Review By 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
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!