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RECORDING OF THE MONTH  

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Kara Abdul'Faz-Oglī 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 The Path of Thunder (Suite No. 2) (1958) [4:02]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 2017, The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset
Reviewed as a stereo 24/96 download from Chandos.net
Pdf booklet included
CHANDOS CHSA5203 SACD [73:10]

The music of this Baku-born composer is entirely new to me, but with such an exotic, eye-catching name who could resist giving it a try? So, who is this fellow? Well, he was just eight when he enrolled, as a junior, at the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire. His maiden work, a cantata, was composed in 1938. During the 1940s, when his friend Dmitri Shostakovich was in artistic exile, Karayev did well; indeed, he was awarded the Stalin Prize twice, for a co-authored opera and his symphonic poem, Leyla and Mejnun. In the 1950a his two ballets, The Seven Beauties and The Path of Thunder, were very well received.

Chandos claim these are premiere recordings. That may be true of the ‘suite for orchestra’, The Seven Beauties, composed in 1949; this provided the basis for the ballet, premiered in 1952. However, Don Quixote and Leyla and Mejnun were recorded by Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian PO in 2008 (review). Ditto the Suite No. 2 from The Path of Thunder; Rauf Abdullayev and the Moscow Radio & TV SO recorded it for Russian Disc/Delos in the early 1990s (review). That same suite – there are three in all – can also be found on another Yablonsky album, made with the Royal Philharmonic in 2012 (review). Included in both that and the Delos release is The Seven Beauties ballet suite, assembled in 1953.

I first encountered the Ukrainian Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony, of which he has been principal conductor since their 2009-2010 season, in excerpts from Khachaturian’s two best-known ballets, Spartacus and Gayane. In my review I predicted great things for this fledgling partnership; that said, I found their Prokofiev symphony cycle – generally welcomed by my colleagues – to be from the middle drawer rather than the top. All those recordings were made for Onyx, but this Karayev collection appears to be their first for Chandos.

The Seven Beauties has its origins in the Panj Ganj (Five Treasures), by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209). It’s a classic tale of love between a lowly girl, Aysha, and her people’s despotic ruler, Bachram Shah. While sheltering from a storm, the latter is shown a cloth bearing the images of seven beauties, who then come to life. This fantastic pageant is bracketed by a dramatic preamble – from the ballet’s final Act – in which Bachram Shah despairs at Aysha’s rejection and imagines a waltz with his beauties, and a rousing ‘Procession’ in which Bachram Shah and his soldiers subjugate the people.

Back to front it may be, but Karayev’s ‘suite for orchestra’ makes a fairly convincing whole. If I seem a bit lukewarm it’s because on first hearing I found the score wasn’t quite as inspired as Karabits makes out in his conductor’s note. My next session, a few days later, was very different. Suddenly, the opening seemed more dramatic than before, the ensuing Adagio even lovelier than I’d first thought. To be fair though, Ben Connellan’s warm, detailed and very atmospheric recording needs a bit of extra volume; only then did I begin to enjoy both the piece and the performance.

At this point I surrendered, without protest, to the manifold charms of this music. What gorgeous harp and horn playing in that Adagio, and how witty – but without a hint of slapstick – the clowns’ antics. As for the seven beauties, their portraits are imbued with a gentle lift and radiance that shows the Bournemouth players at their very best. Those soft, shivery tam-tams and discreet bass-drum thuds are especially well caught, as are the nicely blended woodwinds and silky strings. Goodness, I haven’t heard the BSO play this well in ages.

Indeed, the word discreet could apply to the performances as a whole, for Karabits emphasises the charm and elegance of Karayev’s writing. Really, this is music of great subtlety and skill, far removed from the garish colours and driving rhythms one associates with second-rate Soviet pieces, some of which, it must be said, were penned by Prokofiev and Shostakovich. For proof of class and quality, look no further than the controlled splendor of the closing ‘Procession’, conductor, players and the recording team clearly unanimous about how this should go.

