About this Recording
8.550799 - KHACHATURIAN, A.I.: Piano Concerto / Concert Rhapsody
English 

Aram I1'yich Khachaturian (1903 -1978)

Aram I1'yich Khachaturian (1903 - 1978)

Piano Concerto in D flat major

Concerto Rhapsody in D flat major

 

An Eastern Armenian by blood, heritage and avowed allegiance, Khachaturian was born in Tbilisi (Tiflis), the capital of Georgia, the third son of a bookbinder. Composer, conductor, educator, cultural ambassador, Deputy of the Supreme Soviet, brought up in the most vibrantly colourful of folk environments, he came to music relatively late, at the age of nineteen – a decision reinforced by his days vamping the ideological songs of new communism on the so-called "propaganda" trains which used to run between Tbilisi and Erevan. Like the slightly younger Shostakovich an active witness to the tumultuous birth of the Soviet nation, he settled in Moscow in 1921, living with his actor-brother, Suren, a disciple of Stanislavsky, and being wooed by the sounds of Scriabin and Beethoven ("the lightning-like revelation" of the Ninth Symphony). Competent on cello and piano (he also played the tenor-horn), he enrolled at the renowned Gnesin Music School (1922-29), from 1925 studying composition with Gnesin himself, a former pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov. In Gnesin's view "a rough diamond", his knowledge largely determined by Romantic Russian and slavonic models, he finished his training at the Moscow Conservatory {1929-37). Here the pre-eminent Miaskovsky, whose assistant he became, taught him composition: "To us younger composers," Khachaturian recalled, "Miaskovsky seemed to be surrounded by a halo, we stood in awe of him. He was respected and venerated by everybody... it was considered the greatest honour imaginable to be his pupil".

 

Khachaturian's life was an illustrious roll-call of triumph and popular success, marred only by the censure and "formalistic" accusations of the post-war Zhdanov years, a subject he felt privately at the time "should not be taken too seriously" (he was guilty more by association than action) yet which, even at the end of his life, he remained reluctant to talk about. Considered by the late thirties to be already a "leading Soviet composer" (Grigori shneerson), he was from ear1y on central to the hard-core of the Soviet Establishment. Prokofiev encouraged him. shostakovich admired the Armenian-inflected First Symphony (his graduation exercise from the Conservatoire). David Oistrakh gave the first performance of the Violin Concerto. In 1939 his dedication to party and state was duly recognised with Deputy Presidency of the Organizing Committee of the Composers' Union) and a Lenin Prize. The following decade the folk ballet Gayaneh (music of "animal vigour"), two further symphonies and a Cello Concerto confirmed a standing considerable equally within and beyond the USSR. In 1950 Khachaturian took up a composition professorship at the Moscow Conservatoire. Four years later the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet made him a People's Artist of the USSR, the ultimate accolade. Following the success of Spartacus towards the end of the fifties, his remaining years were devoted less to composition, and more to conducting, teaching, burocracy and travel. He toured widely, visiting, among other places, Italy (1950), Britain (1955, 1977), Latin America (1957) and the USA (1968).

 

"A clever musician who knows very trick of the trade... Khachaturian's talent seems fundamentally commonplace; but the athletic rhythms and luxurious texture of his orchestral music have a brash appeal" (Record Guide, 1951). "Not an innovator, he condemned musical experimentation; his music is straightforward and elemental in its appeal to human emotions... he combined old-fashioned virtuosity with solid craftsmanship. He represented socialist realism at its best"(Boris schwarz, New Grove, 1980). In his London Financial Times obituary (3rd May 1978) Ronald Crichton claimed that "whether or not history will support the verdict, Khachaturian in his lifetime ranked as the third most celebrated Soviet composer after shostakovich and Prokofiev". In the Guardian, too, Edward Greenfield expressed the opinion that Khachaturian "notably outshone other Soviet contemporaries in creating a sharply identifiable style, something which his successors have found impossible to emulate. In memorable ideas he stands in some ways as the archetype of the Soviet composer, geared [through his ballets, film scores, indental music and utilitarian work/march songs] to communication with the widest audience". "I accept every one of my" compositions," Khachaturian told the present writer, "though I have not written the completely ideal one. The fact is, however, that you cannot deny your own compositions. You cannot say 'this I wrote a long time ago and it's no good now.' If you put your heart into a work you cannot deny it later, just as you cannot deny your children. If I didn't like my own music I wouldn't let it out of the room... If I felt I was losing my own style, I wouldn't write any more. I'd sell fruit! The most important thing in a composer is his personality, his aura. Shostakovich once paid me a very great compliment when he said that you could recognise a piece of Khachaturian from the first two bars. If this is true, it is grand, marvellous. When I'm dead, everything will become clear".

