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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]

Azerbaijani composer Kara Karayev found his success in the USSR. He was born one year after the Russian Revolution and died seven years before the end of Soviet communism. According to Wiki, 1918 was the year when Azerbaijan declared its independence. It became part of the USSR in 1920. Karayev studied music in Baku - his birthplace - and in 1938 at the Moscow State Conservatoire with Anatoly Alexandrov. In 1945 he began attending Conservatoire classes conducted by Shostakovich who became, as Paul Conway writes in his excellent scene-setter for this CD, "a lifelong friend and a staunch supporter".

Karayev's star has waxed steadily over the last couple of decades. When Chandos recorded his ballet music we knew his music had made it, thirty-plus years after his death. The present disc stands to one side from the instantly accessible works like the The Seven Beauties, The Path of Thunder and Leyli and Mejnun. Delos, Naxos and, in years gone by, Russian Disc, have also mined those popular connections. The two works on this disc are made of taut and somewhat tougher 'ore'. They are in good hands as Yablonsky has already made two Karayev-Naxos discs, albeit with different orchestras (review review). One of those earlier Naxos discs straddles the popular Karayev and the 12-tone Karayev.

The First Symphony can be bracketed with two other wartime Soviet first symphonies earlier and later than the Karayev: the Boris Tchaikovsky (1947) and the Weinberg (1942). It's contemporary with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8, Prokofiev’s Ballad of an Unknown Boy, Miaskovsky’s Symphony No. 24, Knipper’s Symphony No. 8, Khachaturian’s Symphony No. 2, Polovinkin’s Symphonies Nos. 7 and 8, Popov’s Symphony No. 2 Motherland and Tubin’s Symphony No. 4 while pre-dating Prokofiev's Fifth by a year. The first movement of the Karayev is tender and tense. Ruthless little march figures lend sweep and momentum. Both folksy and clamorous in the manner of Shostakovich's Leningrad, the effect is never raucous. The second movement opens, glum and sorrowing, but finds time at 5:30 to speak of "life's carousel" where the music is populist in the manner of Khachaturian’s Masquerade as well as tragic and intoxicating. Later the music scurries along at headlong manic pace but is then muses, predominantly subdued and melancholy, ending in a far from comforting long shallow grade into silence.

If the First Symphony is determined but accessible, the three-movement Violin Concerto is, as Mr Conway says, the fruit of a new serialist direction. This was taken after a Soviet delegation visit to the United States in 1961 when Karayev met Stravinsky in Los Angeles. The Concerto was written in the same year in which the composer won the Lenin Prize for his second ballet score, The Path of Thunder. Interestingly the ballet remained in Karayev's inventive populist style. The Concerto was premiered in 1968 by Leonid Kogan in a concert celebrating Karayev’s 50th birthday. The Concerto, which will be familiar if you have the Russian Revelation CD featuring Gidon Kremer, is moody, passionate and exotically dissonant. It maps out territory occupied by Szymanowski on one hand and Alban Berg on the other. It ends in sourly ambivalent victory and does so at a blistering pace.
There are hours of Karayev still to emerge. His worklist includes a mix of allusive titles both predictable and surprising, even if some of them may yield a shudder in some quarters: two string quartets (1942, 1946); Motherland, a four-act opera (composed with A. Gadzhiev) (1945); Three Nocturnes for singer and jazz orchestra after words of Langston Hughes (1958); Our Party, a cantata for solo voices, chorus and orchestra (1959); Tale of the Mineral Oil Worker at the Caspian Sea for singer or chorus and piano or orchestra (1954); Film music, Vietnam (1955); Violin Sonata in D minor (1960); Hymn to Friendship for solo voices, chorus and orchestra (1969); Lenin, oratorio for speaker, chorus and orchestra (1970); Tenderness, a 'mono-opera' after Henri Barbusse for woman’s voice and chamber orchestra (1972); The Impetuous Gascons, a musical comedy after Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (1973) and The House of the Pigeon, a symphony for children’s chorus, mixed chorus and orchestra after Francisco Goya (1980).

Both of the present works hold more than enough to intrigue the adventurous listener,. They are presented with the advantages of good documentation, convincingly dedicated playing, and an honest upfront recording which communicates plenty of vivid detail. The composer's as yet unrecorded Second Symphony dates from three years after the First. Hope springs … The recording sessions for this disc spanned five days so perhaps other Karayev was scheduled.

Rob Barnett



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