RCA Red Seal 82876-65836-2
London Symphony Orchestra
Loris Tjeknavorian (conductor):
Fantasy on Russian Themes
When I was "nobbut a slip of a lad", I was bowled over by the brash vitality of the Sabre Dance and the rollicking introductory music of BBC TVís Comedy Playhouse - a.k.a. the Galop from Masquerade. I eventually found a Capitol LP that included both of these. The performances, by the Hollywood Bowl orchestra under Alfred Newman, were somewhat glossy and the recording - shall we say? - had more width than depth or detail. Nonetheless, I happily "made do" with it because, like most folk, I was caught in the cleft stick of callow youth - my appetite for new experiences was in constant conflict with severely limited resources. Consequently, in any contest between quantity and quality, quantity always won hands down. So, although I knew well enough that it was in every way superior, Khachaturianís own Decca recording didnít get a look in. Well, it cost more and it contained less. End of story.
Fifteen years down the line, having become a family man, I was a mite discomfited to discover that, because responsibilities had kept pace with income, the cleft stick had stuck! Hence, when the original LP release of this recording of Gayne tumbled into my trembling lap, I was still governed by the ascendancy of quantity over quality. Never mind whether or not it was a "good" recording, instead of one shortish side here were two generously-filled LPs of the music - oh, wow! At over 30 years of age, to cadge a phrase from Der Abschied, I "learnt youth anew". As much of its 99 minutes as I could cram onto a C90 cassette were duly crammed thereon, and before long it had relieved the tedium of many a mile of monotonous motorway!
Some Composer Considerations
Even today, though, I still have a sentimental attachment to that well-worn Newman LP. When allís said and done, it did kindle my lasting affection for Khachaturian. In those days, that was no mean feat, because pundits seemed to be queuing up on all sides to dismiss his music wholesale, as garish, empty-headed, noisy nonsense. On the whole, Iím not sure that attitudes have softened all that much since then, either. Oh, itís true enough that his music is often "garish" - his vivid, poster-paint orchestration practically guarantees that impression. He can also be "noisy" - when heís a mind to, heís more than happy to test the architectural integrity of any concert hall. I put that down to high spirits - if you know how to, why not really let rip every so often, just to clear the cobwebs out of the rafters?
Seriously, though, I have to put my foot down when it comes to "empty-headed", because here I think that itís not Khachaturian thatís at fault, but Western ears. His musical roots are rather more remote than Russia: he was born, of Armenian parents, in Georgia which - along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the north of Iran - nestles between the Black and the Caspian Seas. His native folk-music culture was well-ingrained, both by heredity and, prior to venturing out into the wider world, long youthful exposure. When Khachaturian projects his "alien" folk-culture through the arguably incompatible medium of the Western symphony orchestra, what happens? Itís like a square peg to a round hole - those Western ears automatically try to force it into the expressive mould of such as Brahms, Dvorak, or Tchaikovsky & Co. But, because itís out of context, we can "miss the message", and falsely conclude that the music must lack expressive depth - or rather, what Western culture recognises as expressive depth.
Iím sure that this has a lot to do with mugam, a peculiarly oriental musical methodology. As far as I understand it, instead of building music from individual notes in accordance with harmonic "rules", a mugam operates through a vocabulary of pre-defined phrases to create a musical mosaic. This characteristic can be heard at work through much of Gayne. Many folk see nothing more than the obsessive, maddening repetitions of music made from Lego bricks, whilst others are utterly mesmerised by it. What makes the difference? I like to fancy that the answer lies in the genes: the music dredges a subconscious empathy up from certain listenersí cultural instincts. Why? Well, it might explain how, for me, certain parts of Gayne - such as Gathering of the Cotton or the Lullaby - evoke a pervasive feeling of irretrievable loss, of something I treasure that is gone forever. Exactly what is lost I cannot tell - itís somehow shrouded in the mists of time - but I feel an ache in my heart and a tightness in my throat. I am led to wonder: surely, this reaction is not something that anyone can get from "empty-headed" music, is it?
In these days, increasing numbers of Westerners are "embracing" so-called World Music. Provided that this reflects a genuine shift in inter-cultural understanding, and is not simply some passing fad of whatever "in crowd" happens to be "in", then Khachaturian might eventually be recognised as a true pioneer. On the other hand, he might just be condemned as one who had wilfully corrupted his native musical culture. We can only wait and see what transpires.
