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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 Valásková (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]

Recently, I had cause to return to a disc I had not listened to in some time to make a comparative review. It was the original 1993 release of this disc. I find it all but impossible that this is already twenty-one years ago but in fact the recording wears its years lightly and I was glad to have become reacquainted. Certainly the older performance of The Battle of Stalingrad is substantially superior to the newer disc I was considering at the time - in the wind band version from the Norwegian Airforce Band - in every respect. Listening to this disc reminded me too of the quality of the work - both as conductor and editor and evangeliser of forgotten scores - of Adriano. Subsequent to listening to this disc, I revisited a wide selection of his other recordings from Auric to Respighi and more esoteric fare, and it struck me all over again the consistent quality of his work and passion for the music he champions.
 
This is singly evident throughout this disc. The two Khachaturian scores are recognisably by this composer but manage to encompass a wide emotional and illustrative range. I am not sure anyone would consider the Battle of Stalingrad to be one of the most important film scores ever written but conversely it is impressive how effectively Khachaturian embraces a dramatically and emotionally limited subject. With movement titles such as The Invasion, Stalingrad in Flames, The Enemy is Doomed and Eternal Glory to the Heroes, this was always going to be a score long on lantern-jawed sternness and lacking in lyrical reflection. Khachaturian's skill is in creating a score which has thematic cohesiveness as well as unmistakeable fingerprints of his own style. He uses a heroic Russian theme There is a cliff on the Volga as a recurring leitmotif for the valiant Soviets and a rather queasy angular march version of the German O Tannenbaum for the invaders. There is added ambiguity in using the latter since this is also known as The Red Flag.
 
In re-examining Adriano's body of work I visited his very interesting website. I would commend anyone with an interest in matters recording or musicological to visit it - he relates a host of anecdotes about the trials and tribulations of the creation of discs such as this.  There is one particular story that relates specifically to this recording.  In the late 1980s and 1990s Marco Polo had a preference for recording direct to stereo masters in the studio.  There was a significant financial benefit to this process but meant that there was no possibility in post-production of adjusting any balances.  According to Adriano, he had a strained working relationship with the producer of the Stalingrad sessions — recorded some three years earlier than Othello – as a consequence of which, a crucial off-stage trumpet section at the beginning of To Victory [track 5] was all but inaudible in the only/final mix. This had so infuriated Adriano that he had not sanctioned this disc's re-release. The reason it has now been made available again is because Adriano - at his own expense - returned to Bratislava and re-recorded this section. Remarkably, the same principal trumpeter is still in the post. Curiously, the cover of the disc makes no mention at all of this audio restoration/resurrection. Comparing the original and re-recorded versions it is clear that the new version is significantly better with trumpets proudly prominent and excitingly brazen. Equally impressive is the technical skill with which the two versions some twenty-five years apart have been mixed together. Interestingly, on the Norwegian Airforce band version, the trumpets are equally reticent. I am not sure that the presence of these re-energised brass lines makes a huge difference to one's overall impression of the work. However, as testimony to the care and attention to detail brought to the project it is another example of the calibre of Adriano's work. Also worth pointing out is the fact that this is the only complete presentation of the score - the comparable digital version that can be found in second-hand lists on ASV (reissued on Alto) from Loris Tjeknavorian cuts some eight minutes from the score.
 
In comparison, the 1955 score for Othello is an altogether more satisfying and impressive listen simply because the story allows for a far greater range of expression. This is evident from the very opening Prologue and Introduction which ranges from the brusquely exciting to the tender and passionate. Interesting to note that its date places it right next to one of Khachaturian's 'greatest hits' - the score for the ballet Spartacus. There are many melodic and rhythmic echoes of that score with some of the long-arching melodies strongly reminiscent of the famous Adagio. Soprano Jana Valásková contributes an affectingly tender wordless vocalise in Desdemona's Arioso [track 7]. The range of expression this film allowed the composer is evidenced by the contrast between the innocence of that arioso and the gritty drama of A fit of jealousy [track 12]. Indeed, for anyone who enjoys this composer and his individual style this is a very distinctive and enjoyable work. A couple of the cues seem slightly disjointed out of their cinematic context, particularly the penultimate Othello's farewell from the Camp which atmospherically adds the Slovak Philharmonic chorus but then ends with a very odd offstage 'mad laugh'. The closing Finale is wholly enjoyable for the skilful way themes and motifs are revisited bringing the work to a satisfyingly tragic conclusion.
 
Given Adriano's concerns about the balance of the disc at key points I have to say that in fact the bulk of the disc in both works is well engineered and balanced. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra is not the most refined orchestra in the world but I find its engagement with the score impressive - their wind and brass at that time retaining enough of a Slavic tang to their tone to give the performances a distinct air of authenticity. The liner-notes have been edited down from the original but remain informative and valuable. Overall, with so few other examples of Khachaturian's work in the cinema available the return of this disc deserves a warm welcome both as a sample of the composer's considerable talent and the dedication and skill of conductor Adriano.
 
Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~~ Michael Cookson