Cervantes’ Don Quixote has inspired a number of composers, not least Richard Strauss, but Karayev’s take on this touching tale – originally composed for Grigor Kozintsev’s 1957 film and then recast as a series of ‘symphonic engravings’ – has its own, very special appeal. As Andrew Burn points out in his liner-notes, Karayev eschews a straight retelling of the story; instead, he focuses on ‘the psychological heart of the hero’. As with The Seven Beauties, this score is both subtle and striking; it’s played here with undiluted affection and pleasure, and that’s a welcome bonus.

As for the second part, ‘Sancho, the Governor’, it’s a thrilling take on that famous tune from Bizet’s Carmen. The enjoyment in both the music and the music-making is palpable, and, thanks to Karabits’s judicious approach, it’s all so tastefully done. There’s delicacy and introspection too – what gorgeous flute playing in ‘Aldonse’, what softly weeping strings in ‘Don Quixote's Death’. In between there’s a lovely ‘Pavan’ and a pulse-quickening Rossinian galop at the start of ‘Cavalcade’, every nuance and change of pace adroitly managed.

The symphonic poem Leyla and Mejnun, sourced from another Nizami Ganjavi poem, is a robust, no-nonsense piece with all the dash and drama one could wish for. There’s ardour too – cue aching, unrequited violin melodies –  and the red-blooded tuttis are just terrific. Once again, I was struck by the width and depth of the audio image, with individual instruments, and groups thereof, precisely where they should be. The album ends with a gossamer-light lullaby from Karayev’s ballet The Path of Thunder, based on Peter Abrahams’s tale of life, love and violent death in early apartheid South Africa. It’s a fascinating score, worth hearing in its entirety.

Which is certainly my impression after listened to eClassical downloads of that and the Seven Beauties ballet suite. Abdullayev’s Delos album is available in 16-bit, Yablonsky’s Naxos one in 24-bit. Predictably, perhaps, Abdullayev takes an earthy approach to this music, and his orchestra respond with playing of undeniable strength and idiom. These are dramatic performances, captured in good sound that includes a splendid tam-tam and bass drum. In fact, I much prefer Abdullayev to Yablonsky in both works, not least because the latter’s recording is too brightly lit and, at times, the sound is a bit coarse. Some may feel that’s more ‘authentic’; I just find it wearying after a while.

I then turned a CD rip of Yablonsky’s earlier album, which contains Karayev’s Third Symphony, Leyla and Mejnun and Don Quixote. There, too, the conductor opts for sinew rather than subtlety, and while the performances are decent enough, they do seem a tad relentless at times. It’s only when one hears Karabits and the BSO that one realizes just how accomplished – even sophisticated – these scores really are, and how well they respond to more sensitive treatment. I will now archive Abdullayev, delete Yablonsky and add the Karabits to my shortlist of the year’s best recordings. Yes, It’s that good.

Wonderful music, superbly played and recorded; a real find.

Dan Morgan

Contents
The Seven Beauties [32:53]
I. Waltz [4:19]
II. Adagio [5:09]
III. The Dance of the Clowns [1:55]
IV. The Seven Portraits:
Introduction [1:24]
1. The Indian Beauty [2:28]
2. The Byzantine Beauty [0:53]
3. The Khoresmian Beauty [0:54]
4. The Slavonic Beauty [2:36]
5. The Maghrebian Beauty [2:56]
6. The Chinese Beauty [1:22]
7. The Most Beautiful of the Beauties [4:23]
V. The Procession [4:20]
Don Quixote [20:32]
1. Travels [1:47]
2. Sancho, the Governor [1:56]
3. Travels [1:21]
4. Aldonse [3:32]
5. Travels [3:06]
6. Pavan [1:58]
7. Cavalcade [2:33]
8. Don Quixote's Death [4:16]
Leyla and Mejnun [15:17]
Lullaby from The Path of Thunder [4:02]




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