Karayev: The Seven Beauties (CD review)

Ballet suites: The Seven Beauties; The Path of Thunder. Dmitry Yablonsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.573122.

Here's another composer of whom I knew little until encountering this disc. Kara Karayev (1918-1982), born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is a noted Azerbaijani composer of the Soviet era and one of Dmitry Shostakovich's most-distinguished pupils. If you've seen his name spelled Gara Garayev or Qara Qarayev, same guy. He wrote over 110 pieces of music, including operas, symphonies, cantatas, marches, ballets, chamber, and solo pieces. The present disc contains two of his most-melodic and most-dramatic works, suites from his ballets The Seven Beauties and The Path of Thunder, performed by Maestro Dmityry Yablonsky and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

First up on the program is the ballet suite from The Seven Beauties, which Karayev wrote in 1947-48 to mark the 800th anniversary of classical poet Nizami Ganjavi. Karayev based the story on themes from Ganjavi's poem "Seven beauties," written in 1197 and having to do with visions of seven beautiful women, a young Shah, love at first sight, a power-hungry vizier, mistaken identities, duplicitous dealings, and the usual such melodramatic action.

Because The Seven Beauties is a ballet and tells a story, it makes the musical segments of the suite rather episodic. We would expect that. And because the Soviet censors of the day would rather that all music remain stuck in the nineteenth century, we don't find a lot of avant-garde creativity or experimentation involved. It's all pretty conventional, actually. Yet it's also quite tuneful, lush and rhapsodic in places and a little old fashioned. "The Seven Portraits" probably come off best, with Maestro Yablonsky creating some delicate, some robust, some romantic, some joyful, and some mournful pictures of the ladies involved.

The Path of Thunder is a more-ambitious ballet Karayev wrote in 1957, inspired by a novel by the South African writer and political commentator Peter Abrahams. The ballet, a discourse on racial prejudice, tells the story of a prohibited love between a white girl and a black teacher. In 1967 it won the Lenin Prize.

Dmitry Yablonsky
With The Path of Thunder we enter an entirely different sonic and emotional landscape. Karayev noted that in creating the music he tried to "use characteristic intonations and rhythms of African folklore." Here, we also find hints of Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and Prokofiev, making the music sound less old fashioned than his previous ballet. However, the censors were still alive and well in Soviet Russia at the time, so don't expect too much in the way of overt modernism. Karayev scored the ballet richly, and under Yablonsky it all seems most-elegantly phrased. In fact, this later ballet appears more atmospheric and evocative than the earlier one, with Yablonsky imparting an appropriately passionate quality to the affairs of the two lovers. The music alternates between sweetness and turbulence, the conductor negotiating the turns smoothly and effectively.

Even though I admit to not having heard these works performed before and therefore have nothing by which to judge their performance, I can't think of how any other conductor or orchestra could play them any better. Moreover, it should probably go without my saying that the Royal Philharmonic plays them with grace and precision, reminding us once again that they remain one of the world's top orchestras. The two works may not be masterpieces, but they are entertaining, each in its own way, making this Naxos release a disc to consider.

Producer and editor Andrew Walton and engineer Mike Clements recorded the suites at the Blackheath Concert Halls, Blackheath, London, in September 2012. I was more familiar with engineer Mike Clements than I was with Kara Karayev, thanks to Clements's many fine recordings for EMI. He does no less with this Naxos release. The sound is among the best I've heard from Naxos in a long time. It has a realistic warmth and presence at a moderate distance, with fairly natural impact and dynamics, and a pleasantly mild bloom around the instruments. Perhaps it lacks in ultimate midrange transparency, but the slight softness in the sound does tend to make it sound more lifelike. Orchestral depth appears limited, as do the highest highs and lowest lows. Still, it's a fine concert-hall presentation, and there's no beating that percussion.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa