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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Khatchaturian: Spartacus Suites 1-3 / Järvi, Scottish NO

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This week’s Cover 2 Cover playlist shares a recording by one of the “busiest conductors in the recording business”, Estonian-American conductor Neeme Järvi. His discography includes over 400 recordings for labels such as BIS, Chandos and Deutsche Grammophon. He is best known for his interpretations of Romantic and 20th century classical music, and has also recorded several works that have rarely been recorded in their complete form - among them all of Edvard Grieg's orchestral music, including the complete incidental music for Peer Gynt, as well as Tchaikovsky's complete incidental music for Alexander Ostrovsky's play Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden).

Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian is considered to have been one of the leading Soviet-era composers. Khachaturian is best known for his ballet music—Gayane (1942) and Spartacus (1954). His style is characterized by colorful harmonies, captivating rhythms, virtuosity, improvisations, and sensuous melodies.

His ballet music for Gayane (often times anglicized as “Gayne”) includes the ever-popular “Sabre Dance” but his music for the ballet Spartacus is chuck-full of great tunes – some of them eerily reminiscent of the aforementioned Sabre Dance (“The Market”) – and elaborate neo-romantic sequences (like the “Adagio of Phrygia and Spartacus”)

For most of us Westerners, Spartacus evokes immediately the Stanley Kubrick-directed epic motion picture starring Kirk Douglas, assorted with memorable moments such as the climactic “I am Spartacus” scene, where the recaptured slaves are asked to identify Spartacus in exchange for leniency; instead, each slave proclaims himself to be Spartacus, thus sharing his fate.

Though depicting the same slave revolt of Roman times, the Soviet ballet storyline takes considerable liberties with the historical record. Khachaturian composed Spartacus in 1954, and was awarded a Lenin Prize for the composition that same year. Khachaturian extracted and arranged music from the ballet in 1955 into four orchestral suites (opp. 82 a-d). Today’s album shares the first three suites.

As stated in the Gramophone review, “Jarvi and the Scottish players respond exuberantly to the near vulgarity of the unbuttoned animation and obviously revel in the lusher evocations. The resonant acoustics of the Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, cast a rich ambient glow over Khachaturian's vivid primary colours, and prevent the cruder climaxes from sounding too aggressive.”

Happy Listening

Aram Il'yich KHACHATURIAN (1903–1978)
Suites for Orchestra extracted from the music of the ballet Spartacus (Russian: «Спартак», Spartak) (1954)

Spartacus Ballet Suite No. 1, op. 82a
Spartacus Ballet Suite No. 2, op. 82b
Spartacus Ballet Suite No. 3, op. 82c

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Neeme Jarvi, conducting
Venue: Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow (5 & 8 September 1990)

Details (Chandos website) -

YouTube URL -