The Printed Bits
Now, on with the motley! The LP box said The Gayaneh Ballet, and its liner notes claimed that this was ďthe largest cross-section of the complete score ever made available on recordsĒ. Throughout, the workís title is spelt ďGayanehĒ. On the other hand, the CD booklet front refers to Gayne (Complete Ballet), but elsewhere to The Gayne Ballet or simply Gayne. The English bits use the spelling ďGayneĒ, whilst both the French and the German translations spell it ďGayanehĒ. The spelling variation is just a curiosity, about which Iím not going to quibble - there are at least two other alternative transliterations!
However, I canít let that "Complete Ballet" pass without comment. As the CD notes are more specific than the LP, stating that this recording "represents about 75% of the balletís music", it starts to look like a monstrous misapprehension on the part of someone in BMGís design/editorial department. This might seem a small point to thee and me, but it wonít be to anyone who is looking for a complete recording, and is rash enough to judge this particular "book" by its cover.
Whilst Iím on the subject of "small points", letís dispose of the matter of the batting order. The musical numbers are presented on the CDs in exactly the same sequence as they are on the LPs. In both cases the notes indicate that this order does not follow the action, but is intended to provide a "more satisfying listening experience" (Crumbs! Did we really come out with phrases like that, thirty years ago?). Of course, with the programming capabilities of CD, you can easily reshuffle the tracks back into the dramatic sequence, canít you? Well, no, not easily, because the proper order isnít actually given and, for example, mentioning "the last of the balletís three acts", when CD2 track 1 is identified as Introduction to Act IV, doesnít exactly help, either.
Richard Freedís CD booklet notes are very well written and informative. Although they give a decent account of the background and somewhat convoluted genesis of Gayne, they do so at the expense of a reasonably detailed synopsis and any discussion of the musical numbers. Iím sure thatís not his fault - they should have given him more room. In this respect the original LP notes by Christopher Palmer - who was given the room! - are preferable, though sadly even he doesnít cross-refer the numbers to their proper places in the action!
The Conductorís Context
History shows us that, as often than not and for one reason or another, the man who knows the music best - the composer - will not necessarily be its best interpreter. Similarly, just because a conductor has similar background characteristics to a composer does not of itself guarantee the most empathetic or idiomatic performance. Now, it just so happens that Loris Tjeknavorian also had expatriate Armenian parents, and throughout his career has also consistently shown a passionate loyalty to his homelands. That makes him an ideal candidate on which to prove the rule. However, not being any sort of expert on the indigenous music of Armenia and its neighbours, Iím not exactly the ideal candidate to carry out the proof! Hum. Well, unless Iím dealing with electricity, chemicals, explosives or ladies, my usual reaction to such obstacles is to knuckle down and do the best I can. So, here goes:
Adopting a mildly analytical approach, we can divide Gayneís numbers into three broad categories. For want of better terms, these are out-and-out dances and flourishes, extrovert dramatic scenes, and introvert meditations, through any of which the shadow of the mugam may move. Letís consider how Tjeknavorian tackles them.
Gayne - "Dances and Flourishes"
The Introduction is definitely a "flourish", a crunching, blaring fanfare that hoists the Red Flag with a massive pomp matched only by its sheer, crass vulgarity! Yet, it contains significant motives - and in purely practical terms it guarantees a thoroughly wide-awake audience. It works best, - if thatís the right word - when everyone scrapes, blows and bangs with all the gusto that they can muster. Tjeknavorian sees to it that they do exactly that. All the other numbers require much more careful attention. Even in the most exhaustingly vigorous ones - the Russian Dance, Dance of the Young Kurds, Mountaineersí Dance, Lezghinka, Sabre Dance and Gopak - which you might think can simply be belted out in the same way, Tjeknavorian clearly takes a great deal of care. He moulds the tempi and shades the dynamics to optimise, as opposed to maximise, the cumulative excitement. It works - these numbers are all the better for it.
The Russian Dance, as you would expect, starts very slowly and then gets faster. However, Tjeknavorian admits acceleration only at the starts of sequences, and even then never with a jerk, but thorough smooth control of the musical clutch pedal. The rhythms bounce like golf-balls on concrete, and along the way he brings a coiled-spring "boing, boing, boing" to the "Kangaroo-hopping" of the violins. At the other end of the recording, the Gopak is given similar, but not identical, treatment - dictated, I suppose, by the particular nature of this dance: each time "round" the music sticks one boot up in the air, before plunging on at a faster tempo. Naturally, the start of the fastest part is heralded by this gesture, exaggerated into a huge "wait for it!"
