Khachaturian: Spartacus / Michail Jurowski

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KHACHATURIAN Spartacus Michail Jurowski, cond; German SO Berlin; RIAS CCh CAPRICCIO 5112 (2 CDs: 136:50)

Recorded between September 1996 and February 1997, this was reviewed more than two years later in three short, unfortunately uninformative paragraphs by John Bauman in Fanfare 23:2. I say “unfortunate” because this was, at the time, the first new recording of Khachaturian’s complete ballet to come down the pike in 25 years, and since this Jurowski set appeared, the only other Spartacus completes I’m aware of have been released on DVD and Blu-ray only, including the live 1970 black-and-white, mono Bolshoi performance cited by Bauman.

Khachaturian is one of those Soviet-era composers Western academics and critics tend to dismiss as a tool of the Communist regime. Deeply shaken by the infamous Zhandov decree in which he, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev were denounced in the same breath for their formalist tendencies and anti-proletarian music, Khachaturian, more than the others, took the censure to heart and truly repented the error of his ways. He then applied himself to writing music that would please the Soviet authorities, winning in the process a number of State prizes and awards, including, in 1958, appointment to the fifth Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. In Russian eyes, Khachaturian had been successfully rehabilitated and his official reputation restored. In Western eyes, he had been debilitated, seen as a sellout to a corrupt and repressive government apparatus.

Spartacus was completed in 1954, and with choreography by Leonid Yakobson it was first staged in 1956. This was well after the nasty Zhandov business and during the period in which Khachaturian’s standing was back on the rise. In fact, the ballet won him a coveted Lenin Prize.

The ballet’s storyline purports to reenact actual historical events, though as with all such adaptations, liberties are taken. Spartacus, King of Thrace, and his wife, Phrygia, are taken captive by the Romans during one of their conquests around 75 B.C. There’s enough blood, gore, and sex to satisfy everyone. Phrygia is domiciled with the Roman consul’s concubines, Spartacus is sent into the gladiators’ ring, and Aegina, a nymphomaniac if ever there was one, incites the crowd to a bacchanalian orgy. Spartacus marshals the other male captives and slaves in a rebellion against the Romans in what was documented by Plutarch as the third and final Servile War or the War of Spartacus (73–71 B.C.). The uprising was ultimately put down and in the end, at least in the ballet, Spartacus is impaled on a spear and Phrygia weeps to the strains of a mournful chorus. Highlights of the score, of course, are the bacchanal scene and the famous Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia upon their initial escape.

The quality of Khachaturian’s score is uneven. The music undoubtedly fits the stage action at any given moment, but it sometimes seems to play as background music in a film soundtrack, a medium with which the composer was not unfamiliar. This may be a main reason why Spartacus has been filmed more times than audio-only versions of the complete ballet have been recorded. Seen in its most recent and popular 1968 Bolshoi choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, the music makes sense. Heard straight through as a strictly orchestral score, rather than in one of its suites made up of choice excerpts, there are stretches that lose their reason for being when disassociated from their visual staging.

For those, however, who do wish to experience the full score in an audio-only recording, Jurowski’s Capriccio version is colorful, well characterized, highly dynamic, and unreservedly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: C5112

  • UPC: 845221051123

  • Label: Capriccio

  • Composer: Aram Khachaturian

  • Conductor: Michail Jurowski

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Berlin Deutches Symphonie Orchester, Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin