Review of Khachaturian: Funeral Ode in Memory of Lenin; Ode to Joy; Spartacus excerpts
by Steven Haller
American Record Guide, January/February 2004

I must admit I made a rather sour face on finding out that this album, intended to celebrate the centennial of Khachaturian's birth, was given over almost entirely to music from Spartacus, which by now is one 'Sabre Dance' short of true cult status. But that frown turned into a big wide grin when I heard Orbelian's wonderfully persuasive way with this music, and now I only hope Delos can coax him back into the studio to give us the whole thing!

The Introduction is set forth in energetic fashion, while the lushly cinematic 'Dance of the Nymphs' with its "Rubenesque fullness" (to quote Asafiev), as well as the 'Adagio of Aegina and Harmodius' that follows, benefits greatly from the smooth sound of the Moscow strings, whose playing displays remarkable character and fluidity under Orbelian's sympathetic leadership. He lays into the 'Bacchanale' with great gusto, and the lead trumpet is called on for a dazzling virtuoso turn at the end; this he carries off brilliantly, then delivers a soulful solo line in the 'Dance with Crotala' where the urgent rhythm of the drum ‹ so very like Gayne ‹ really gets the blood racing. In the 'Dance of the Gaditanian Maidens' the clarinet comes center stage for a heartfelt solo turn, whereupon Orbelian whips up his men for Spartacus's short-lived victory, the trumpet once again spurring everyone on for a percussive and exhilarating climax.

But you can clearly tell that the heart-rending final pas de deux of Spartacus and his beloved Phrygia is where Orbelian's feelings really lie; he conducts with his heart on his sleeve in this deeply poignant music that in so many lesser hands comes off as sentimental treacle, and he brings out some gorgeous sounds from the oboe right at the start. Finally we have the 'Dance of an Egyptian Girl' ‹ sounding very much like the 'Lullaby' from Gayne ‹ but we really need the 'Dance on the Swords' to close things out in more exuberant fashion. We already have a marvelously rambunctious Bolshoi Spartacus from Algis Zhuraitis on IMP (Jan/Feb 1993) as well as a smoother blend from Michail Jurowski and his Berlin players for Capriccio (July/Aug 1999), but there's still room for one more, and Orbelian is the right man for the job.

The Funeral Ode in Memory of Vladimir Ilych Lenin dating from 1948 is by no means the sort of empty propaganda gesture one might expect, but a heartfelt and deeply moving tribute originally written to accompany the full-length documentary by Mikhail Romm and reworked the following year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Lenin's death. Unlike Stalin, the Russian people greatly revered Lenin, and something of this almost spiritual quality came across with electrifying effect when the composer walked slowly through the streets of Moscow in the freezing cold, the only light coming from the bonfires on either side, marveling at "the feeling of profound sorrowŠthe countless crowds of grief-stricken people who were streaming, like me, towards the Hall of Columns" ‹ all hoping for a glimpse, some last fond remembrance perhaps of the man who in those naďve times, and absent today's cynical accounts of more troubling events, was still glorified as the Great Father of the Russian people. Khachaturian later observed, "I though that I should try to express these feelings in musicŠI wrote this music in complete dedication," and there's no questioning the sincerity of this extended dirge, almost Mahlerian in its effect, that conveys indescribable grief as it builds steadily and inexorably along its predestined course. Orbelian hears in this music a eulogy not so much for Lenin as Khachaturian himself, evident at once from film footage of the composer's own funeral that was attended with great sorrow by the masses of people who gathered around the Moscow Conservatory, but far more so in Armenia where tens of thousands turned out to honor their favorite son. You can certainly hear this in Orbelian's uplifting and beatific reading, even more than in the moving account of Walter Mnatsakanov on Citadel (Mar/Apr 1999) and far beyond the numbing bathos of Loris Tjeknavorian on ASV (Mar/Apr 1996) ‹ truly this is a performance to cherish.

The Ode of Joy has nothing whatever to do with Schiller; rather, it is a celebration of the Second Decade of Armenian Literature and Art held at the Bolshoi in 1956. Combining effusive praise of the Motherland with elements of Armenian melody, the Ode is scored for the unusual combination of mezzo, mixed chorus, concertante violins in unison, 10 harps, and full symphony orchestra. At the premiere (conducted by the composer) there were 40 violins. The energetic undulating moto perpetuo by the unison violins sounds like something out of Koyaanisqatsi, though the full effect when the harps join in suggests not so much Philip Glass as Alan Hovhaness. The mezzo enters praising the coming of Spring in declamatory manner, and together with the chorus expands on that folk-like arioso in far grander style, exhorting the praises of Moscow and Mother Russia, to quote Asafiev once again a "feast of sounds" that rings out in truly inspirational fashion.

On ASV (Mar/Apr 2001) Tjeknavorian's mezzo soloist Vardouhi Khachatrian seems more reverent than Orbelian's rather matronly but far more fervent Marina Domashenko, while the Moscow players under Orbelian offer a much fuller, richer sound than the under-nourished Armenian ensemble. Even more important, the distantly recorded Armenian chorus can't begin to compare with the lusty and robust voices gathered together under Orbelian; indeed, this is as stirring Russian singing as you're ever likely to hear.

The cover with its ghastly blood-red type face and lurking, shadowy image of Khachaturian looks like something out of a Hammer film; but it's the music that counts, and even with the small measure this is an outstanding addition to the ever-expanding shelf for anyone who cares about this colorful and melodic fare. Bravo ‹ or perhaps I should say "Slava!" Orbelian!


Copyright © 2004 Moscow Chamber Orchestra.