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Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Battle of Stalingrad (film music, suite) (1949) [29:48]
Othello (film music, suite) (1956) [33:41]*
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
rec. Concert Hall of Slovak Radio, Bratislava, July 1989, *June 1992
NAXOS 8.573389 [63:36]

At this juncture, it is easy to forget that, back in the 1980s and 1990s, HNH Records issued its major releases on both the "Marco Polo" and "Records International" full-priced LP imprints; the inexpensive "Naxos" CD label offered strictly lower-end items. Over time, as the industry converted to silver disc, HNH began gradually rereleasing its older productions in the increasingly popular Naxos line. So, if you were wondering at the antique recording dates listed in the headnote, this is one of those reissues.

Before seeing this disc, I had not realized that Khachaturian had written any music for films, but I should not have been surprised. In the Soviet era, eminent composers, up to and including Prokofiev and Shostakovich, were drafted for such Kremlin-approved chores alongside specialists and party hacks, presumably as a patriotic duty. The quality of the results, of course, would vary with the composer. For Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev contributed a score of such quality that he successfully reworked the material into a cantata. Shostakovich's film scores, once available in various LP licensings, were less adventurous, but they bear their composer's harmonic and instrumental trademarks.

These two scores draw largely on three basic compositional gestures, all of which adapt extremely well to soundtrack use. There are imposing climactic tuttis, usually intended triumphantly, though some sound merely empty-headed. There are agitated, driving passages akin to those in the composer's ballets and concerti; a similar restlessness impinges on the more intimate bits, as in the "Vineyards" track from Othello. Most striking is the occasional aspiring melodic line, unaccompanied or lightly accompanied, assigned to lower-midrange strings; only that in "The Enemy Is Doomed" from Battle of Stalingrad, with its broad, searching quality suggesting Prokofiev, lingers in the mind.

Since the music was composed for specific scenes and purposes, this concert presentation suffers the usual problems of some excerpts breaking off on a half-cadence (Othello's "Nocturnal Murder") and others sounding "bitty" and underdeveloped. The "Prologue and Introduction" from Othello, however, with Viktor Šimčisko's violin solo riding uneasily over gently pulsing strings, comes off as an eight-minute tone poem, and this longer suite is the more distinctive and varied. In "Desdemona's Arioso," a haunting vocalise that grows impassioned, Jana Valásková's clear, vibrant singing makes for a welcome aural contrast. The oboe and flute soli of "Vineyards" are sinuous. "Othello's Farewell from the Camp" surges effectively over its two minutes, but wherefore the rhythmic laughter at the end? (I assume the unidentified baritone is a step-out from the chorus.)

The Slovak Radio orchestra plays well enough, though the full-orchestra passages sound thick. Since I usually complain about Khachaturian's threadbare, unfilled-in tuttis, this struck me as odd, and I suspect the conducting is to blame. The mononymous Adriano was, briefly, a rising star of Marco Polo's film-music series, though he never quite finished rising. He leads with style, but his conducting technique seems not to have been up to enforcing precise attacks or clear textures from the large ensemble.

Despite my strictures, if you are interested in old-fashioned, "classical" film music, you will definitely enjoy this.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~~ Michael Cookson ~~ Nick Barnard



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