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Aram Il’yich KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, ‘The Bell’ (1943) [48:26]
Lermontov Suite (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 The Hudsucker 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 Hamlet (review) and a superbly remastered collection of the same composer’s ballet suites (review). As for the Russian Philharmonic, it draws musicians from several Moscow-based ensembles.

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 excerpts.

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.

Dan Morgan

Previous reviews: Raymond Walker ~ Michael Wilkinson



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