By way of contrast, the Dance of the Young Kurds is imbued with flowing yet perky grace, the brisk but even tempo propelled by neat nudges from timpani and cymbals. With consummate cunning, Tjeknavorian takes the contrasting, weightier central episode ever so slightly faster, forestalling any possible suspicion of leaden boots! In the volcanic Mountaineersí Dance, good old Newman had a neat trick up his sleeve: at the moment of modulation he intensified the insistent pulsing of the bass drum. Sadly Tjeknavorian merely tweaks the decibels, but then he leaves Newman standing as far as the rest of the percussion are concerned, most especially in the central - or rather "off-central" - episode, where the "volcano" positively erupts!
Oddly enough, itís the most popular - or notorious! - item of all that throws up a problem. The Sabre (or "Saber" - the booklet canít make up its mind about that spelling, either!) Dance is taken at a gratifying prestissimo ultimo. Overall, itís projected with explosive power and superlative dynamism. Tjeknavorian points the central tune, which is usually played fairly fluidly, with commensurate incisiveness. In fact, he actually accelerates through this passage. However, this turns out to be the one occasion when the players are anything less than unanimous in their response although, let me stress, not by much. However, what does worry me, just a bit, is that towards the end he sheds momentum. I would have preferred him to charge on, reckless, right into the buffers. Maybe Iím missing something?
Perhaps the most stunning of all the bravura numbers is the Lezghinka. Tjeknavorian takes it at a breakneck speed which tests the considerable capabilities of his band. They pass with flying colours. Woodwind whip out the tricksy tune with electrifying clarity of articulation, and the central climax packs a tremendous wallop, trumpets in particular crackling with galvanic energy. Best of all, Tristram "Frey" earns his mis-spelt booklet credit in no uncertain terms. His superbly sustained snare-drumming has to be heard to be believed - especially the hair-raising, firecracker rim-shots as we hit the reprise of the first section.
There are also several somewhat less unbuttoned - I hesitate to say "more sedate" - dances. After the opening numbers, Gathering of the Cotton sounds quite refined, delightfully piquant woodwind skipping gracefully, haloed affectionately by strings, horns and percussion. Tjeknavorian brings a sudden surge of real emotional intensity to the violinsí closing phrase. Similarly, Nouneís Variation is blessed with lots of perky playing, pointed to perfection. The extrovert Dance of Welcome jogs along as jolly as you please, revelling in its infectiously kinky rhythm. Actually, for a dozen or more years I used this as the closing music of a hospital radio programme, though I suspect that few appreciated the location of my tongue!
The Lyrical Duet is could be described as "ungainly". Introduced by pompous horns and trumpets, the strings hold up, then slip gracefully into a lilting waltz. The main tune is none other than the one in the middle of the Sabre Dance. However, this waltz soon starts to sound more like a Lšndler, its slightly lolloping gait underlined by a corny cornet descant. Like the Dance of Welcome, Tjeknavorian keeps it all rolling along merrily but then, for the finish, hushes he music and eases back a nadge on the gas - delicious!
The Dance of the Old Men and Carpet Weavers is an entirely different kettle of fish. It is halting and also ungainly - would that be the Old Men, or the Carpet Weavers, I wonder? - punctuated by the impressively hollow, wooden slapping of an Armenian drum. There is some strikingly "uncultured" playing from the woodwind. I think this must be down to Tjeknavorianís injecting a touch of "authenticity", because orchestral musicians simply do not play like this! Particularly interesting are the apparently gratuitous "sour lemon" discords on the phrase endings. The way that Tjeknavorian stresses these, itís almost as if Khachaturian was trying to capture the flavour of a note from the melodyís original, almost certainly justly-intoned scale, and which therefore lies outside the diatonic armoury. The climax turns these "sour lemons" to dramatically diatonic advantage, by transmuting them into proper, prepared dissonances! This is absolutely brilliant stuff.
Tjeknavorian forges the percussion "continuo", rock-steady Bolero-style rhythm and coiling clarinet melody of Embroidering of the Carpets into a sort of moto perpetuo. Repetitiveness is, in this case, entirely in keeping with the nature of the job, though he minimises any feeling of relentlessness through his superb graduation and balancing of the orchestral panoply. A very similar rhythm underpins the Final Scene, which also accumulates mass through repetitions of its tune, a variant of that of the preceding Gopak. However, when it gets to the top, instead of turning onto a counter-episode, it just stops! This reminds me of the "finale ultimo" of more than one Gershwin musical - such an imposing title leads you to expect some extended, grand celebration, whilst what you actually get is more of a brief "final tableau", or perhaps a "pre-booked" curtain-call. This is exactly how Tjeknavorian treats it: he gives it its measure, without any inflation beyond its means or meaning.
Armenís Variation is commonly heard in the concert suite. Resisting the temptation to let the bass drum lead, Tjeknavorian nevertheless gives it plenty of oomph, but still giving its central section space to relax and lilt. The rhythm and accompaniment of the enchanting Dance of the Rose Maidens are given lots of point by bumping timpani and scintillating strings and trumpets. Moreover, the woodwind playing is as spry as one could wish, the cornet and glockenspiel counterpoints positively glisten, and the strings almost swoon with delight before recovering their composure and getting into the "swing". So often this music is made to sound too parlour-prim and elegant - in Tjeknavorianís hands it is rudely and robustly bucolic. A confection it may be, but he ensures that it is a delightful one.
Khachaturianís orchestra includes a piano, used not as a solo instrument, but for its sheer colour. Its "xylophonic" upper register is used in the Lyrical Duet, and in the Introduction to the Dance of the Elders it provides an effective foundation for the driving, expectant rhythm. The dance itself, as befits its subject, is presented with great gravity, the solemn melody emerging in rich unison strings. From the point where the rhythm is taken up by the stout tolling of the Armenian drum, Tjeknavorian builds an imposing but far from over-cooked climax.
Gayne - "Extrovert Dramatic Scenes"
The extrovert dramatic scenes, being sequences of incidents, require a different approach. Aysheís Awakening and Dance is relatively simple, comprising just two distinct episodes, the second of which is of course simply a dance. It starts with an oppressive atmosphere of mounted cymbal, tremolando violins, looming basses and contrabassoon, over which soar the lonesome flute and piccolo, echoing the Lullaby. Secondly, strings propose a delicate waltzing accompaniment for the violins, who play a fetching melody with some Furiant-like footwork, against which is put a saxophone counterpoint - presumably to stop things getting unnecessarily highbrow. In between? Nothing more than a simple ascent of mildly staccato clarinets! Tjeknavorian effects the transition by careful choice of a single tempo, then keeping that underlying pulse constant so that the two run together as nice as nine-pence, regardless of the change of metre. The right tempo is determined by the need for the dance to be kept light and bouncing, and that fixes the pacing of the "awakening" It sounds obvious, doesnít it? Yet, I can imagine plenty of conductors choosing two different tempi, each optimised for the job in hand, and using the clarinet run to fudge the join. Whether consciously or instinctively, Tjeknavorian unifies the number.
As a scene, Fire is much more complex, but as music it seems to present less of a problem. Why? Because Khachaturian is in barnstorming mode, chucking in lots of brash effects, lots of noise. The number overflows with brilliant orchestration - such as his use of swirling strings and harp to evoke the raging conflagration. However, thereís rather more to it than that. Itís virtually all constructed from existing themes and motives, and it proceeds in two big crescendi, the second leading to an outbreak of bells. These sound, not like the arrival of the local fire service, but like light church bells, and - sadly - on the recording they also sound like they have been post-edited in, occupying an acoustic completely distinct from the orchestraís. Still, they make a splendid noise, far more effective than mere orchestral chimes. Khachaturian cranks up the speed by degrees, adopting an somewhat "Sibelian" approach. By the time we get near the end, the underlying pulse has almost doubled. Set against an increasing preponderance of long note-values, this gives the unsettling impression of fire flourishing unfettered whilst the efforts of the panicking populus are bound by the limitations of the human frame. Tjeknavorian engineers this with even greater care than he exercised in the Russian Dance, although he dispatches this riotous episode with such apparently reckless - but dramatically necessary - abandon that such subtleties tend to be lost in the glare of the flames.
The confrontation between Gayne and her "worse half" amounts to a domestic conflagration mirroring his arsonistic plot. Hence, Gayne and Giko starts out very similarly to Fire and also draws on several common motives. However, unlike Fire, the musical action is much more episodic, dangling before the conductor the seductive carrot of "free interpretation", the licence to play fast and loose with tempi and expression marks. Does Tjeknavorian take the bait? No, not even a nibble! He locates the proper basic tempo, then sticks pretty close to it, and lets the music do the talking. By any standards, the sequence is superbly handled by Tjeknavorian, who makes the most of Khachaturianís appropriately lurid palette. Best of all is the huge, anguished outburst towards the end where, to a descant of lamenting horns, strings sorrow inconsolably. After this, the solo bassoon and clarinet almost limp off, propped by the hollow sounds of the harp.
