Saturday 25 January 2014

Ballet suites by Kara Karayev attractively scored and full of engaging ideas in excellent performances from Dmitry Yablonsky and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on a new Naxos release

The Azerbaijani  composer Kara Karayev (also spelled Gara Garayev) (1918-1982) was born in Baku to a father who was a Professor of Medicine and a mother, who was among the first graduates of the Baku-based school of the Russian Music Society. At the age of eight he entered the junior music school at the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire, now the Baku Music Academy and later attended the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire. Among his teachers were Georgi Sharoyev, Leonid Rudolf, and the Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948). In 1937, Garayev joined the Union of Composers of Azerbaijan SSR.

1938 saw Karayev’s first composition, a cantata The Song of the Heart to a poem by Rasul Rza (1910–1981). It was performed the same year, in the presence of Stalin, in Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. In 1938, Garayev moved to Moscow State Conservatoire, where he became a student and a good friend of Dmitri Shostakovich.

In 1941 Garayev returned to Baku to teach at Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Society. 1945 saw his opera The Motherland (‘Vətən’) which was awarded the Stalin Prize. Another Stalin Prize came in 1948, for his symphonic poem Leyli and Majnun.  Upon the death of Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948), Garayev became the Chair of the Union of Composers of Azerbaijan SSR and the rector of Azerbaijan State Conservatoire.. In 1948 Karayev became the head of the Music Department at the Azerbaijan Architecture and Art Institute. In June 1961, Karayev and Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007) were the only two Soviet composers who attended the first International Los Angeles Music Festival held at UCLA, Franz Waxman conducting the Festival Symphony Orchestra with a suite from Karayev's Path of Thunder.

Karayev suffered from heart disease, which prevented him from attending his own 60th jubilee celebration held in Baku, where he was awarded the title of the Hero of Socialist Labour. Karayev spent the last five years of his life in Moscow, away from his beloved Baku. He died on 13th May 1982, in Moscow, at the age of 64. His body was flown to Baku and buried at the Alley of Honour.

Whilst having a love of the music of Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Karayev was strongly drawn to Albanian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Bulgarian, Spanish, African and Arabic folklore and music.

Karayev’s compositions include operas, cantatas, ballets, symphonic and chamber pieces, piano music and songs.

A new release from Naxos features two of Karayev’s suites from his ballet scores, The Seven Beauties and The Path of Thunder with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra  conducted by Dmitry Yablonsky



It was in 1953, that Karayev's Seven Beauties ballet was staged at the Azerbaijani Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Based on Nizami Ganjavi's (1141-1209) poem, Seven Beauties (Yeddi gözəl), it was the first Azerbaijani ballet and opened a new chapter in the history of classical music of Azerbaijan. Karayev's only other ballet, Path of Thunder (İldırımlı yollarla) was staged in 1958. It was inspired by the novel by South African writer, Peter Abrahams (b.1919) and dedicated to the racial conflicts in South Africa.

The Seven Beauties – Ballet Suite (1953), based on the legend of Shah Bachram Gur and his seven wives who lived in seven pavilions, is in five sections, the first being a Waltz that has a rhythmic opening introduced by the piano. The music soon quietens before the grand waltz enters, in many ways reminiscent of Khachaturian in its bold, bright textures, if not in orchestration which is more subtle. There is a moderate, flowing central section, again rhythmically like Khachaturian.

A horn solo marks out the lovely opening of the Adagio, a wistful movement where, part way through, the waltz rhythm gently and quietly shows itself momentarily. There are some lovely touches throughout. The third section is entitled The Dance of The Clowns and opens at a moderate tempo, building to a more dynamic and lively piece before ending quietly.

The fourth section The Seven Portraits has an Introduction that opens quietly and atmospherically, with eastern arabesques from the woodwind before running through a variety of moods including the sultry Indian Beauty, a lively Byzantine Beauty, with the flavour of an eastern dance, The Khorezmian Beauty, full of dance like, rhythmic bounce, a flowing Slavonic Beauty that varies rhythmically as it progresses with a distinctive Slavic feel, The Maghrebian Beauty with a lush melody and gentle rhythmic lilt that, again, hints at Khachaturian in its little touches, The Chinese Beauty that has a pizzicato opening with oriental intervals that dashes along in a light-hearted manner before the arrival of the final wife, The Most Beautiful of The Beauties that brings the most extended of melodies, a long breathed melody with gentle little woodwind arabesques. The music builds in drama becoming rich and passionate with a lovely oboe passage.

The ballet suite ends with The Procession which brings together the rhythms and textures of the composer’s native Azerbaijan in a colourful finale.

The Path of Thunder ballet concerns the story of two ill-fated South African lovers of different races. The Ballet Suite No.2 (1958) draws seven sections from the ballet with General Dance building inexorably from a quiet opening, with piano and woodwind, into another colourful piece of ballet music. The Dance of The Girls with Guitars is introduced by an oboe melody, with harps representing the sound of guitars in this sultry, gently rhythmic piece that does, nevertheless, rise to a climax centrally.  Karayev manages to introduce some attractive moments to lift the music.  

Percussion open in the rhythmic Dance of the Black Community, a section dominated by woodwind and percussion with a distinctive section of piccolo and percussion and later flute, a repetitive rhythm punctuated by tremendous outbursts and subtle orchestral colouring. Night in the Stilleveld has oboes and cor anglais playing over hushed strings in another sultry piece, evocatively orchestrated by Karayev as it builds in strength before fading to the end. Rippling harps open Scene and Duet, with gentle woodwind and ‘drips’ of sound from the orchestra evoking dawn. Soon a gentle waltz arrives before the music slows and quietens. There is a duet for violin and cello portraying the two lovers as the music develops a passionate string melody that builds to a climax. The music quietens before a resounding coda.

A lovely Lullaby is introduced by the strings before woodwind and harp enter in a very attractive section. The finale, The Path of Thunder, opens with threatening piano chords underscoring the orchestra. The music slowly builds in drama and dynamics as it marches to its coda.

This may be lighter fare but it is attractively scored and full of engaging ideas. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky gives excellent performances that bring out all the colour the music.

The recording is excellent and there are informative booklet notes.

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