About this Recording
8.570436 - KHACHATURIAN, A.I.: Symphony No. 2, "Symphony with a Bell" / Lermontov Suite (excerpts) (Russian Philharmonic, Yablonsky)

Aram Il’yich Khachaturian (1903–1978)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, ‘The Bell’ • Lermontov Suite


Born in Tbilisi on 6th June 1903, Aram Khachaturian was the most important twentieth-century musical figure from the former Soviet Republic of Armenia. He studied cello at Moscow’s Gnesin Institute from 1922 until 1925 (from which year comes his earliest known work), and composition with Reinhold Glière until 1929. He then studied at the Moscow Conservatory with such figures as Nikolay Myaskovsky until 1936, having joined the Composers’ Union four years earlier. Despite the hiatus occasioned by his denunciation in the Zhdanov decree of 1948, he maintained a leading rôle in Soviet musical life, serving as deputy chairman of the Composers’ Union’s organizing committee during 1939–48 and as secretary from 1957 until his death. He enjoyed the friendship of a wide range of cultural figures inside and outside the Soviet Union, touring widely after 1950 as a conductor and making numerous recordings of his music (not least with the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony orchestras). His seventieth birthday in 1973 was widely celebrated, in which year he was made Hero of Socialist Labour. He died in Moscow on 1st May 1978.

Although Khachaturian was a relatively late starter as a composer, the majority of his most significant works date from the first half of his career. These include three symphonies (1934, 1943 and 1947), concertos for piano [Naxos 8.555919], violin and cello (1936, 1940 and 1946), and the full-length ballets Gayane (1942) and Spartacus (1954) [selections from these are included on Naxos 8.554054 and 8.550801]. Thereafter his conducting and administration rôles left considerably less time for composition, though mention should be made of his Concerto-Rhapsodies for violin [Naxos 8.559919 or 8.5570988], cello [Naxos 8.570463] and piano [Naxos 8.550799], as well as his unaccompanied sonatas for cello, violin and viola (1974–6) which also marked his belated return to chamber music. He left a number of piano works, as well as incidental music for the theatre and cinema, suites from which, alongside those drawn from his ballets, helped to keep his name alive in the concert-hall in the absence of new symphonic works. What is never in doubt is the expressive immediacy of his music, indelibly marked by his Armenian heritage, with its sensuous and direct melodic writing, vibrant but resourceful orchestration and elemental rhythmic drive—resulting in a popularity equalled by few composers of his generation on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Khachaturian’s largest abstract orchestral work, the Second Symphony was composed during the summer of 1943, while the composer was living at the Composers’ Union retreat in Ivanovo, together with Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Like the latter’s almost contemporaneous Eighth Symphony, it represents its composer’s reaction to war and the attendant cultural collapse—Khachaturian referring to it as “a requiem of wrath, a requiem of protest against war and violence”. At fifty minutes, it is considerably shorter than Shostakovich’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, and was shortened and repeatedly revised with the final version only appearing many years later. Its subtitle, ‘The Bell’, had been prompted by the sound of three (tubular) bells at crucial junctures.

The first movement opens with a forceful idea on the full orchestra, quietening to reveal its mysterious transformation on strings and woodwind before a pensive theme emerges on the lower strings. This is taken up by other instruments prior to a brief climax, followed by a thoughtfully descending theme that presages greater activity on the way to a tempestuous development of the material so far heard. The descending theme now returns on lower woodwind and strings, followed by the mysterious version of the opening idea, the music gradually gaining in impetus before it surges to another short-lived climax that leads, via a pensive transition for the bassoon, to a calm yet tense coda which is underpinned by a harp ostinato and decked out with evocative bell-sounds. From here, the music tapers away to an uneasy close. The second movement begins with rapid activity on strings and woodwind, alongside a prominent part for the piano, which soon yields up a suave, eastern-sounding melody for the strings and brass. A transition for solo strings muses on this theme, before the initial idea is suddenly resumed—taking in a delightful passage for woodwind and string harmonics on the way to its energetic close.

The third movement starts with an ominous theme for woodwind over a steady ostinato on piano and percussion, transferred to strings as tension mounts and the texture expands accordingly. The ostinato continues as the Dies irae plainchant is alluded to, taking the music to a forceful plateau, which is stealthily underpinned by piano before receding to a chorale-like airing of the plainchant on woodwind. Oboe and clarinets now initiate the main climax, in which the ominous theme bursts forth on full orchestra, before gradually dying away in a fugitive silence. The fourth movement starts with a peremptory fanfare on trumpets that expands into a forceful theme across the whole orchestra, the activity continuing unabated as a fugato between strings and woodwind assumes the foreground. Underpinned by ostinato rhythms, this opens out into a forceful theme, a transformation of that opening the work, which culminates in a powerful statement for the whole orchestra. Dying down, the music touches on more peaceful realms for woodwind and piano, before the return of the bells and the brief but defiant ending.

Written for Boris Lavrenyov’s play in 1954, Lermontov recounts the life and work of the playwright and poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), latterly considered the greatest Russian author of his era after Pushkin and one who similarly died as the result of a duel. For his incidental music Khachaturian devised some new material as well as drawing on the score he composed thirteen years earlier for a production of Lermontov’s play Masquerade [Naxos 8.550802], whose Waltz has long been among his best known pieces. In 1959 he returned to the Lermontov score to create a suite.

The first movement is set in motion with a powerfully rhetorical theme that briefly takes on a calmer and more evocative manner before coming to an abrupt halt on pizzicato strings and untuned percussion. The second movement is one of the composer’s highly distinctive brand of waltzes, here with woodwind and lower strings to the fore, and which also takes in a contrasting and more lightly scored episode (albeit still underpinned by the waltz rhythm) before the return of the main theme brings about a bitter-sweet conclusion. The third movement opens vividly, though making way for a plaintive theme on oboe that is heard across the whole orchestra and builds in impetus as it does so. This is repeated, but now a more animated idea featuring woodwind and percussion is interposed, prior to the hesitant return of the initial theme on clarinet then other woodwind, all the while gaining in ardency before the surprisingly brusque close.

Richard Whitehouse

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