Gayne - "Introvert Meditations"
Gayneís Adagio is by far the best-known of the "introvert meditations". The sheer loneliness of the music is what made it such apposite accompaniment to the "daily grind" of life aboard the spaceship Odyssey in Stanley Kubrickís film. However, you donít get "more loneliness" by taking it "more slowly"! It is an adagio, not a largo, and Tjeknavorian does not allow the languorous cellos to languish. He moves the music along fluidly, teasing out its other-worldly expressiveness through tiny inflections and touches of rubato. Only in the closing bars does he allow the music to dissipate its mild momentum. Thus does this sound more like a song shorn of its words than it does in many a performance I could mention.
In effect, the Lullaby of course is a song without words - an achingly wistful song introduced by a solo oboe. It is played with the utmost simplicity and tender, loving care, is never allowed to wallow, and is all the more moving for not being milked. Simpler still, the brief Scene brims with loneliness and yearning, the former in a melancholy bassoon - tweaking the Lullaby theme - the latter, set over throbbing string chords, a slender-sounding solo violin which seems to be singing from some distant mountainside. In Gayneís Variation and Dance Finale the Lullaby theme turns up again, this time on a soulful cor anglais. It forms part of the link between a very long harp cadenza - full of variety and given plenty of moody shading by Marie Goossens - and a brief reprise of Gathering of the Cotton. Itís in moments like these that Tjeknavorian surely proves beyond any doubt that there is more to Khachaturian than gaudy poster paint and noisy bombast.
That leaves the Introduction to Act IV, which seems to round off the storyline. I say "seems" because of the lack of any decent synopsis in either the CD booklet or the LP liner. Heck, they donít even agree on the outcome! According to the LP, "[Giko] is exiled and [Gayne] is free to marry her rescuer, the young commander of the patrol . . . the ballet ends with general rejoicing at the opening of the new cotton-house." On the other hand, the CD states, "[Giko] is arrested by a Red Army patrol, whose idealistic young commander . . . becomes Gayneís personal saviour. The last of the balletís three [sic] acts is a celebration of the harvest and confidence in the future, which Gayne will share with Armen, the blinded hunter whose sight has been restored." This is about as confusing as the introduction to an episode of "Soap"! I hang on grimly to the common thread, that Gayne is freed of Giko, gets herself a better bloke, and everybody has a good old knees-up. Given this, itís probably safe to assume that the Introduction to Act IV encapsulates a "love scene".
With one foot in "extrovert dramatic scene" and the other in "introvert meditation", and being by a small margin the longest, this music is perhaps the most involved of all. Into a garden of fabulously-coloured cadenzas wanders a duet of romancing horn and violin. The dream-like mood yields to progressively livelier activity. After a climax, cellos, with full and noble tone, wax lyrical. Cued by the cellos, a clarinet sings a truly gorgeous melody which is then lovingly caressed by all. The movement ends on a note of expectancy - which is resolved perfectly by the subsequent Dance of the Rose Maidens! Tjeknavorian tends the "garden" with tender care. Again, even though things get "livelier", he refuses to gild the lily by distorting his chosen basic pulse, which is the agent that binds the diversity of blooms. Instead, he discloses the liveliness through moulding of phrases and accents, attack and instrumental balance. The whole episode is thoroughly enchanting.
Gayne - The "Mugam" Influence
But, what about that "mugam" business? The numbers in which, rightly or wrongly, I most strongly sense the mugam at work are: Dance of Young Kurds, Gathering of the Cotton, Gayneís Adagio, Dance of the Old Men and Carpet Weavers, Lullaby, Aysheís Awakening and Dance, Embroidering of the Carpets, Gayne and Giko, Scene, Gayneís Variation and Dance Finale, Introduction to Act IV, Dance of the Elders, and Final Scene - which is over half of the numbers in this recording. How many of these generally turn up in concert suites? In my experience, one, or at a pinch maybe a couple! And, did I notice this special quality when all I knew were such concert suites? No, Your Honour, I didnít. What, then, makes the music as presented on this recording so especially endearing to me? Clearly it cannot be this mugam influence alone. Therefore it must also be due to the way that Tjeknavorian puts it across. So, it seems that I have "proved the rule", and have not just Aram Khachaturian, but also Loris Tjeknavorian to thank for the ache induced in my heart and the tightness induced in my throat!
