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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa