Saturday, 10 March 2012

An Armenian at war

Aram Khachaturian (1903-78) is best known outside the former Soviet Union for two short extracts from his ballets - the Sabre Dance from Gayane and the Adagio from Spartacus. Barely known at all, however, are his three symphonies. I don't know the First, but the Second and Third are well worth exploring - the former because it's a very decent piece, the latter because it's a jaw-dropping monstrosity. (I'll deal with the Third Symphony at a later date. It's unmissably awful.)

Khachaturian's Second Symphony is a war-time work which, whilst not being a towering masterpiece, contains within its not inconsiderable length much that is attractive. It may be compared to Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony in that respect. There are times, such as in the middle of the first movement and occasionally in the scherzo, where Khachaturian sounds rather like Shostakovich (especially in his scoring) but the Armenian is generally a far more opulent and romantic composer than his Russian friend and owes a good deal to the 'Mighty Handful' of the preceding century (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Rimsky Korsakov and Mussorgsky), as well as to his homeland's folk music and to that other Russian giant of the 20th century, Prokofiev. 

The subtitle of this symphony is 'The Bell' (or 'The Tocsin') and a motif (theme) associated with 'the bell' features in all four movements.

The opening Andante maestoso begins with the 'tocsin motif' - on tubular bells, among other things - sounding its falling thirds, loudly. This warning sounded and reflected on, the movement's main theme is then presented by the strings. It's a romantic melody, with an 'oriental' melisma and a touch of 'Eastern' chromaticism in its later phrases. Despite its probably origins in Armenian folk music, it sounds much like the sort of tune composers associated with the Russian tradition had been writing since the days of Balakirev  & Co. A perky figure (that reminds me oddly of our own Malcolm Arnold) followed by a militarist outburst bridges the way to a cor anglais tune that could have come straight out of Borodin's Central Asia. If like me (and most other listeners) you enjoy such 'oriental' tunes, you are certain to take to this one too. This theme head the second subject group, along with other agreeable melodic snatches. The main themes are then combined in a sort of development section - the part with the Shostakovich-like passage - before a pair of Katchei's bassoons (Stravinsky's Firebird) lead us to a sighing, lilting tune. This is one of the afore-mentioned agreeable melodic snatches expanded into something richer and even more memorable. Khachaturian lingers on this lovely melody before launching his recapitulation. The first subject gains a striking high counter-melody on its return and certain other tweaks are made to the original ideas. There's a frantic air to the coda though, until it sinks in exhaustion, the 'tocsin' sounding quietly.

The Allegro risoluto scherzo opens wonderfully with a weave of bell-like ostinati and a glinting 'oriental' tune. A lunge via a piano into Shostakovich-style high jinx takes us somewhere different. These two types of music - the old and the new - then alternate. A fresh 'oriental' tune, complete with melismas, returns us to the world of Rimsky-Korsakov & Co. very enjoyably in a 'heroic' Trio section that could have come from an epic film score. A striking entwining of the music of the two sections plus some wistfully dancing string lines bear us back to the main section of the scherzo, now transformed with bright new balletic material.

The Andante slow movement uses yet another Armenian-style 'oriental' tune as its main theme, presented over a variety of march rhythms. A tinge of grimness grows into a dark expanse as the march rhythms persists and as the old 'Dies irae' chant (so often used by Rachmaninov) enters as a new theme - the second subject here. It casts a compelling spell. It may not be great music but it's so completely effective that it might as well be! The scoring is spot-on throughout and Mahler's ghost might well be nodding along in approval -as might Shostakovich's. 

Prokofiev's influence (if such it be) is felt most strongly in the Finale. An arresting opening from the brass sets the movement's heroic tone. The strings set in motion an attractive optimistic figure and the horns play a warm, singing tune of equal optimism and appeal. Trumpets sing it proudly - as well they might. It's the symphony's hit tune (or would be were it better known). Battle music ensues. It is easy to imagine the scene, so close to film music is this passage. The strings then present a tense new tune, swirling it up to meet the main theme like lovers calling across a battlefield. Some pleasant pattern-making leads to a triumphant restatement of the main theme - a triumphant passage that sucks in earlier themes too. The symphony gears itself up to give us a big finish. However, Khachaturian delays this gratification by first allowing his lyrical lovers to intervene in a short interlude and then delays it again for a quiet hymn of thanks before unleashing the bombast we've all been waiting for. 

It's an absorbing discovery.

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