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Aram Il’yich KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor “The Bell” (1943)
Lermontov Suite (1959)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company, Kultura, Moscow, 18-23 November 2006
NAXOS 8.570436 [62:39]

This music is far removed from the style of Khachaturian’s memorable ballets Spartacus (1954) and Gayaneh (1942), being more complex and profound, so the reader should not endeavor to make comparisons with the familiar Khachaturian. The Russian composer came to writing his big compositions late in his career and decided to embrace the modernism then in fashion. Khachaturian happened to be a contemporary of Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Stravinsky (1882-1971), but where Prokofiev tended to dwell more on the romantic, Khachaturian leans to Stravinsky’s exploratory and robust form of composition.

The Second Symphony is Khachaturian’s biggest and most sophisticated work with its thematic material well hidden on a first listening. There are twists and turns to the score that are powerful and aggressive. This can be explained by the fact that the material was composed during the Second World War and Hitler’s attempt to take Moscow. Could the writing be a lament for the emotional turmoil the Russian citizens were going through? To give this symphony a title, ‘The Bell’ seems to be an error as its appearance is easily missed.

A myriad of textures and colours are evident in the symphony and its opening passages swirl around a moody gloom. Later, contrast is created by explosive fireworks that bring the full forces of the orchestra to swamp the imagination. This music could not have been easy for either the orchestra or conductor to master since each orchestral section seems to play the staves in isolation from its neighbouring section. It is telling that the recording took five days to complete, clearly a vast investment of time and expense.

Far more in tune to the ear is the Lermontov Suite, which had its beginnings in earlier pieces brought together for this suite. Its name comes from a play about the life of playwright and poet Lermontov, one of the greatest Russian authors. Much of the suite, in addition to a waltz, is rhythmic and in time. The Mazurka is pleasant and particularly engaging but even some of the bright melody lines have darker moments. Perhaps Toye’s Haunted Ballroom meets Bernstein, and as with the symphony a powerful Andante, ‘On the death of the Poet’ brings weight to the suite.

The four-page booklet could have been better provided with larger type and given eight pages, yet its content provides all that the listener needs. Richard Whitehouse does a sterling job in his description of the Second Symphony, finding fitting adjectives to help us understand the construction of the composition. Naxos has to be congratulated for supporting this difficult work in another worthwhile recording to rival versions by ASV, Chandos and Decca

Raymond J Walker



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