20th century ballet music from Azerbaijan: Kara Karayev’s suites fresh record on Naxos

My trail amongst Azerbaijani music resumes with yet works of another of their illustrious composers. Kara Karayev’s life spans spot over the 20th century and, understandably, is stretched from one end to the other of that of the Soviet Union. Karayev’s early life is most notably stamped with Shostakovich’s tutoring, being one of the latter’s most successful pupils.
Using this legacy along the a somehow less-widespread array of folk and popular national influences, I can only foresee the final product of Karayev’s compositions as being tempting and off the over-over-beaten tracks. (even though the Soviet era can be of a total hindrance to hammer on their artists).

So, here we are with a, to my knowledge, vastly unsung and unpraised duet of ballet suites endowed of inviting titlings:

The Seven Beauties (1953) – Ballet Suite (30:35)

The Path of Thunder (1958) – Ballet Suite No. 2 (38:47)

This review is longer than usual, sometimes heavy on the formulation. However, I chose to bear with it, as was feeling called in by a meaningful sentiment: a good number of elements deserved wordings, depictions.

Drawing inspiration from the early poetic tale of twelfth century bard Nizami, The Seven Beauties recount the contemplation of legendary Sassanid king Bahram V wives; this, in an ode to female and human beauty, chanting of all outside and inner charms impacting on our imagination.

And so kick we off the first ballet suite on a waltz built around an on the instant memorable dance pattern, grabbing the audience to throw it straight into a world impetuous, holding vibes of danger and seduction, trills and relief in variations, but with a sense of Viennese majesty and elegance safeguarding the listener in a friendly area. (All considered a dominant fraction of the current audience comprehends music in the habit of Western musical codes)

Expectably, the following movement slows down at the languishing, but not lingering pace of an adagio, dreamy and nightly as it preserves pianissimo dynamics throughout. It uses a recognisable (in as much successful) recipe of pulling forward into the melody, a three notes ascending repeat on a descending bass line.

Before the Seven Portraits do come in place, the main flavour alters on the Dance of the Clowns, as would a shah try to bring in a surprise onto a guest attendance. It is a marching procession, proud and humorous, calling for the percussions section to a first plan role (which, incidentally, in classical music, I most always like, for it is temperate, built harmoniously with other instrumental sections, not bound at all to merely keep the tempo in whichever fantasist fashion or not)

As the Portraits are about to begin, we must keep aware that no time is to be spent in lengthening, so that all pictures are fast, furtive and evanescent. Each woman’s turn is at most two and a half minutes long if we except for the last one. It is much far from an offense to state that it avoids risks of bore or loss of concentration. It is just all the contrary, it is welcome. Dancers get to be greeted in an introductory scene, after which the ball is opened by the Indian beauty – leading the way to a journey of several continents and their sonorities.

The Indian beauty is slow and agile, impersonated on flutes and gestural tambourine shakes. In a second part do violins take over the lead, supported by a cello-hopping habanera.

The Byzantine dame is fast, imperious, plus stressed on bells. It is my favourite, troublesome, fulgurating violins, ambitious as much as short on the chronometer (a little less than a minute).

The Khorezmian (medieval sultanate sat around modern-day Iran) beauty displays a sense of greatness of charms at the same time it is heard harmless, inoffensive. It musically expands into a tame horse walk.

Pictures and scenes moving forward, we are secure every time in the contemplation of two different sides on each portrait: one being majesty, the other intimacy. As a result, the Slavonic beauty sure adopts a romantic frame, but is firstly pizzicato, then all in lengthened legato.

Moving on the fifth and then sixth beauty, the Chinese one awakens yet another distinct set of colours with melody and rhythm helped on glockenspiels, or maybe genuine Chinese types of xylophones.
The seventh beauty, seventh like a nec plus ultra of charmful sins, attains the rightful conclusion of all the whole ballet’s build-up. It works around a hypnotic solo harp loop pattern slowly climbing up to an exploding apex of Star Wars-esque orchestral proportions: a senatorial march, anthem of victory, conquest and pride, lasting on a fortissimo breath until it falls out in a calmer fashion, for the more intimate observation.

The suite closes on a 4-beat stomp infusing impressions of Ravel’s Bolero. The whole piece’s strengths lies in a sheer mass of memorable moments that I still happen to be carrying around in my head. On this ground, it would not be devoid of comparison with the accessibility of Bizet’s Carmen.

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Onto the second suite of the album after 1948’s novel The Path of Thunder, things get settled in a darker and less comfortable environment, for the plot unravels around fateful love in the times of South African apartheid.
With a definite sense of jeopardy looming all over the prologue-ish, “General dance”, Karayev features some more of a scheme of build-up, apogee and fallout. Rationalisation of the prize and praise granted to the suite, back then in the USSR, resides in the oft evocative lines sprouting out of each dance. It corresponds to an era breaking with the pre-WWI romantic temptations of sheer note eruptions, away too from the show offs of virtuosity for the sake of it.

What works in Karayev’s ballet is that anyone would discern shapes of accessible music that is yet erudite, and quickly gives out the password to the composer’s soul gate, eventually resulting in one’s own appropriation of tones and colours.

The successive tribal dance, visions of night, romance and alarm construct another tale whose purpose, in classical music, is to deliver a spectre of emotions as vast as can be dug. After the duet’s cello & violin counterpoint, after the lullaby reminiscent from the Beauties adagio, the finale strikes back into low darkness, in manners of a procession (the lovers are killed by the Afrikaner) until the loudness of tragic instants dies in a form of a subito-speckled farewell. (startling ones!)

As a whole, this release objectively sights into Karayev’s own read and interpretation of tales, for we wouldn’t blame him since it used to be his job, and walks hand-in-hand with a display of non-soviet imagery, somehow interesting for a decade of exacerbated Stalinism and subsequently odd downfall. One can only gauge, without any deep exploration into the complex functioning of the socialist machine, that various picks of non working class and nationalist purposes were welcome, albeit not venturing into abstract portraitures, property of the party’s political lines against the West’s decadence.

Both pieces are get wrapped in a little more than an hour, they work together to a global effect of propelling an audience to satisfied and varied orchestral colours and schemes, mostly to the concept of femininity and beauty, that with a taste of orient and Asia Minor scented of enamoured Mille et une Nuits fragrances. This, admittedly, is a music that invites to attend their proper ballets.

By these words that have yet to acquire an authority and reach, I am nonetheless open-heartedly hoping to do justice to a pair of work that by no means stands steps lower to the wider-known ballet classics of the moment.

I wave my congratulations and regards to Dmitry Yablonsky, for what I believe to be a respectful interpretation of Karayev’s music, and to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, whose execution never fails to be well above satisfactory degrees.

I thank Naxos for efforts put into the release, not forgetting TEAS for their diligent cooperation.


Author: Francois Mauld d'Aymee

Francois trains to become a classical singer at the same time he runs a tutoring company in Central London. He loves opera as much as any other kind of classical music, never missing an occasion to attend the great performances.