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8.555919 - KHACHATURIAN, A.I.: Violin Concerto / Concerto-Rhapsody
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Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978)

Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978)

Concerto-Rhapsody in B flat minor • Violin Concerto in D minor

 

Although his star can fairly be said to have waned during the quarter century since his death, the music of Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian was, in its day, performed as often as that by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, thanks in part to his frequent appearances as a conductor. A late starter when he began his studies at the Moscow Conservatory in 1929, Khachaturian scored a major success with his graduation exercise, the First Symphony of 1935, consolidated at home and in the West with a series of concertos and, at the start of the so-called Great Patriotic War, the ballet Gayaneh. The failure of his Third Symphony in 1947, and subsequent denunciation as part of the notorious Zhdanov Decree the following year, was a serious setback which the success of his 1950s ballet Spartacus only partly remedied. During his later years, Khachaturian was respected as a musical statesman rather than admired as a composer, a situation which may change now that the centenary of his birth is upon us.

 

Khachaturian composed three Concerto-Rhapsodies during the 1960s. Freely unfolding in a single movement, they form a counterpart to the earlier concertos, while confirming that the composer was happier working outside the constraints of integrated symphonic form. The Concerto-Rhapsody in B flat minor was written in 1962 for the violinist Leonid Kogan, who gave the first performance, with Kyril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, on 3rd November of that year. The work opens with imploring music for strings and brass, creating a tense, uneasy atmosphere. A quizzical descending figure for flute and harp presages the entry of the soloist in an elaborate, cadenza-like passage which leads to a presentation of the initial theme, now over pulsating wind chords. This pattern continues as the music becomes more animated, taking on something of a folk-like ambience, before reaching a soulful version of the main theme towards the mid-point of the piece. Gypsy-like music for the soloist opens the livelier second half, in which Khachaturian’s typically robust writing for brass and percussion makes itself felt. The opening theme returns to steer the work into more elegiac territory, and the descending figure returns to widen the expressive range still further, then a determined response incites both soloist and orchestra towards a lively and virtuosic conclusion.

 

Composed in two months during the summer of 1940, and first performed in Moscow on 16th November of that year by its dedicatee David Oistrakh, the Violin Concerto in D minor is the second in a triptych of concertos which Khachaturian wrote over the decade from the mid-1930s, and which helped seal his reputation as the leading Armenian composer of his generation. Continuing directly the lineage of large-scale Romantic violin concertos (not least that by Tchaikovsky), the work was quickly taken up by soloists from both East and West, and retains much of its popularity today. 

 

The opening Allegro con fermezza sets off with a brusquely descending orchestral gesture, after which the soloist leads off with an incisive, folk-inflected theme. A plaintive oboe introduces the second theme, the soloist pensive over pulsating flute and harp chords, before a return to the initial activity and a central development section, imaginatively scored, which resourcefully contrasts and combines both themes. The cadenza, occupied mainly with the second theme, arrives mid-way through the movement; then a reference to its unmistakable rhythm brings back the first theme, as part of a modified reprise. The movement closes with an agile and peremptory coda. Bassoon and lower strings, succeeded by stabbing brass chords, usher in the Andante sostenuto, the soloist entrusted with a melody of pronounced Slavic brooding. Strings intensify the prevailing mood, while woodwind interjections offset any tendency towards the lachrymose. A brief orchestral outburst is followed by a recall of the lower strings from the opening, then the soloist resumes, leading to a heartfelt treatment of the main theme by the whole orchestra. The close, however, returns to the shadows from which the movement emerged (and note the insinuating presence of the descending figure from the previous movement’s main theme at the very end). The Allegro vivace finale begins with the strongest possible contrast, a haunting orchestral tutti which sets the scene for the soloist’s lively and memorable main melody, often modified in its figuration during the course of the movement. In the central section, a soulful theme, derived directly from that in the first movement, offers some respite, though the frequently syncopated accompaniment ensures the main theme remains at least a background presence. A brief orchestral climax brings it back in full, then both themes are combined as the movement comes full circle in a forceful and decisive conclusion.

 

Richard Whitehouse


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