Khachaturian indulges in a Hollywood-style choir in the Finale – well, why not, and it is by no means cheesy.
 
The recording is extremely good despite its 25 year vintage. The notes by the conductor are helpful in placing the score and the films from which this music is drawn.
 
I hope that at some time, in a world where there are seemingly hundreds of film channels, we will get to see these films.
 
There you have it: specialist territory maybe but two very welcome substantial suites from the world of Khachaturian’s film music.

Rob Barnett