Invited to record his Sabre Dance with the Vienna Philharmonic in the early 1960s, Khachaturian made it a precondition that he would also be allowed to record his Second Symphony during those sessions. One can hear why in this powerful work, one of Khachaturian’s greatest, of which the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski became a persuasive champion.
Composed during Russia’s fight for survival against the Nazi invasion, and in the wake of Shostakovich’s hugely influential Leningrad Symphony, this is one of Khachaturian’s most intense and most heart-felt works. Aside from its characteristically expressive string writing – at times nervy, at others recalling the intensity of the Adagio from his ballet Gayaneh – the Morse-like rattling of the Scherzo movement and baleful bell theme which serves as the symphony’s motto define the soundworld later exploited by Bernard Herrmann in his scores for Hitchcock thrillers (think North by Northwest). The work is full of Khachaturian’s most evocative orchestration, not least in the atmospheric funeral march of the slow third movement, including eerily arranged Dies irae quotations. Yet this symphony is also structurally one of Khachaturian’s most impressive works, a landmark in his creativity worthy to stand alongside Shostakovich’s Fifth and ‘War’ symphonies.
Note by Daniel Jaffé