Saturday, 26 January 2013

Aram of Arabia

I promised in an earlier post concerning Aram Khachaturian's absorbing Second Symphony to blog something about the same composer's Third Symphony, which I described as an "unmissably awful...jaw-dropping monstrosity". I'll keep my word. Please take a listen to it. It won't disappoint you. 

It's not long (lasting under 25 minutes), but the Third Symphony's lack of length is more than made up for by the scale of its orchestra. (It requires the entire population of all fifteen nations of the former Soviet Union just to play the brass parts!) The sheer noise the thing makes also belies its size. (The Martians wrote a letter to the U.N. complaining about noise levels after enduring several performances of it!). The orchestral fanfares (massed brass and drums) are truly stentorian, banal yet overpowering - like a royal wedding pageant as organised by someone with absolutely no sense of decorum, proportion or sense. Then imagine Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ as played by a demented 1940s movie organist and you might get some impression (even before you hear it) of the work's astonishing organ part. 

After this monstrous regiment of fanfares and the mad organist, the symphony winds down and the big tune appears - an Armenian-style tune, given a lush Hollywood-style treatment. This section really does sound like something out of an epic film score - something Ben Hur-ish or Lawrence of Arabia-ish. (The sensible listener in me notes that the repeating pairs of notes in this theme are in some way connected to the stentorian fanfares. Not that this really matters.) The pace picks up and the dramatic climax of the film section is reached. The symphony then winds down again and the fanfare figure is quietly remembered, very simply. Woodwind arabesques appear and the music potters around a bit longer, repeating that simple fanfare figure and the arabesques. Suddenly a sandstorm blows in and the music comes back to live, building itself up (with a simple rhythm and a squally figure) to a rowdy, hectoring climax on the fanfare figure which just gets even more rowdy and hectoring on each repetition. 

The mad organist re-enters the organ loft and the symphony swirls up again, ever crazier, towards the return of the fanfares at their most bombastic, as at the beginning. The insane organist and those monstrous regiments of brass bludgeon their way on, knocking any semblance of subtlety out of the way, preparing us for the most delightful thing of all - the return of the romantic big tune as a high-kicking, colourfully-dressed Cossack. It's like the can-can with armoured tanks. The tune does get a rather more romantic reprise afterwards, but the film symphony is reaching its heroic climax - obviously a battle - and victory for the Motherland is gloried in with yet more scorchingly over-written climatic passages before the symphony galumphs to its full-throttle ending. 

Stupefying, stupid, stupendous stuff! I love it!

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