Gayne - The Performance in General
Overall, there is a lot of evidence that Tjeknavorian treats Gayne very seriously indeed. As Iíve implied, Khachaturianís basic style lays his music wide open to wildly exaggerated interpretation. I can imagine some performers muttering, "If heís written such brash and noisy music, we may as well make plenty of din." Refusing to be drawn into gratuitous displays of surface spectacle and instead looking within the music, treating it with the same respect that would be afforded - say - Brahms, Tjeknavorian seems to mine a vein of serious, thoughtful intent that is all to easily hidden from Western ears by the neon-lit faÁade of the orchestration. He does not have to wait for Heaven to reap his reward - itís as if the music was blossoming in response to his sympathy. Oh, thereís spectacle all right, bags of it, but it is in the context of, rather than in ignorance of, the balletic drama. Gayne may be no match for Prokofievís Romeo and Juliet (what is?), but under Tjeknavorianís understanding baton itís at least up there with the Tchaikovsky ballets. My only real regret is that they didnít see fit to set down the complete "Gayne Ballet (Complete)".
What about the actual playing? The National Philharmonic is one of those ephemeral scratch orchestras, drawn together for specific occasions - like recordings - and hand-picked from freelance musicians and players in orchestras around and about. What we have here comprises the crŤme de la crŤme of the London area. The solo playing throughout is a joy to behold, being exquisitely turned and full of character. Judging by the impressive roster of credits in the booklet, Iím not alone in thinking that. However, I do wonder why the fine cello solo in the Introduction to Act IV, for example, is not credited. Thatís the trouble with giving credits in works with so many solos of widely varying length and significance: just where do you draw the line?
Of course, rounding up the finest individual talent into one corral is no guarantee of the sort of ensemble that you get from good players who work together day in, day out. But if they are somehow inspired, all fired up and playing their collective socks off, then the sparks can really fly. This must have been one such occasion. Apart from a few almost imperceptible lapses, like the one I mentioned in the Sabre Dance, the ensemble is slicker than a skid-pan. It seems to matter not whether Khachaturian is lifting the roof or smoothing down the nap in the upholstery, the sound positively shines.
Gayne - Recording and Venue
But then, the "sound" depends not just on the performers, but also on the venue and the engineers. The engineering, by Robert Auger, is nigh on faultless. There is a modicum of instrumental spotlighting, but itís all done with the best possible intentions, and is unlikely to be noticed by anyone but a headphones listener - provided heís listening out for it. The same is true of Jon Samuelsí remastering for this CD issue. The LP original is noteworthy for its excellent balance and sound quality. You can hear pretty well everything thatís going on. The "heavy mob" - brass and percussion - never overwhelm the sound-picture, and the strings, when they go into "accompanying figuration" mode, are always clearly audible, both in terms of sound-balance and clarity of articulation. All that was evident on the LP, and Iím glad to say that this has been reproduced on the CD with a fidelity close to perfection - I am having just as much fun listening to this new issue as I ever did the LPs, and of course revelling in the loss of so many reminders of one of the main shortcomings of that venerable medium.
The venue, though, does have one problem. Sample, say, the start of the Russian Dance, with its open-weave staccato trumpets and ticking wood-block, and you canít fail to notice the echo. Fortunately, there are not many other places in the score which offer you the same opportunity to "savour" this effect! However, that apart, the venue bestows a pleasing, spacious ambience over the proceedings - one which, moreover, does little or nothing to interfere with the crystal-clear articulation.
My head is still spinning so much, from the impact of re-acquaintance with this superb recording, that Iím in danger of overlooking the fact that the reissue includes a whole LPís worth of additional music! The orchestra is different, the engineer is different (Brian Culverhouse), and the venue is different. The common denominator is - Iím tempted to say "the one and only"! - Loris Tjeknavorian.
Selections from Spartacus
Spartacus has one advantage over Gayne - there has been a complete recording, on four LPs including a whole side of numbers dropped for one reason or another from the ballet as generally performed. As far as I am concerned, Spartacus is not a patch on Gayne. I recall listening, many years ago, to this complete recording: I became increasingly dismayed by the relentless barrage of "barbaric" motor-rhythms, to the extent that the appearance of the famous Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia was like an oasis to a man lost in the desert! What seemed like the only other tune of any note, and ironically it was a real belter, was found amongst the left-overs on side 8. This unfortunate experience turned me off Spartacus, big time. Now I wonder, with little hope of ever finding out, what difference would it have made if that complete recording had been made by Tjeknavorian?
