Kara KARAYEV (1918–1982)
Symphony No. 1 in B minor (1943) [33:40]
Violin Concerto (1967) [20:59]
Janna Gandelman (violin)
Kiev Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. NRCU Recording House, Kiev, Ukraine 2016 NAXOS 8.573722 [54:43]
This is just the second disc I have heard of the music of Kara Karayev. My interest was piqued by the very attractive and easily appealing disc of ballet and other scores released on Chandos from Kirill Karabits and the excellent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The style and spirit of this new disc is quite different – in much the same way that Karayev's mentor Shostakovich could slip between the slight and the serious. This new disc is firmly in the latter camp featuring two substantial works – the Symphony No.1 in B minor written when he was just 25 years old, and the Violin Concerto when he was 49.
In the history of music within the Soviet Union, Karayev is significant in that he was one of the most prominent classical composers to emerge from Azerbaijan and indeed – as the liner points out – the Symphony featured here is "one of the earliest contributions to the medium written by anyone in the South Caucasus region." This symphony runs for just over half an hour and is split into two roughly equal length movements. I must admit that after several listenings I am still struggling with the first movement Molto sostenuto allegro. I cannot rid myself of the sense that this is a piece that is trying very hard to tick all the boxes of Soviet-style political correctness as well as showcasing a solid compositional technique. The movement is rather dourly built from opening material – beguilingly played here by the principal flute of the Kiev Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra – which is inflected both harmonically and melodically with characteristics of folk–music from the South Caucasus region. In a slightly strange throw–back to the slow introduction of so many 19th Century Russian Symphonies – think Glazunov or Borodin – this material is worked out before the allegro proper starts. Then there seems to be extended passages of quite complex contrapuntal writing which is well-played here for sure but does little to sweep the listener away from its academic rigour. The instrumental writing is functional without any of the brilliance Karayev produced for the scores on the Chandos disc. It really is all rather earnest – no chance of the Union of Soviet Composers denouncing this for formalism. But then, right at the end of the movement is a little coda [track 1 13:46] which has a melting beauty quite unlike anything that precedes it. And this feeling of the musical shackles being released continues into the second movement which is a very impressive extended set of variations which have the dual role of a combined scherzo and finale. As liner writer Paul Conway points out this takes the form of a set of dances including a slyly out-of-kilter waltz. In this sequence of dances Karayev's spiritual and technical debt to Shostakovich is most clear but without descending into mere pastiche of the older composer. About a third of the way into the movement – track 2 6:45 – he writes a very touching chorale-like passage for strings which is gradually joined by wind and then brass – this is music very clearly his own with a creative debt to no-one else. Likewise the way he builds towards the movement's cathartic climax is very impressive in a relatively young composer. Just when you assume the work will conclude in a peroration worthy of any Five-Year-Plan the certainties fall away and the string chorale returns, a pair of trumpets gently recall the movement's principal theme and a piccolo and pizzicato strings provide the final full stop. It is a rather unexpected but effective conclusion.
So unexpected that on the first listen, the too brief gap on the CD meant the Violin Concerto started before I realised the symphony had ended. But they are very different works with Karayev's handling of the orchestra more assured and sophisticated. Conway relates that Karayev met Stravinsky in the USA during a visit by a delegation of Soviet composers in 1961. In part because of that meeting Karayev started to experiment with 12-tone techniques – a compositional process not approved in the USSR. But clearly this disapproval was not so swingeing as to prevent Karayev using these techniques in the Violin Concerto. But important to say that Karayev uses a tone row to create harmonic implications from the row. This is not strictly atonal music in any sense – more striking in this work is Karayev's judicious use of the orchestra – the opening Allegro moderato being reserved for strings, harp, piano and a little percussion. The second movement Andante gives the woodwind they key role, with the brass and percussion en masse reserved for the closing Allegro. The soloist is the Moldavian violinist Janna Gandelman. I had not heard her before and this is confident, technically secure but very expressive playing. Karayev gives the soloist a widely ranging, rather angular tone row and Gandelman finds exactly the right path of impressive accuracy but allied to near-Romantic warmth. In the opening movement the soloist is very much the main protagonist – indeed in works of this period it is quite unusual to hear the orchestra in quite as subsidiary a role as it is here. Certainly, Karayev gives his soloist very little rest until the opening of the central Andante. This is a brief chorale-like movement again which the violin again dominates once it enters. Musically, this is more a stream of consciousness than tightly developed material but it works well as an interlude between the seriousness of the opening movement and the quirkily militaristic toyshop march that opens the finale. After some three minutes this subsides and allows the violin a musing cadenza – played with impressive poise and tenderness by Gandelman. I like the way this cadenza is used by Karayev as the emotional centre of the work not simply a vehicle for technical display. The march resumes more forcibly with last minute of the work the violin setting off a helter-skelter chase. I am not completely convinced by this conclusion – very well played though it is here.
Throughout the disc the Kiev Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra play very well although I do not find the technical recording to be particularly grateful. Certainly it is a whole lot better than the synthetic highlighting that used to blight early Melodiya CD's. But there is something rather plain, even slightly unflattering about the recording that I feel does not show the music in the most sympathetic light. Of course with no other versions to compare and no scores to follow it is very hard to make any judgement on how effective Dimitri Yablonsky's interpretations are. My instinct – coming to this from the glamour of the Chandos disc perhaps – is that there is more nuance and light and shade in this music than is found here. There seems to be something rather literal – especially in the opening movement of the symphony that I suspect could be bettered. But Gandelman is an excellent soloist who makes a good case for the concerto that certainly deserves to be heard.
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