The folk music of Azerbaijan pervades the very rarely heard symphonic works on this album. A winning synthesis of East and West, these pieces — mostly for piano — feature five of the country's most celebrated composers, including Farhad Badalbeyli, who's also the principal piano soloist.
The disc opens with the three-movement Concerto for Piano and Orchestra after Arabian Themes by Fikret Amirov, probably the best known Azerbaijani composer. Written in 1957 in collaboration with pianist-composer Elmira Nazirova, it's an enjoyable pastiche of exotic Eastern melodies served up in Western concerto form.
The spirited Arabian-sounding Allegro is followed by a somber Andante, and a bravura Allegro that ends the concerto in Rachmaninov territory.
Next up is the Fourth Piano Concerto by Vasif Adigezalov, composed in 1994. It opens with a couple of memorable ideas that undergo an animated development, terminating in a magnificent march tune and recapitulation, bringing Aram Khachaturian's music to mind. The following andante builds to a thundering crescendo but ends in peaceful rusticity, while the final allegro features boisterously percussive passages and keyboard fireworks reminiscent of Prokofiev. The piece concludes with a demanding cadenza and a final shower of virtuosic sparks.
The Baku-born composer, pianist and conductor Tofig Guliyev is represented by Gaytagi, a dance for piano and orchestra. At just under four minutes, it's a catchy kinetic number resembling the lezghinka from Khachaturian's ballet Gayne.
The last two selections are by Badalbeyli, beginning with The Sea for piano and orchestra (1977), featuring swelling romantic melodies, wavelet pianistic embellishments and a curious, unresolved ending of "tides out" harp arpeggios. Shusha (2003) is a brief vocalise a la Rachmaninov. It depicts the story of the city of Shusha, overtaken by Armenian forces in 1992 and a potent symbol for Azerbaijanis.
Badalbeyli is soloist for the Amirov/Nazirova concerto, Gaytagi and The Sea, giving technically accomplished, heartfelt performances, as do pianist Murad Adigezalzade and soprano Joan Rodgers in the other works. Conductor Dmitry Yablonsky and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provide committed and enthusiastic support.
Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his website Classical Lost and Found.