Anyway, suffice it to say that it was a very pleasant surprise to discover that, pared down to only four "selections", Spartacus can really be lots of fun! Having said that, even in this short selection there is a noticeable preponderance of that rapid, Sabre Dance-style motor-rhythm. Yes, itís fun - in small doses like these!
The recording acoustic is nice and warm, but with the orchestra set fairly forward. Even so, the recording does tend to lose some clarity when pushed hard. Compared to Gayne, the width of the sound-stage is less extreme, and the "middle" feels more populous. The LSO strings sound warmer, and rounder of tone. The overall balance between the orchestral sections sounds very natural, and Iím glad to say that the bright percussion are allowed to cut through the texture. Presumably prompted by the subject matter, Khachaturian used a lot of percussion in Spartacus. This recording seems to find a sensible line between giving the percussion their head and letting the percussion blow the rest of the orchestra out onto the street.
The Scene and Dance with Crotales had me reaching for my music dictionary. My brain was insisting that crotales were something you had for breakfast! Having reminded myself that they were the forerunners of castanets, whose modern form was that of small, thick, tuned cymbals (so, not much difference, then?), I was a mite disappointed not to find any, of either vintage, in evidence. Presumably they are played by the dancers not present at the recording sessions? Tjeknavorian finds much humidity in the slow, tense Scene, and injects bags of bounce into the subsequent Dance with (Imaginary) Crotales. Winding it up by degrees, he cuts the leash when the brass inject their flashing phrases. When the percussive din ceases, he puts more heat under the returning slow tune, cooking the strings, coiling winds and bumping drums to produce sultry vapours, exotic and perfumed - not quite your average "Overture in the French Style", is it?
As soon as I heard the clarinet tune in the Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens and Victory of Spartacus, I was convinced that it was the same tune as in the first number - I had to check back to be sure it wasnít! Anyway, itís a very sexy bit of clarinetting, and hardly what Iíd call "maidenly". The feel is reminiscent of the mugam styles in Gayne, but somehow "westernised". It struck me more like Hollywoodís idea of "oriental" music, and I even get the odd whiff of the Edmundo Ross Band playing some rumba or other! Not to worry - Tjeknavorian winds it up brilliantly, encouraging the players to go for the jazzy touches that Khachaturian tossed in for good measure.
In the UK, the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia is virtually unknown. However, most of the population are familiar with the theme from the BBCís drama serial The Onedin Line, to which it bears a remarkable resemblance. The problem is that it has been played by any and every organisation capable of gathering together the necessary orchestral forces. Does Tjeknavorian have anything "different" to say about it? Well, no, not really - but he does show us that you donít have to fry it to a frazzle to make your point! This is clear right from the start. The beautifully moulded, rising cello figure seamlessly disgorges the cor anglais. The famous melody is played with plenty of rubato, but absolutely no exaggeration. Tjeknavorian has an instinctive feel for when to press forward, and when to hold back. Right in the middle, both his relaxation of passions, and his opening of the tap when the accompaniment gets busy, feels so natural. Then, the martial interjections bring expectancy in spadefuls. Far from losing his head when going for the big climax, Tjeknavorian instead builds up a big one (head, that is!). It erupts as majestically as anyone could wish, but without being blasted. Consequently, in the coda the sense is one of passions satisfied rather than spent.
The tune at the start of Aeginaís Variation and Bacchanale sounds so familiar. It reminds me of something else I know, but for the life of me I canít think what. I once lived with such a tune in my head for over twenty years before I found its "precedent". I hope I get this one sorted quicker than that! Anyway, this is an exuberant little number, played with lots of sparkling zest, and making a neat, fun-filled finale.
Turning to the popular Masquerade Suite, I wonder: has there ever been a bad performance of the ubiquitous Waltz? It seems almost to play itself, so gratifyingly does it flow from the instruments. Tjeknavorian handles it as well as anybody - in fact, better than many, as he disdains those distended tenuti that more showy conductors, presumably confusing this with a Viennese waltz, somehow cannot resist. The Nocturne is played andante, all the more radiant for being allowed some freedom of movement. The violin solo is ravishing, partly because it remains closely integrated with the orchestral picture. Played with evident affection, this entire movement exudes warmth. The Mazurka is a bit like the Waltz, inasmuch as it almost plays itself, that is. Here, Tjeknavorianís tenuti are much more expansive gestures - presumably because, for once, they are marked as such? There is a splendid robustness, a ruddy-cheeked honesty about the way this is played - it is devoid of false "good manners".
