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Kara KARAYEV (1918-1982)
The Seven Beauties, Suite for orchestra (1949) [32.53]
Don Quixote, Symphonic Engravings (1960) [20.32]
Leyla and Mejnun, Symphonic Poem (1947) [15.17]
Lullaby from ‘Path of Thunder’ (1957) [4.02]
All are premiere recordings
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, 2017

Kara Karayev (full name Kara Abdul’faz-oglī Karayev) was an Azerbaijani composer, teacher and folklore authority. He led his country’s musical life from the end of World War II until his death. His compositions are suffused with Azerbaijan folk music, with its rhythmic inflections and melody. His works are distinguished by his gift for vivid colourful orchestration. It has to be said that he was something of a musical magpie, his music being eclectic and influenced by many sources – the most common being Shostakovich , Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky.

Since 2008, Kirill Karabits has been Chief Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Many of his concerts with the BSO continue to be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Karabits has been championing the music of Karayev for several years. This new recording, in warm bright sound, reveals Karayev’s masterly, extraordinary, colourful sound world.

The Seven Beauties music was inspired by the writings of the Persian Sunni Muslim poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209). The Seven Beauties is a long narrative poem. Karayev’s symphonic suite was subsequently recast by the composer as a ballet, which proved such a success that it was performed all over the USSR. The music’s story concerns the doomed love between an artisan girl, Aysha and Bachram Shah, the ruler of an oppressed people, and his evil, manipulative Vizier. The opening Waltz begins as a wild, abandoned creation until a glittering stately, sweeping, then tender, waltz takes over, that instantly recalls Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. The Adagio that follows signifies the first rapturous meeting between the lovers. It is distinguished by a gentle, tender horn solo. The strings’ contribution is delectably romantic, yearning and passionate. These introductory episodes are rounded off with the wryly comic, riotous Dance of the Clowns.

The gist of The Seven Beauties is now revealed. The Vizier has shown Bachram a cloth with images of seven beauties, presumably in an effort to distract him. First is The Indian Beauty, her music sinuous, sensual, perfumed; full of eastern promise. The Byzantine Beauty music seems to suggest her travelling across the desert – one imagines the ungainly gait of the camel; then she dances to tambourine and tamtam. The Khorezmian Beauty is a bit of a madam; the woodwind figures suggest her flirtatious nature. The Slavonic Beauty is graceful and seemingly more demure; she has a flowing violin melody accompanied by syncopated horns. The colours and action might suggest her dancing twirls with long voluminous skirts swirling around her. The Maghrebian Beauty’s music is darker, more dangerously enticing. The rhythm is that of a seductive, insistent Bolero implying she should be the most feared of all the beauties. As light relief we meet The Chinese Beauty and Karayev weaves his own pentatonic chinoiserie exoticism around her dance with flute and bass clarinet subtleties. Finally there is the delicate loveliness of The Most Beautiful of the Beauties with solo oboe prominent accompanied by alluring wind and harp arpeggios.

The Procession rounds off the work. It is a brutal picture of oppression as the people are suppressed. Sinister tam-tam strokes underline a malicious march that gains momentum reaching a horrifying climax.

Karayev wrote his Don Quixote music initially for a 1957 film of Cervantes’s celebrated novel. Then, in 1960, he reshaped the music as this concert item. Pointedly described as Symphonic Engravings, Karayev intended this Don Quixote work to be concerned with character rather than incident. The opening movement, the first of three labelled Travels seems to be preoccupied with a portrait of the unworldly, rather ridiculous Quixote (perhaps astride his skinny clumsy horse, Rocinante) as he sets out on his imagined heroic quests The other two ‘Travels’ movements act like intervals as Quixote roams from one encounter to another. The second movement portrays Quixote’s stout partner, Sancho Panza, affecting pride and pomposity and ready for any adventure or combat. His march, recalling Shostakovich. Aldonse, is a portrait of the old knight’s ideal woman. It is tenderly romantic with a stunning flute melody. Also affecting, is the final Don Quixote’s Death, a truly fond farewell full of refined pathos and recalling Tchaikovsky. On the way the extrovert Cavalcade merits coverage. This is perhaps a kaleidoscopic evocation of the Quixotic adventures? Whatever; it is a mock heroic picture, the music charging along at the gallop (or at points, cantering) with the Don lunging into battle. The music reminds one of Prokofiev here.

Karayev’s Symphonic Poem, Leyla and Mejnun, won him the Stalin Prize. Its story is of another pair of star-crossed lovers: the young poet Quays and his cousin Leyla. They are children of feuding parents. (In fact Byron referred to them as the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of the East.) The quarrelling families’ sparring music is unrelentingly hostile. Brass and strings are used in clashing canon figures. Tchaikovsky is the quite obvious influence in his Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet modes. The love music is rapturous. Its long-breathed melody, is not far off from the Hollywood indulgencies of Max Steiner, and Rachmaninov would not have been disgraced by it; nor would Howard Hanson whose own ‘Romantic ‘Symphony No. 2 also came to my mind.

The Path of Thunder was set in Apartheid-period South Africa. It was based on a story by Peter Abrahams that dealt with the frowned upon love between a mixed-race man and a white woman. Karayev scored his second ballet on this subject. His Lullaby, from that work, provides a momentary peace before the ballet’s shockingly violent conclusion. It is softly gentle and tender but there is an eerie unsettling edge to it.

Extremely colourful and evocative music, brilliantly orchestrated. The ear is unfailingly captivated. The music has melodic charm. But there is, to my ear, no one melody that really lingers in the mind and that, for me, coupled with the derivative nature and eclecticism of this material, separates the good from the great.

Ian Lace

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)


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