How being #6 on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade nearly ended the life of a great Armenian composer
By Gary Barton
Aram Khachaturian was born in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), in Soviet Armenia in 1903. For a time, he wavered between medical and technical studies, but, in 1923, Khachaturian enrolled at the Gnessin School of Music in Moscow, where within 6 years he studied cello and composition with Gnessin himself. He then entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Miaskovsky and Vasilenko.
Young Aram Khachaturian knew very little about the world, not to mention the world of music, until his 20th year. The music he knew was indigenous to the Trans-Caucasian peoples, mainly the folk songs and dances of Armenia. Their oriental colorings and rhythmic structure would remain predominate elements of his music as he grew to become one of the Soviet Union's foremost composers, offering the rare combination of listener accessibility and the uncompromising challenge of new sonorities and musical structure.
The Essential Khachaturian
Piano Concerto in D-flat
Khachaturian's earliest work broadly available today is his Concerto for Piano & Orchestra. Completed in 1935, it features in its slow movement an unusual instrument called a "flexitone," which sounds somewhat like a musical saw, sometimes with a percussive component.
Famous Russian Conductors: Kyrill Kondrashin
Melodiya/BMG Classics #59477-2
The most astonishing performance of Khachaturian's Piano Concerto was the most difficult to find. I obtained it from Berkshire Record Outlet. It features piano soloist Yakov Flier and Kyrill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. This is the performance to own. It is worth searching all the used CD sources you can find. The sheer power and facility of Flier is beyond imagination. Headlining the disc is the first recording of Alexander Scriabin's Universe, restored by Alexander Nemtin.
Concerto for violin in Dm; Concerto for piano in D-flat
Polygram #448252 (2 CDs)
Alicia de Larrocha opens this 2-CD set with a passionate performance of the Piano Concerto alongside Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra. She makes abundantly clear that her diminutive stature does not prevent her from playing like a colossus with astonishing power.
On disc 2 is Khachaturian himself conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in what must be considered a benchmark recording of his Symphony No. 2, known as "Symphony with Bells," which he began composing soon after the Nazi invasion of 1940. It was first performed in 1943.
Completing the set is the Violin Concerto with Ruggiero Ricci and the London Philharmonic conducted by Anatole Fistoulari, as well as a suite from the ballet Masquerade with Stanley Black and the London Symphony Orchestra and some fine solo playing by violinist John Georgiadis.
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra; Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3
Dickran Atamian, piano
Also worth seeking out is a very impressive performance of the Piano Concerto with Dickran Atamian as soloist with the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz conducting. Rounding out that disc is the Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto.
Another Khachaturian success came in 1942 with his ballet Gayane (Gayaneh). It is, for the most part, a patriotic folk ballet, taking place on a collective farm. It was awarded the Stalin Prize, first degree, in 1943. Imagine Stalin's consternation when, that very year, the heroic "Sabre Dance" from the conclusion of Act III of Gayane was given words (!) by the American Tin Pan Alley team of Allan Roberts and Lester Lee; recorded by Patty, LaVerne and MaxineThe Andrews Sisters, reigning queens of the Second World War Hit Paradeand performed in countless USO shows.
"Sabre Dance" was a only minor hit, but, nonetheless, it must have troubled Andrei Aleksandrovich Zhdanov, a loyal supporter of Stalin, one-time leader of the Leningrad Communist Party. After the war he was in many ways Stalin's cultural mouthpiece, responsible for enforcing extreme nationalism in the artistic communitiy.
Khachaturian, Sergei Prokofiev, who regularly and daringly appeared in double-breasted "bourgeois" American style suits, and Dmitri Shostakovich, who had been glorified on the cover of Time for writing his 7th Symphony while leading volunteer fire brigades during the "900 Day" Siege of Leningrad, were charged with "formalism" in their compositions (over-intellectualism, unfit for the masses). The climate of fear in the Russian musical community grew.
Then in 1948 came the bourgeois apotheosis of any Russian composer's careerhaving a tune hit #6 on The Lucky Strike Hit Parade on April 10 of that year. The hit was the return of Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" from Gayane in a blazing rendition by Woody Herman and His Thundering Herd... and he'd written his own set of words. Freddy Martin and His Orchestra would also reach #6 with the same tune on June 6, 1948.
This music could not be condemned with the old crimes of "formalism." Here was a whole capitalist paradise grooving on music from a ballet featuring a man who sets fire to his own collective farm and attempts to murder his wife and their daughter.
The Woody Herman rendition is available on the Woody Herman's Second Herd CD, as are two contemporary versions by 60's British rockers Love Sculpture and "Sabre Dance '94" by their former frontman Dave Edmunds. Comrade Zhdanov would have been much more pleased with a traditional yet contemporary CD version of "Sabre Dance" by the Balalaika Ensemble on the Hugo Label (HRP #7113).
