Arif MELIKOV (b.1933) Legend of love - ballet in three Acts (1961) [112:14]
Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. 1988 (?), venue not specified MELODIYA MELCD1002326 [39:00 + 73:14]
As one of MusicWeb International's well-informed readers, you will already know that Valery Gergiev is one of the world's busiest conductors. You may also be aware that he is one of the best paid musicians of our time. You may even have observed that he really does need a good shave but did you know that he was a child prodigy on the podium?
That startling revelation comes with this two-disc set, for its rear cover boldly proclaims that Gergiev led this performance of Arif Melikov's Legend of love in 1968 when he would have been just 14 or 15 years old. The same assertion is made on pages 11, 13 and 15 of the booklet notes. Before, however, we rush to amend Mr Gergiev's Wikipedia entry, which suggests rather more plausibly that during his adolescence he was still having piano lessons, it is worth noting that other sources suggest that the recording under consideration was actually made in 1988 when he would have been in his mid-30s.
That rather slipshod standard of presentation is also evident in the inconsistent identification of the orchestra. Both the outer packaging and the English-language section of the booklet notes refer to it as the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra. The Russian-language and French-language texts describe it as the Large Symphony Orchestra of USSR Radio and Television. In fact, both attributions are probably accurate because in the Soviet era they were often used interchangeably for the same body - still performing today, incidentally, under yet another name, the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. Surely, to avoid any possible confusion, Melodiya's translators ought to have made a consistent decision on how to describe them on any single release.
It is disappointing that such glitches potentially dent our confidence in those booklet notes, for most of the site's readers will probably not previously have encountered Legend of love, the work that made the 28 years old Melikov's name when it was first performed by the Kirov Ballet in 1961. Its story had been inspired by a work of the Marxist Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963), for whom the composer was to express, if somewhat mawkishly, his enduring regard in a brief personal memoir published more than forty years later (see here). Although Melikov claims, in that memoir, to have been an apolitical composer, Legend of love's story certainly conformed to conventional Soviet ideology for it espoused the idea of sacrificing one's personal happiness for the greater good of society as a whole. In this particular case, young engineer Ferhad resolves the complications of a conventional love triangle by forsaking his opportunity of love with Shirin, beautiful sister of the jealous Queen Mehmene Banu, in favour of drilling through a mountain to bring water to the people.
Melikov was, as already noted, a relatively young and inexperienced composer in 1961 and one, moreover, who was writing in a relatively conservative environment. He was also somewhat constrained by both the general requirements of ballet and the requirement, in this case, to follow a specific storyline. Those factors may help explain why the score of Legend of love does not suggest that, at that stage, he possessed an especially distinctive musical voice. Even though there are certainly moments where Shostakovich, Prokofiev or Khachaturian come to mind, his score remains effective and most certainly fit for its specific purpose. Melikov's gifts are easily able to comprehend both rhythmically vigorous sections - of which there are more than a few - and overtly lyrical set pieces such as the attractive adagio conclusion to Act 1/Tableau 2 or the Adagio of Ferhad and Shirin and The living couple's supplication that both feature in Act2/Tableau 3.
Given an accomplished, completely idiomatic performance on these two well-recorded discs, Legend of love will certainly offer pleasure to many listeners who already enjoy, say, the music of Khachaturian's Spartacus. The more I listened to it, the more I came to appreciate this as, if not an especially original score, at the very least a highly attractive and atmospheric one. I suspect, however, that full appreciation would be helped immensely by experiencing it in a theatre as the accompaniment to a staged production. Some of our more adventurous readers may actually have done that already, for, as recently as October last year, the Bolshoi Ballet relayed a fully staged performance of Legend of love live to cinemas around the world. Perhaps someone who watched it will let us know whether it was that particular performance or another that currently features on YouTube, where it has been broken down into 13 separate clips and offers, like this attractive two-CD set, an opportunity for others to make the acquaintance of Melikov's most famous and enduring work.
Incidentally, in case you didn't click on that previous link to the composer's memoir, let me repeat an anecdote from it that offers a valuable insight into the way in which music was cynically utilised to serve the Soviet Russian state. Having been commissioned to produce a symphony to commemorate the USSR's 60th anniversary, Melikov submitted one with an atmosphere that was less overtly celebratory than tragic. Unwilling to cancel the well-publicised premiere, the authorities simply came up with their own ingeniously concocted - and utterly fictitious - explanation. They announced, without the composer’s authority or even his foreknowledge, that even during "such a remarkable holiday, the anniversary of our state, Arif Melikov never loses sight of the tragedy of African children dying of hunger, or the threat of nuclear war that hangs over all of humanity".