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.
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: