Documentary on the Armenian/Russian composer
Director/Producer: Peter Rosen
Narrator: Eric Bogosian
Studio Kuhn Foundation/VAI 4298
Video: 4:3 color & B&W
Audio: English/Russian PCM stereo & mono
Closed-captioned, English subtitles
Extras: Complete performance of Khachaturian Cello Concerto with Mstislav Rostropovich, cell/Khachaturian cond., B&W, 24 min.; “Making Khachaturian” 17 min.; Khachaturian: 3rd mov’t of Piano Concerto – Dora Serviarian-Kuhn, piano/Armenian Philharmonic/Loris Tjeknavorian, cond.
Length: 133 minutes
Don’t know how I missed this upon its original release – a touching and well-done film which won a Best Documentary award at the Hollywood Film Festival. It is something Armenian pianist Dora Serviarian-Kuhn has wanted to do for many years. In addition to no documentary having been done on the important composer, she wanted set right that he was basically Armenian – not Russian. She was one of the executive producers of the documentary, one of her relatives edited it, and she is seen in a rather odd music video of the final movement of Khachaturian’s colorful Piano Concerto.
While we’re into the extras, one should be pointed out that may be of equal or superior interest to the documentary for some viewers. It’s a complete performance of the composer’s Concerto-Rhapsody with Rostropovich as the soloist. The “Making Of…” documentary goes into the difficulty the filmmakers had in obtaining much of the archival footage. In the case of this studio performance video, Rostropovich had been one of the very first great Russian artists to get out of the Soviet Union, and therefore the authorities hid the film and didn’t want any attention on the cellist. The filmmakers also found that though with difficulty they acquired the footage of Khrennikov giving the speech in 1948 which denounced Khachaturian, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, the Soviets had completely erased the soundtrack so that no evidence of Stalin’s absurd accusations against the composers of being “formalist” and “anti-people” existed anymore.
And the persistence of the filmmakers was amply rewarded with many not-before-seen clips. Such as the great shot of Shostakovich actually smiling while hugging a pig, and the one of Khachaturian catching a nap on his piano. The film explores the daily life of the composer, and shows how – like many Soviet people – he had to hide his private life and feelings behind a mask of Communist Party loyalty (of which he was a member). He had been lauded as a favorite Soviet musical figure, getting medals directly from Stalin, and only a few years later he was castigated and disgraced along with the other composers.
Eventually he regained his status by spending several years composing his great Spartacus ballet. With a story line about an early revolutionary against the empire, how could it not find favor with the Communist leaders? But at the same time it represented the ill-fated fight of the Russian composers against the Communist regime. (It made me want to see again right away the Blu-ray of Spartacus which we reviewed.) There are sizeable clips in color of scenes from both Khachaturian’s Gayane and Spartacus ballets, and even an interview with the lead dancer in the latter. One commentator mentions how Shostakovich was influenced by German musical culture, and Prokofiev by French, and he felt that Khachaturian was most influenced by American musical culture. In a way, his emphasis on his Armenian musical background gave his works a wonderful exotic touch that made them stand out from lesser Soviet composers who sounded too obvious, simplified and careful. And at the same time his music appealed to a wider audience than that of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
The wide variety of footage is edited sensibly into the documentary, and when the talking heads are doing it in Russian, English subtitles appear. (Also for Rostropovich – who is speaking English but you wouldn’t know it.) There was a bit too much footage of the funeral services of Lenin, Stalin and Khachaturian for my kopeck, but one must remember this is Russian. Otherwise a most informative and thoughtful documentary.
— John Sunier