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Aram Il’yich KHACHATURIAN (1903 - 1978)
Symphony No.2 in E minor (1943) [51:14]
Three Concert Arias (1946)
Poem [6.48]
Legende [8.14]
Dithyrambus [5.12]
Julia Bauer (soprano)
Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie/Frank Beerman
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, June & July 2016
CPO 777 972-2 [71.34]

Earlier this year, I reviewed a Russian recording of this symphony, conducted by Dimitri Yablonsky, with the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra and this new recording makes an interesting contrast. The Symphony, sometimes called ‘The Bell’ from its opening and closing moments, is a piece which deserves attention.

It is, I think, the best of Khachaturian’s three symphonies, which is not necessarily saying too much, as the Third is surely out of the running – it is dreadful. But here we have an interesting aspect of Khatchaturian’s genius, offering opportunities for development not always available when he was writing his better-known ballet scores. There is genuine symphonic writing here, well-captured in this new recording, which brings out well the contrast between more elegiac writing and fierce episodes. The first movement is a little swifter than Yablonsky’s, often to the music’s advantage – there is no loss of sensitivity here. The second movement is a little steadier than Yablonsky’s – Beerman takes the risoluto marking as the key to the movement, but there is no lack of momentum. Different figures tell. The many beauties of the andante emerge clearly, and the final movement, though not quite as steady as the composer’s own performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, benefits from the greater spaciousness apparent here, though some might wish for a little more fire in parts. There is no need for anyone to feel disappointed by the Naxos recording, which is very fine, but, on balance, I prefer the new one. The clarity of recording, ten years more recent than the Naxos (which was unissued for a decade) is a bonus in hearing the detail of the inner parts.

For some the deciding factor might well be the coupling. On the Naxos recording, the coupling is the delightful but not very demanding excerpts from the Lermontov Suite of 1959. Here the coupling is more demanding, and more contemporary with the Symphony, the Three Concert Arias of 1946. Together – and they should be performed together – they form almost a symphonic argument, a sinfonietta with vocal accompaniment. The words (about love, in all cases) were dedicated by the composer to his wife. But his intention seems less to compose music which, above all, brings out the inner significance of the verse; rather, the poems are subordinate to the overall musical mood. The songs are both extraordinarily passionate and lyrical - the verse, especially Legende, has its share of drowned lovers, tempted to their fate by jealous rivals. At times the music feels almost operatic, though Khachaturian wrote no operas. For Khachaturian, this music was clearly deeply-felt. There are Armenian touches but also something universal. Julia Bauer sings beautifully, though perhaps with a little more vibrato than all might wish - but, for me, that’s preferable to the slightly squally moments in Hasmik Hatsgortsian’s performance, with Loris Tjeknavorian (ASV CDDCA1087), though this version also has very many dramatic and musical virtues.

Michael Wilkinson



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