Khachaturian: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 2 (The Bell); The Battle of Stalingrad Suite

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COMPOSERS: Khachaturian
LABELS: ASV
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 2 (The Bell); The Battle of Stalingrad Suite
PERFORMER: Armenian PO/Loris Tjeknavorian
CATALOGUE NO: CD DCA 858; 859 (separate discs) DDD
For many people, the Armenian composer Khachaturian exists only through the intervention of the BBC, who chose a fragment from the ballet Spartacus as theme music for The Onedin Line. Those delving into his symphonic output in the hope of unearthing more swashbuckling lyricism in the same vein would do well to remember the other morsel for which this composer is famous: the barbed and cacophonous ‘Sabre Dance’ from Gayane – two minutes of controlled vehemence without equal in the orchestral repertoire.

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That said, the three symphonies contain elements of so many different styles that anyone with a moderately broad taste and an enthusiasm for the indulgences of 20th-century Soviet symphonists is bound to find, somewhere in the cycle, music to suit any occasion or mood. The bleakness of the Second Symphony will strike a chord with Shostakovich fans, even if Khachaturian cannot match either the intellectual rigour or sheer brute force of the younger (by three years) composer. The influence of Armenian folk music is particularly apparent in the First Symphony, where spasms of melody are treated with an oriental skirl and flourish. The triumphalism of the last symphony, subtitled a ‘Symphony-Poem’, with additional parts for organ and 15 trumpets, is simply bizarre.

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Few could be better qualified to deal with these ungainly monsters than Loris Tjeknavorian and the Armenian Philharmonic. At the expense of subtlety they stride through the music with heavy, confident tread. But, sadly, much of the exoticism is lost. The mysterious convolutions and cadences of eastern music are always present, but swamped by unhelpful orchestration and an unsympathetic balance. Perhaps an orchestra from the western side of the Caucasus would better appreciate these subtleties and so convey them more effectively. Christopher Lambton