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Kara KARAYEV (1918-1982)
24 Preludes (1951-1963) [46:29]
Six Pieces for Children (1958) [5:53]
The Statue in Tsarskoye Selo (1937) [6:02]
Don Quichotte - Symphonic Sketches (1960, arr. piano Faradj Garayev) [7:33]
Elnara Ismailova (piano)
rec. 2011/17, Cologne WDR Funkhaus, Klaus von Bismarck Saal
C-AVI MUSIC 8553398 [65:54]

Elnara Ismailova tells us that Kara Karayev is known, in his and her native Azerbaijani, as Qara Qaraev. His music sings in otherworldly but accessible tones and is lightly tinged with contemporary and extremely approachable harmonies. His teachers included the composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov who, Ismailova tells us, "used mugham in his 1908 opera Leyli and Majnun". Karayev's instruments were the violin and piano and these he studied at Baku Conservatory. Later he moved to the Moscow Conservatoire to study composition with Shostakovich.

Karayev's music is not at all difficult or harsh. It's strange enough to fascinate and at the same time to be very accessible. All the pieces on this solo piano recital are quite short. There are essentially two works from the 1950s to the early 1960s: The set of Preludes and the Six Pieces for Children. These are joined by an isolated solo from 1937 and a piano arrangement of three movements from a work presented in full and in orchestral dress on Chandos; more of that later.

The Twenty-Four Preludes (1951-1963) are more of a collection than a sequence. They possess variety but given that the set ends with an Andante of shapely melancholy rather than a stormy showstopper, the Preludes feel more like a set from which pianists can pick and choose. The first prelude embraces innocence and there is about it a feint whiff of the pianola and the orient. All the preludes are short with the longest two running to 3:05 and 5:56. The first of these, No. 12 is an Andante lugubre locked deep in the bass register rather like the early part of Griffes' Pleasure Dome. The Andante mesto also proceeds deep in the bass and exudes a feeling of slipping into profound depths before it regains an awkward nobility. Then there's No. 22, a Grave which is slow, dignified and sad. It serves to anchor the cycle when all 24 are played as a sequence. The shortest of the Preludes are 1:01 and 1:02 with the first being No. 3, an Allegro molto with a speed and display which I associate with Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2. The other short Prelude is No. 11, a Veloce which, contrary to expectation, makes a pearly slow progress. The Veloce marking is perhaps designed for the fun of wrong-footing the listener.

The Andante and the Moderato give off a dreamy haze that is mixed with innocence as is the Andante cantabile. The Fifth Prelude deploys a tolling ostinato which, to me, evokes a mid-oriental landscape - one of Alan Hovhaness's deserted plains distinguished by a towered church on an isolated mountainous outcrop. No. 6 is a plunging allegro. No. 8, an Allegro non troppo, is surprisingly slow and is rife with clangourous dissonance. Aqueous cut-glass reflections flicker through No. 9 - an Andante tranquillo. No. 10, an Allegro con fuoco is a merciless race of a piece. No. 13 is a playful exercise in pearly quietude. The image of an infant at play holds sway over No. 15, an Allegro giocoso. Confidences shared overhang No. 16 while the epigrammatic Andante maestoso (No. 17) lives up to its slowly tolled out majestic marking. This is perhaps an echo of Shelley's Ozymandias. After the hypnotic Andante cantabile comes an Andante with slightly melancholic ways. The following Molto moderato (No. 20) has the air of a distant music-box but an air blended with Finzian quietude. Again, there's music-box intimacy and intricacy in the following Vivace. The penultimate Prelude is an Allegro with an unexpectedly jazzy curvature. It is perhaps a nod in the direction of Nikolai Kapustin who toured all corners of the then USSR and may have been known to Karayev.
The Six Pieces for Children comprise a sepia waltz in simple apparel, a Kreisel which is motoric, quick and locked in the lower middle part of keyboard together with the sentimental musings of the Nachträglich. The second part of the six has a Das Spiel which achieves considerable velocity, a slow tear-welling Erzählung and an oriental-accented and mischievous hop-o-my-thumb in the form of Lustige Begebenheit. Two attractive portions of Karayev in the shape of The Statue in Tsarskoye Selo (1937) and three Symphonic Sketches from Don Quichotte (1960), as arranged by Faradj Garayev, complete the disc.

The liner-notes are excellent and are by Elnara Ismailova. They are in both German (this is after all a co-production with WDR) and English.

You may yet come away from this experience wanting to hear Karayev's attractive, indeed compelling orchestral music. There are several CDs from which to choose. You can hear the Don Quixote pieces in all their full-cream orchestral finery on Chandos. Quite unknown, and as far as I know unrecorded, but surely worth special pleading, are On the Rubai his song-cycle setting words of Omar Khayyam (1946), Vietnam - a symphonic suite from 1955 and The Impetuous Gasconian, a 'musical' after Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac". The First Symphony "To the Memory of the Heroes of the Great Patriotic War" (1943) has been recorded by Melodiya with the Azerbaijan SSRSO/Rauf Abdullayev (Melodiya S10 27963-5 (2 LPs) (1989)). The fairly tough Violin Concerto can be heard on a Russian Revelation CD from the late 1990s but can also be had on Naxos with that very same First Symphony. The Symphony No. 2 in C was written in 1946 and remains unrecorded. Given Thomas Hampson's recent Chicago Songs CD (Cedille) it's also worth mentioning Karayev's Three Nocturnes for singer and jazz orchestra after words by Langston Hughes (1958). Hughes' words were favoured by many East coast USA composers including John Alden Carpenter. Karayev made his name with various ballets and some of these can be heard on Naxos who also recorded the Third Symphony, Leyli and Medjnun and Don Quixote. The Violin Sonata and Preludes from Vadim Repin and Murad Huseynov is on Toccata Classics TOCC 0255.

Rob Barnett

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