Aram Il’yich KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, ‘The Bell’ (1943) [48:26] LermontovSuite (excerpts) (1959) [14:04]
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. 18-23 November 2006, Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Co
KULTURA, Moscow NAXOS 8.570436 [52:30]
Mention Khachaturian and most people think of his ballets.
Who can forget the sight of Gary Lockwood shadow-boxing his way around
the spermatozoon-spaceship in 2001 to the Adagio from
the third Gayaneh suite? Or the Sabre Dance, from
the same work, put to inspired use in that hula-hoop sequence from TheHudsucker Proxy? Then there are the popular concertos, one
each for violin, cello and piano; as it happens I’ve just reviewed
a splendid new account of the latter. Khachaturian’s three symphonies
have fared less well; that said, the handful of recordings that do exist
come from the likes of Leopold Stokowski (EMI-Warner), Neeme Järvi (Chandos),
Loris Tjeknavorian (ASV) and the composer himself (Decca and Melodiya).
Given this comparatively poor showing – in numbers, if not quality
of performance – I was pleased to welcome Dmitry Yablonsky’s
coupling of the Second Symphony and excerpts from the Lermontov
suite. I’m surprised it’s taken so long to release this
album – it was recorded in 2006 – as Yablonsky is usually
worth hearing in repertoire from the Soviet era. Two very fine recordings
come to mind; that of Shostakovich’s film music for Grigori Kozintsev’s
and a superbly remastered collection of the same composer’s ballet
As for the Russian Philharmonic, it draws musicians from several Moscow-based
Khachaturian’s Simfoniya s kolokolom, written in 1943,
owes its name to the bells that ring out in the first and last movements.
Like Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony it’s a wartime
piece, with all the associations that implies; indeed, the composer
called it a ‘requiem of wrath’. I really don’t find
such descriptions helpful, and I try to ignore them when listening.
Yablonsky’s Andante maestoso is mighty impressive, but
those reared on the composer’s Decca/Wiener Philharmoniker recording
will be underwhelmed by the puny alarm bell - or tocsin - in
this new one.
Otherwise, Yablonsky’s performance has plenty of thrust and sweep,
and the climaxes emerge with considerable weight and clarity. And while
the quieter moments are wonderfully transparent the lovely tunes that
rise from the mix are more striking – more passionate –
on the Decca disc than they are on the Naxos one. Also, the Viennese
players articulate rhythms more emphatically and/idiomatically than
their Russian counterparts do. Not surprisingly, the Naxos recording
is far more sophisticated than Decca’s, with none of the ‘focus
pulling’ and overloaded climaxes that mar the latter. Even so,
there’s a raw vitality to that old ‘un that the newcomer
simply can’t match.
To be sure, Khachaturian is inclined to wander at times – Yablonsky
has the firmer grip – but that irks me far less than a taut, super-refined
reading that lacks spontaneity and colour. Alas, Yablonsky’s Allegro
risoluto is no different; impeccably presented, it seems more remote
than ever. This is the kind of music that needs the strongest advocacy
if it’s not to seem second rate; that’s certainly true of
the symphony’s inner movements which, in Yablonsky’s hands,
are just too bland to be taken seriously. Indeed, there’s an inbuilt
exuberance to this music that spills over into grand, rather garish
gestures – especially in the finale – and to ignore that
is to misconstrue the essential spirit of the piece.
In short, this is a very frustrating performance that, although spectacularly
recorded, simply doesn’t do this symphony any kind of justice.
One only needs to hear Järvi’s version – recorded in his
halcyon days with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra – to realise
just how sanitised this newcomer really is. True, I’d have liked
more distinct bells, but the pith and pace of the Estonian’s reading
pinions the listener from start to finish. And while the Chandos sound
isn’t as airy as that on the Naxos disc it’s still exceptionally
vivid. Most important, though, maestro and orchestra play the music
as if it really matters.
Yablonsky’s filler comprises three excerpts from the incidental
music Khachaturian penned for a stage work about the Russian playwright
and poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). This includes music he wrote
for a production of Lermontov’s Masquerade some years
earlier The Introduction: On the death of the poet has all
the precision and polish that defines Yablonsky’s account of the
symphony; alas, it also inherits some of its prosaic qualities. Yes,
the Mazurka is crisply done and the Waltz is nicely
sprung, but this is an underwhelming end to a very disappointing disc.
Incidentally, Järvi signs off with a thrilling set of Gayaneh
No, if you’re after a very special version of ‘The Bell’
Khacaturian’s own, with the WP, is the one to have. It can be
had on a Decca twofer, along with the piano and violin concertos and
the Masquerade suite. Those who only want the symphony can
download a Bibliothèque nationale de France transfer from Qobuz for
under three euros. And don’t overlook Loris Tjeknavorian and the
Armenian Philharmonic. The ASV titles can be hard to find, but now that
Presto have taken over the catalogue – see here
– that much-admired recording should be back in circulation soon.
Refinement at the expense of character; superb sound, though.