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Barry Brenesal
Fanfare, May 2009

There’s an anecdote about Kara Karayev (1918–1982) that deserves to be passed along, in light of the sunny atmosphere and rich humor of the ostensibly serial Symphony No. 3. It was recalled by Mstislav Rostropovich, and is mentioned in Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Apparently, the cellist heard hysterical laughter behind him in a concert of what he termed some “very vulgar” classical music. Glancing back, he noticed that it was Shostakovich, with his then-pupils Georgi Sviridov and Kara Karayev. It transpired they’d had a few drinks beforehand, become moderately boisterous, and that an usher had tried to get them to leave. Shostakovich never wore his state-awarded medals in public, but both Karayev and Sviridov had theirs on; and when the usher got close enough to see this, he immediately said to the latter, “I didn’t mean you—I meant that one,” pointing to Shostakovich. This, plus the liquor, was all it took to set them off. Sviridov went on to become an apostate, a Communist Party apparatchik who regularly attacked Shostakovich’s music. But Karayev, who moved away from his teacher musically (in large scale compositions, at any rate) at an early point in his career, remained all his life on very good terms with the older man.

You can hear Shostakovich in the first theme of the 1947 tone poem, Leyla and Mejnun, even to a couple of near-quotes from the Symphony No. 5, while the second theme recalls Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. This is emotionally direct stuff, structurally simple and overlong, but broadly appealing, with the occasional irregular rhythmic accompaniment to point to the composer’s increasing fascination with his native Azerbaijan folk-music traditions.

Don Quixote is another matter altogether. It was abstracted from music composed in 1960 for the novel’s brilliant and subtly subversive film adaptation by Shostakovich’s friend, the director Grigory Kozintsev. Karayev’s eight selections catch the picture’s breadth of atmosphere; from the cheerful pomposity of “Sancho, the Governor,” to the delicate melancholy of “Aldonse,” to the mockingly bright, Shostakovich-like harshness of “Cavalcade,” to the movingly serious finale of “Don Quixote’s Death”—predicated on the almost yurodivy, Christ-like sensibility that Kozintsev places at the core of his central figure. (The film is available from Corinth Films. My copy is older and out of print, however, and I can’t vouch for the quality of the current transfer.) This is a delightful score, and feels all too short at just under 19 minutes.

The most lengthy and serious work on the program is Karayev’s Symphony No. 3, from 1964. It’s been pointed to repeatedly by various critics as a serialist work, to show by way of comparison that though Shostakovich used serialist elements late in life, he wasn’t a 12-toner. But this Symphony is far from being a doctrinaire serial composition, mixing tone rows with diatonic themes and never treating the 12 tones with the equality Schoenberg demanded. Perhaps this explains why the first and second movements, a traditional symphonic opening and Scherzo, manage to be light-hearted, something hardcore serial expressionism can’t achieve because its teeth hurt from being gnashed too long. The third movement is a pensive, mainly dissonant Andante of some emotive power, while the finale curiously sandwiches a witty fugue between a meditative introduction and close…Definitely recommended. Keep your eyes out for more Karayev (sometimes spelt Karaev on older releases), and snap up those old releases when they appear!

Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, March 2009

This is fascinating. Karayev was a pupil of Shostakovich whose music is heavily indebted to the music of his native Azerbaijan…If the symphony starts absolutely à la (le? – ‘la’ is correct, as a contraction of ‘à la manière de…’ [in the manner of…] – Ed.) Shostakovich, it soon veers off into a more overtly serialist world. This was one of the early Soviet works to use twelve-note rows. Motor rhythms emerge in what is essentially a collage of a movement. Piano clusters add colour. Some moments of strain in the violins presage an episode of true discomfort from this section in the second movement; just before three minutes in.