A nicely measured Romance is given space to breathe and expand, the strings in particular seeming to relish their chance to indulge themselves. Although the oboe sounded ever-so-slightly off-colour, the all-important trumpet solo is satisfyingly sugar-sweet and - like the violin in the Nocturne - integrated rather than segregated (like vibrato, I feel that solo "spotlighting" is done best if you donít notice it!). The rudely rumbustious concluding Galop is taken just a fraction too quickly, judging by the start of what we might call its "development section", where the bass brass donít seem to have quite enough time to articulate their bottoms! Also, possibly for the same reason, the comical trombone slides donít always manage to punch home their vulgar points. These are, though, very minor carps - overall there is a juicy sense of finely-judged mayhem.
Fantasy on Russian Themes
Right: that just leaves the one work on this issue that is performed in its entirety. Granted, at just under five and a half minutes the Russian Fantasy can hardly be described as a magnum opus, but nevertheless it is complete and unexpurgated! You can get some idea of its content from its composition date - 1944 - and the occasion of its premiŤre - the 1945 celebration of the anniversary of the October Revolution. However, once you have switched off those images of stern, aspiring youth determinedly hoisting red flags aloft in the wind, it is actually quite a neat, toe-tapping bit of music. Effectively a set of continuous textural variations, its single tune starts off as a sturdy march-cum-revolutionary song, and ends up as a torrential Russian dance, sizzling along on the crest of what I am starting to regard as a "Spartacus motor rhythm". Tjeknavorian is as considerate as ever, shaping and nuancing the phrases even where all guns are blazing, and the LSO pitch into it as if to the manner born.
For me, Tjeknavorian brings many very special insights to Gayne. Taking full advantage of his "75% of the complete score", he gives us a much more rounded view than the concert suites - which tend to feature the "highlights" - can ever do. This not only contextualises - and to some extent leavens - the overtly spectacular, but also exposes a vein of real, human emotion in a composer too often and too lightly dismissed as brash and shallow. The not-so-motley crew of the National Philharmonic - as if sensing the occasion - play their hearts out for him, whilst the quality of the recording, with one very minor reservation, is in its own right a delight to be savoured. The digital remastering is a model of faithful reproduction. I wouldnít be without this recording for the World.
As music, the fill-ups donít aspire to the high standard of Gayne, although Tjeknavorian treats them as if they did. They are, though, more than mere padding, containing plenty to eliminate boredom from an idle hour - especially when the LSOís playing gives every impression of "a good time being had by all". In spite of, or perhaps even because of, being set in a more natural "concert hall" sound-stage, the recording occasionally sounds just a bit on the murky side - but only when compared with the utterly outstanding Gayne.
Generally, when I assess a recording I bought years ago, purely for the sheer quantity of music it contained, I discover to my private embarrassment that "quantity" was indeed all it had in its favour. So, I get a really warm feeling inside of me to be able to thoroughly recommend this set. I am pretty sure that, at rock bottom, Gayne will be the real reason youíll be spending your money. I think I can safely say that, even had it been without those generous fill-ups, and at todayís prices, it will be money well spent.
Musicweb, June 2005
1 Introduction and Russian Dance (4:39)
2 Dance of the Young Kurds (3:49)
3 Gathering of the Cotton (4:51)
4 Mountaineers' Dance (1:42)
5 Dance of Welcome (3:27)
6 Gayne's Adagio (4:23)
7 Noune's Variation (1:30)
8 Dance of the Old Men and Carpet Weavers (3:49)
9 Lullaby (Berceuse) (5:49)
10 Ayshe's Awakening and Dance (6:48)
11 Embroidering of the Carpets (4:24)
12 Fire (5:08)
13 Lezghinka (2:34)
14 Lyrical Duet (5:06)
15 Gayne and Giko (8:40)
16 Armen's Variation (2:00)
17 Scene (1:57)
18 Gayne's Variation and Dance Finale (4:52)
1 Introduction to Act IV (8:52)
2 Dance of the Rose Maidens (2:09)
3 Sabre Dance (2:22)
4 Introduction and Dance of the Elders (5:39)
5 Gopak (3:04)
6 Final Scene (1:47)
Spartacus - Excerpts (1954)
7 Scene and Dance with Crotales (4:24)
8 Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens and Victory of Spartacus (6:25)
9 Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia (9:53)
10 Aegina's Variation and Bacchanale (3:16)
Masquerade Suite (1944)
11 Waltz (4:09)
12 Nocturne (4:07)
13 Mazurka (2:36)
14 Romance (3:56)
15 Galop (2:39)
Fantasy on Russian Themes (5'24)