The end of the Soviet Union and the reorganization of Russia and its formerly or continuing Federated States has meant that the "West" has seen a dramatic blossoming of Russian music and musicians on our turf, perhaps as never before. It makes sense. It's easier to work outside of Russia than it was I can assume and the music can travel with less bureaucratic obstacles on either side.
So today we have a Russian-Azerbaijanian conductor (Dmitry Yablonsky) conducting the English powerhouse, the Royal Philharmonic in a program of two ballet suites by the Azerbaijani-Soviet composer Kara Karayev (1918-1982). The two suites are from 1953 and 1958, respectively. They are The Seven Beauties and The Path of Thunder (Naxos 8.573122).
Karayev notably was Shostakovich's favorite pupil in the master's later days. And Karayev also made a point of incorporating folk-like melodies, from Azerbaijan, into his music on a regular basis. All that helps to explain his music in some way, but perhaps not always in the obvious ones.
The Seven Beauties comes out of Nizami's 1197 poem on the legend of a king who was married to seven beautiful women, each living in her own pavilion. The ballet and its suite's central section devotes a movement to each of the women who are in part defined ethnically-nationally, so we have "The Indian Beauty", "The Byzantine Beauty", the Slavonic, the Chinese, etc. Each gives Karayev the opportunity to write folkish movements. There are Azerbaijani related melodies when appropriate but then there are those that enable Karayev to extend the range of his expression. This is descriptive ballet music that sounds as much appropriate for the Russian ballet as it stands on its own as concert fare in the suite. One is occasionally reminded of Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella for the broad sweep of its themes and the more descriptive "Euro-Russian" sorts of passages to be found there. There is more to it than that, though.
The same might be said of his second ballet suite, The Path of Thunder, which concerns forbidden love in Apartheid South Africa. This music, too, has descriptive movements that make an effort to incorporate local folk elements into the score, though I must say I don't hear much that sounds especially South African to it. No matter. In this case too there is less of the obvious Azerbaijani strains to be heard, but you'll hear them now and again if you listen closely.
In so far as Karayev's relationship to Shostakovich goes, it comes out especially in Karayev's orchestrational rigor. All the music sounds especially well for the full orchestra and he excels in the manner of the master. Otherwise a Shostakovichian influence can be especially heard in some of the scherzo-like passages that reflect an almost whimsical approach, perfectly well suited for the dances they were intended for.
Karayev here is not a mirror reflection of Shostakovich or anyone else. He was not thoroughgoing in following Shostakovich in his later period, when Dmitri was more open to modernist and more expanded, increasingly personal approaches to the 20th century he was a part of. Karayev is more Russian than modernist. Some of the music here might almost have come from the pen of later Tchaikovsky, still more the Russian nationalists. That is only to say that Karayev stayed more closely to the Russian later Romantic model.
In the end what matters is the music. The two suites here make for captivating listening for anyone with an ear for the symphonic unfolding of the past 200 years. Yablonsky gives the Royal Philharmonic plenty of inspiration and they respond with dramatic readings that bring the music to concrete life. Karayev in the end is no Shostakovich, and that is in his favor, really, since a carbon copy is not what we need. He is an excellent craftsman and the music has some moments of brilliance that spark an otherwise totally well-mapped and well-conceived series of suites.
It will most certainly appeal to the confirmed Russophile and those who seek to know more of the Azerbaijani contingent of Russian composers of the past century. It's also just plain good listening.