The back cover of the disc refers to “the five-hundred-year-old ashug melody” in the second movement. What we get is a serialist’s take on ashug: “I wanted to prove that, strictly following twelve-tone technique, it is possible to write nationalistic music”, said the composer in relation to this movement. The music is appealingly charming, as it turns out, with frequent glances at a sort of distorted Prokofiev. I can imagine a performance of this music that dances just a little more, but in the circumstances it seems positively churlish to cavil. The “slow” movement—it is marked Andante —is the still heart of the symphony. It boasts a truly beautiful oboe melody, wonderfully played here, that alone justifies the purchase of this disc. The finale is generally contrapuntal, serious and contemplative. The major fugal part strains the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra players somewhat here, but it remains fascinating. This is particularly the case with the sparing use of the harpsichord and, in the slow, ruminative coda, the piano.

The symphonic poem Leyla and Mejnun won a Stalin prize in 1948. Inspired by the twelfth-century Azerbaijani poet Nizami, Leyla and Mejnun relates a tale of “star-cross’d lovers” united in death. The opening section is deliberately oppressive; there then follows the struggle against fate before a theme of love joins the fray. If there is the odd touch of the pedestrian in the writing, it really does occur in passing. Generally there is plenty of character here. The quiet end is particularly memorable.

Don Quixote carries the wonderful subtitle, Symphonic Engravings. The musical material comes from music to the film that carries the same name. The eight sections describe a sequence of Quixote’s adventures. A movement called Travels appears like a Mussorgskian “Promenade”. This is by far the most appealing music on the disc—some sections even verge on the carefree, and the musical language is more approachable than that of the Third Symphony. The movement entitled Aldonse is slow and of gossamer-light scoring with a lovely, winding flute melody, while Pavan reveals a very real nobility. The penultimate movement, Cavalcade takes us mightily close to the world of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet but it is the keening string laments of Don Quixote’s Death that make the greatest impression. 

It is repertoire explorations such as this that give hope in this recession-torn world.

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, March 2009

The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra plays beautifully under cellist-conductor Dmitry Yablonsky and the engineering is top-drawer. …this is a prime recommendation. © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

David Hurwitz, November 2008

This is an important release. A native of Azerbaijan, Kara Karayev (1918–82) was one of Shostakovich's favorite colleagues, and was a composer of genuine talent. Read full review at ClassicsToday

James Leonard, November 2008

…there is enjoyment to be found on this unusual recording…Karayev unites in his style his country’s national music, his teacher’s social realistic music, and, in the symphony, international serialism. To the extent these elements coalesce in each individual piece, the music succeeds. Thus, the early tone poem Leyla and Mejnun works well as a piece of Azerbaijan social realism and the later Don Quixote works moderately well as a piece of film music…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2008

Listening to Kara Karayev’s vividly scored Third Symphony it will come as no surprise to learn that he was a composition pupil of Shostakovich. Born in Azerbaijan in 1918, the period with his famous mentor was his only protracted period away from his homeland and favourite city of Baku. Maybe to the innocent ear his stated influence of Azerbaijani folk music may seem well removed from the high impact quality of the symphony dating from 1964, and even further removed from its claim to be one of the first large-scale Soviet work using serialism. What we do have is music that follows on from Shostakovich and Khachaturian with a hint of those Soviet composers working to the ideology of the Communist State. It will prove readily attractive to those who enjoy such a mix, the four contrasting movements, often of a jagged nature, forming an imposing score. Heavy brass is sparingly used to add excitement, and I particularly commend the sensitive slow movement with its sombre mood that spills over into the finale. The tone poem, Leyla and Mejnun relates the Arab legend of ill-fated lovers who are united in death. The music is highly descriptive of the scene without using an Arabic content. Don Quixote follows the famous story in a series of eight pictures, and I am reminded of Khachaturian’s Spartacus ballet. The Russian Philharmonic under the direction of Dmitry Yablonsky plays with enthusiasm, though the harmonic language does presents intonation problems. Just congealing a little in tutti passages, the recording is otherwise most agreeable.

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