Curiously, "Sabre Dance" is not really the "best" music from that ballet at all. Take for example Gayane's "Adagio," used so effectively by Stanley Kubrick in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey for a sequence of an astronaut jogging on the centrifugal "floor" of the ship Discovery in impossible loops while his partner performs routine maintenance tasks in silence. It is lonely music, yet in a reassuring way, for it is loneliness we all share, nearly alone in space or in a crowd on Earth. "Ayshe's Awakening and Dance" is a miraculous, almost hypnotic, folk dance derived from the Muslim people living near the Caspian Sea. (Ayshe is a Kurdish girl who loves Gayane's brother, Armen.) "Lezghinka" too features a cyclic rhythmic pulse.
Spartacus, Gayaneh, Masquerade (excerpts)
The Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Lazarev, perform a superb suite from Gayaneh. Unfortunately, it omits Gayaneh's "Adagio" but does contain two numbers from Masquerade and an extended suite from Khachaturian's big ballet hit, Spartacus, among them Suite II, No. 1, the "Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia", filled with erotic power yet reserve. A definite best buy.
Spartacus & Gayane (excerpts); Glazunov's The Seasons
The authoritative Gayane is part of London's "Legends" series, recorded in Vienna's Sofiensal in March of 1962 with the composer conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. This disc includes a sublime performance of Gayane's "Adagio" and also material from Spartacus. Concluding this disc is Glazunov's ballet The Seasons, Op. 67, with Ernest Ansermet and L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.
Strangely, Lazarov's interpretation of the "Lezhginka" (a quick dance with alternating two- and three-beat bars) from Gayane is, to my ear at least, the most convincing and ethnic sounding, even more than Khachaturian's own recorded performance.
The rhythmic structure of "Leszginka" is most important'the "orientalism" that's talked about in Khachaturian's music. The snare drum (with snares disengaged) provides the whole pulse of the moment. Lazarov has the drummer punctuate his part with "rim-shots" which adds movement, an eccentric structure and excitement. Khachaturian's recording omits the "rim-shots", opting for a straight rhythmic tattoo, which is far less effective.
Spartacus and Gayane
Yuri Temirkanov conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on another set of Spartacus and Gayane excerpts from EMI Classics. Temirkanov's approach is one of restraint and understatement and is quite satisfying. (Yes, there are rim shots in Gayane, but they are far more inhibited than those on the Lazarov disc.)
RCA/BMG #63459 (2 CDs)
There is one "complete" performance of the ballet that can be found via used CD dealers. It was at one time on Melodiya and was last issued by BMG Entertainment in 1999. I was able to obtain a used copy through Berkshire Record Outlet for a reasonable price. It features a stirring performance by the USSR RTV Large Symphony Orchestra, Djansug Kakhidze conducting. The Act I "Lezhginka" here receives an extraordinary performance, with rhythmic complexity totally absent from all other recordings, even the Lazarov. (Aram Khachaturian himself was Artistic Supervisor for the recording.) The entire ballet is well worth adding to your collection and I cannot recommend it highly enough, with one caveat. If you love Gayane's "Adagio" (or Lullaby), don't expect to find it on this 2-CD set. For reasons which entirely escape me, the whole 4-½ minute sequence is omitted! This was a major disappointment. Otherwise, the performance is pure revelation and casts a tall shadow over all the excerpt recordings. But, if you want Gayane's "Adagio", stick with "Legends" recording with Khachaturian conducting.
Capriccio #10817 (2 CDs)
You can find the complete ballet Spartacus a bit more easily than Gayaneh.
There is much, much more to this ballet than the most commonly played excerpt,
"Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia" from Act III, and I think you'll enjoy sitting
down and making time to listen to the full 137 minutes of the ballet. This fine
set features Michail Jurovsky conducting the Deutsche-Symphonie Orchester Berlin
and the RIAS Chamber Choir in the Bolshoi Theatre Moscow Version.
Music Hall Hijinks
Lorin Hollander was the guest piano soloist in the Khachaturian Piano Concerto when Thomas Schippers was Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Music Director in the early '70's. Instead of a flexitone, however, Schippers decided to use a musical saw soloist instead, Margaret Steinbuck, a phenomenal local player who couldn't read music and required a special cue from the maestro to know when to come in with her part.
The chemistry between orchestra, conductor and soloist(s) was breathtaking, but it almost didn't happen one evening, as Ms. Steinbuck, entranced by the music in the first movement, slipped off into sleep in her chair on stage. Fortunately, it caught the eye of Maestro Schippers, who signaled to one of the nearby musicians to give her a nudge. It all turned out OK, gloriously in fact, and plans were made for Hollander to return to do an encore of the great success in two seasons. Schippers, however, died of what was eventually diagnosed as lung cancer before the second performance was given. The performance did take place with another conductor, minus Ms. Steinbuck, but with nothing near the impact of the Schippers/Hollander performances.
Aram Khachaturian Centennial
The Armerian Embassy celebrates Khachaturian at 100.