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Aram Il’yich KHACHATURIAN (1903 - 1978)
Symphony No.2 in E minor ‘The Bell’ (1943) [48:15]
Lermontov Suite (1959) [13:59]
Dimitri Yablonsky (conductor)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
rec. Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Company, KULTURA, Moscow,18-23 November 2006
NAXOS 8.570436 [62.39]

It would not, I think, be unjust to think that the best of Khachaturian is to be found in his music for theatre and film, whether in full-length ballets, such as the immensely exciting full-length Gayane of 1942 and Spartacus of 1954, or in his incidental theatre music and film scores, such as those for Othello or The Battle of Stalingrad [Naxos 8.573389]. His great talent was not for the symphony. Symphony No.3, with its aimless meanderings for organist, is sheer bombast, and my own candidate for any competition for the worst symphony ever written.

But that should not be a reason not to buy this disc. Symphony No 2 has significant merits, especially when as well-played as here, even if not one of the greatest twentieth century Soviet era compositions. It was a wartime work, composed in the summer of 1943, while the composer was living at the Composers’ Union retreat in Ivanovo, about 150 miles from Moscow. Prokofiev and Shostakovich were also there at the same time, and some phrases in the symphony seem to echo them, though, overall, the voice is certainly Khachaturian’s. It is roughly contemporaneous with Shostakovich 8th Symphony, and while not the equal of that, provides another and sincere reaction to war. The composer himself described it as ‘… a requiem of wrath, a requiem of protest against war and violence’.

It is interesting to compare timings for this symphony with the composer’s own recording, with the Vienna Philharmonic available as part of a Decca double-decker set. The first two movements are not dissimilar in timing, while the composer takes two minutes longer over the third movement [14.21] compared with [12.19] here, and is noticeably slower in the final movement. Sound recording is better on the Naxos disc, and the sense of urgency and seriousness emerges well. There is sensitivity in the playing and individual strands are clear. The orchestra plays with passion. If, overall, my preference in this symphony remains with the more urgent Loris Tjeknavorian recording, with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra (ASV DCA 859, coupled with a suite from The Battle of Stalingrad), that is not to ignore the many felicities here. It is just that the Armenian passion of the Tjeknavorian feels more echt- Khachaturian. Some might find the more obviously middle-of the road qualities on the new recording more to their taste. In the final movement, Tjeknavorian comes in at 9.50, compared with Yablonsky’s 10.21, the composer’s 12.02, and Neemi Järvi’s stately 13.07 (Chandos Chan. 8945).

The pieces from the Lermontov Suite are undemanding but delightful. I particularly enjoyed the performance of the Mazurka, but all are pleasing. There is a hint of Tchaikovsky in the opening of the final Waltz, though the voice is authentically that of Khachaturian. It is a pity, given the shortish playing time overall, that at least one more excerpt could not have been included.

At Naxos prices, this is a worthwhile disc, one which will give pleasure to anyone who enjoys Khachaturian in different moods. It is baffling that it seems to have waited 10 years for release, especially given both the quality of this recording and the previous commitment of the label to the composer.

Michael Wilkinson
Previous review: Raymond Walker



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