Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Reviews from other months
CD1: 78:15 Symphony No. 1 in E minor (1935) Violin Concerto in D minor (1940)  CD2: 70:23 Concerto Rhapsody for piano and orchestra (1967) Concerto Rhapsody for cello and orchestra (1963) Gayaneh excerpts (1942) Spartacus - Adagio (1955) USSRSO and USSR RTV Large SO conducted by Aram Khachaturyan BMG-Melodiya 74321 59056 2 two CDs - 148:38



These recordings were made between 1965 and 1979 and are in superior vivid Melodiya sound, slightly brazen but well-suited to the Bakst-style exoticism and grandeur of the music. Khachaturyan has been rather despised in some quarters where he has been associated with a certain shallowness, obvious ideas and a Hollywood-endowed musical style. This is grossly unfair as various recordings are now beginning to make clear. The ASV series with the Armenian Philharmonic conducted by Loris Tjeknavorian is testament to Khachaturyan’s strengths. And what about those strengths? He writes in full-blooded romantic style reaching back a generation to Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Balakirev. He is strong on the exotic and the mesmeric.

This generous and well-presented selection on a BMG-Twofer further bears out the Armenian composer’s strengths. It also gives us access to two of his rarer works: two of the three concert rhapsodies. From this point of view and many others the set stands as an example to others in adventurous programming of the familiar and attractively safe alongside enterprising repertoire to be discovered.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that all these recordings are conducted by the composer. Even in old age he lacks nothing in communicative vigour and a whirring imagination. The soloists are of world front-rank, usually the dedicatees.

The first symphony was premiered by Eugen Szenkar in Moscow on 23 April 1935. It is a dedicatedly tonal work of exotic caste. It is extremely colourful and tuneful. The Armenian sway of the themes is characteristic but there is another element too. He sounds in those first five minutes very much as if he had been studying alongside Miklos Rózsa. This is a big three movement work running 40:52. There is also a coincidental hint of Vaughan Williams (6:10 [1]). Invention sparkles and there is a definite rush of energy in this music comparable to the English composer E.J. Moeran in his 1937 symphony or for that matter in Kodaly’s 1959 symphony. Romance is not in short supply - listen to 9:25 [1] for a resplendently glistening tune worthy of Borodin. This tune develops into a great set-piece. The work was written to celebrate 50 years of Soviet power but Khachaturyan was no apparatchik and his vision (not realised under the Soviets) was for a relief to Armenia’s suffering and a new and elevated dignity for his people. The music has echoes across the continents and the works of de Falla, Prokofiev and other leading composers do come to mind from time to time. The second movement occasionally attains a loftiness of ideal (8:20). The Finale is predominantly a spirited gallop - brash and rushing. This concert recording complete with applause does not displace the Tjeknavorian recording on ASV which exudes greater intensity. However the composer-conducted recording is extremely good and must have a greater claim to authenticity. This is one of those cases where the one movement is much stronger than the other two and certainly the last two movements seem rather pallid by comparison with the grand romantic gestures of the first.

The Violin Concerto has been recorded many times: at least four of them by the soloist here, David Oistrakh. There is a recording by Leonid Kogan (on Revelation) which has even more electricity and elan than the present version but its sound is fierce and a little unrelenting. There are virtuosic performances by various western orchestras with amongst others Ricci and Zukerman. None of these however, has the high-tension electric-shock of Kogan still less the clarity and barbaric edge of Oistrakh’s zippy and poetic playing. The Melodiya version is a reliable and inspired version combining good sturdy sound with Russian temperament. There are many highlights but take one example and listen to the scorching evocation of what I always think of as licking tongues of flame in finale at 5:45 track 6.

The Piano Concerto-Rhapsody has been recorded before by Oxana Yablonskaya on Naxos. That too is a warmly energetic performance. However the redoubtable bravura technique of Nikolai Petrov conquers all in its path. The work was first written in 1955 but was specially revised in 1965 for Petrov who made this recording in 1975. Ivan March has been rather scathing of this piece. While it may be no world-shattering masterpiece it is a grippingly entertaining piece of display music with a soft and yielding centre. The insistently motoric fingerwork for the pianist conjures up memories of the Shostakovich second piano concerto but then the Shostakovich dates from 1957 and the present work from 1955.

As befits the instrument (and the title), the cello concerto-rhapsody is more waywardly rhapsodic. It opens with something which sounds suspiciously like the Fate motto from Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony. Its themes lack the immediate distinctiveness and memorability of the Violin Concerto or indeed the piano concerto-rhapsody. It nevertheless receives a concentrated and obviously intense and deeply-felt performance from Karine Georgian. I certainly do not write off this cello work which I shall be tempted to return to again. It several times set me thinking of Bloch’s Schelomo for the same combination of instruments and much the same dreamy meandering spirit. Certainly both Bloch and Khachaturyan have a feeling for the strange and Hollywoodian exotic though here the Armenian composer has the edge.

The remaining six tracks are taken from a live concert in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1975. From the ballet Gayaneh we get the Awakening (complete with saxophone contribution) and Aisha’s Dance the latter clearly the quarry from which Basil Poledouris must have obtained at least some of his inspiration for his Conan film music. The Dance seems about to launch into a waltz but never quite manages it. It is in any event a sumptuous and substantial wallow recorded in gloriously immersive sound. The rather manic oompah jollity of Russian Dance wears a bit thin quite quickly. The black brass of Kurdish dance are commanding. The hammering and whirling dervish ‘Prince Igor’ inflected festivities are brightly and garishly lit. The Sabre Dance won him world fame in the 1940s and is here hammered away for all it is worth - perhaps more. The trombones blurt and raspberry as if their lives depended on it. I wonder if the composer ever became tired of it.

The final track on disc 2 is the swooping and swooning adagio from Spartacus. This piece rose to fame in the UK and possibly abroad now, when it was featured as the signature tune for the BBC’s Victorian sailing drama ‘The Onedin Line’. Here it is given with a fine combination of faltering innocence, bird-song and unbridled erotic (listen to the trumpets) romance. What strong piece this is! One slight cough is the only evidence of its concert-hall provenance.

It is not really possible to compare the whole set with anything else as there are no identical or even close couplings. Perhaps one good example is the Double Decca of Khachaturyan Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor and Masquerade with various Western orchestras conducted by Khachaturyan, Fruhbeck Frühbeck de Burgos, Fistoulari; and Stanley Black but the Melodiya selection is more adventurous, the performances generally more vivid and peppery and the Melodiya playing time is a couple of minutes longer.

Good notes by Sigrid Neef. These are also in French and German.

A recommended Twofer anthology.

I hope that there is another in the pipeline including Kachaturyan conducting Symphonies 2 and 3, the cello concerto, piano concerto and the violin concert rhapsody.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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