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Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
The Battle of Stalingrad, Suite (1948/50) [29:48]
Othello, Suite (1956) [33:41]
Viktor Simcisko (violin)
Jana Valaskova (soprano)
Slovak Philharmonic Chorus
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adriano
rec. 6-8 July 1989 (The Battle of Stalingrad), 22-24 June 1992 (Othello), Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, Slovakia

Originally on the Marco Polo label Naxos has re-issued this recording in its Film Music Classics Series.

Born in Tiflis — now Tbilisi the capital of Georgia — Khachaturian was proud of his Armenian heritage. This can often be heard in his use of Armenian folk-inspired themes. Typical of much of Khachaturian’s music is one of his best known works the Violin Concerto in D minor. It is so often given a poor press for the trivial nature of its themes and a lack of emotional depth. A Soviet citizen for the majority of his life Khachaturian together with Shostakovich, Kabalevsky and Shebalin were part of the first generation of composers who lived and worked under the Soviet regime. In 1948 these composers were denounced following the so-called ‘Zhdanov Decree’ that heralded a campaign of condemnation and persecution.

Writing film scores has so often proved a lucrative and productive occupation for composers and Soviet composers were no exception. The music was required to be patriotic in character displaying pride in the Soviet nation. If elements of traditional folk music could be incorporated so much the better. Khachaturian’s introduction to this world began in 1934 with ‘Pepo’ a film directed by Hamo Beknazarian for the Armenian State Film Company. He went on to write a number of scores mainly for the Mosfilm studios with his last dating from 1960.

In 1948/50 Khachaturian composed the score to ‘The Battle of Stalingrad’, a lengthy two part Soviet film directed by Vladimir Petro. The composer arranged a concert suite from the full score. It is presented here on five tracks, each given a descriptive title. To my mind the description doesn’t always seem to match the mood and I did wonder if mistakes had been made in that area; this applies to both Suites. There is an element of bombast here as the music was designed to appeal to the patriotic nature of the Soviet people in their masses. In spite of the often inflated and rather blustering nature of the music Khachaturian incorporates as much contrasting content as he dared. Even so, please don’t expect any great emotional depths. A good example of Khachaturian’s craft is the opening movement ‘A City on the Volga - The Invasion’ (track 1). This is constructed of epic, full blooded music that has an undertow of disturbing tension. In this strong and bold music with its virtually unrelenting forward momentum one can almost hear the defiance of the Soviet people. I was struck by ‘The Enemy is Doomed’ (track 3) which is evocative of huge landscapes laid to waste with a stench of destruction and burning still hanging heavy in the air.

Some years later in 1955/56 Khachaturian wrote the score to ‘Othello’ a film directed by Sergei Yutkevich. It won the best director award at the 1956 Cannes film festival. As with ‘The Battle of Stalingrad’ the composer prepared a concert suite presented here on eleven tracks with descriptive titles. The most striking music appears in the ‘Prologue and Introduction’ (track 6). It begins with tender music of love and longing with a reasonably affecting violin solo from leader Viktor Simcisko. In a contrasting central section from around 2:08-5:20 the mood quickly shifts to one of dramatic naval battle music. In truth found some of this music rather nondescript and unmemorable especially tracks 8-10. The appearance of a soprano and chorus (both wordless) in tracks 7, 15, and 16 added little of note. In ‘Othello’s Despair’ (track 11) I enjoyed the confident music of yearning passion. This reminded me at times of the ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’ from his Khachaturian's ballet ‘Spartacus’.

Adriano has become something of a specialist in making recordings of little known or neglected symphonic repertoire. He is completely at home here. Despite some untidy moments the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra acquit themselves reasonably well with the assured Adriano drawing dedicated playing. The engineers provide good sound with an admirable balance.

This is a re-issue that should appeal mainly to specialist film score collectors and admirers of Russian music.

Michael Cookson
Previous review: Rob Barnett