 

From earliest childhood Khachaturian identified strongly with the history of his displaced people and their ancient descent. Though a Georgian by birth, a Muscovite by domicile, and for many years an Armenian only by circumstance (he did not actually visit Armenia until 1939), he repeatedly acknowledged his Armenian predecessors (Komitas, for instance), he evolved his musical language from ethnic models, and he took as his creed the words of the Armenian pioneer Spendarian, who advised him to "study the music of your own people and drink in the sound of life". Gayaneh was a brilliantly vibrant demonstration of this. Plans to write an opera "on the destiny of the Armenian people, the tragic fate of Armenians scattered all over the world, their suffering and the struggle" never materialised. Nor, too, did an Armenian Rhapsody for mouth-organ and orchestra, intended for his close friend Larry Adler and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but unfinished at the time of his death. Yet the intention, the spirit, was always there, the ancestral recognition that "for all its passion, the Armenian song is chaste - for all its ardour, it is restrained in expression. This is poetry both Oriental in extravagance and Occidental in wisdom. It knows sorrow without despair, passion without excess, ecstasy alien to unrestraint" (Valery Bryusov, 1916). In a revealing article, "My Idea of the Folk Element in Music" (Sovetskaya muzika , May 1952), he wrote: "I grew up in an atmosphere rich in folk music: popular festivities, rites, joyous and sad events in the life of the people always accompanied by music, the vivid tunes of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian songs and dances performed by folk bards [ashugs] and musicians - such were the impressions that became deeply engraved on my memory, that determined my musical thinking. They shaped my musical consciousness and lay at the foundations of my artistic personality... Whatever the changes and improvements that took place in my musical taste in later years, their original substance, formed in early childhood in close communion with the people, has always remained the natural soil nourishing all my work [I prefer that] approach to folk melody... where the composer... utilises it as a seed, as the initial melodic motif to be freely developed, transformed and musically enriched... But so as not to violate the nature of folk music, the composer must have a keen understanding of national style, he must feel the essence of folk music with his heart and soul". As a student at the Conservatory, his "irresistible urge to invent, to think up new forms", his "desire to reconcile the principle of classical forms with the peculiarities of an Oriental musical idiom" more than once unsettled his teachers. "Take, for instance, my passion for the interval of the second, major and minor... This dissonant interval that haunts me comes from the trio of [Caucasian] folk instruments consisting of the tar [plucked lute], kamanche [spike fiddle] and tambourine [single-headed shallow frame drum with jingles]. I relish such sonorities and to my ear they are as natural as any consonance. But although Miaskovsky did not particularly like them, he understood that to me they came naturally and he made no attempt to crush my artistic individuality. He used to say, '1 like teaching a pupil who knows what he is after. I cannot decide for him. The important thing is what he hears within his head'. My penchant for static bass lines, too, comes from [the pedal drones of] Oriental music" .A nationalist composer of his people, an increasingly cosmopolitan composer of the world, Khachaturian's gift was one of "unbridled musical imagination", his legacy a Pandora's box of melody, rhythm and riotous technicolour unfettered by stricture. He wrote as he pleased for what he believed in.

 

"A virtuoso rivalry between the soloist and the orchestra" recollecting Liszt (Reno Moisenko, Realist Music, 1949), the Piano Concerto in D flat (1936) dates from the year of Khachaturian's marriage to Nina Makarova, a fellow-student of his at the Conservatory. Shown sketches, the composer tells us, Prokoviev (whose own First Concerto had been in the same key) "did not hide his surprise at my ambitious undertaking. ‘It's very difficult to write a concerto’ he said. ‘A concerto must have ideas. I advise you to jot down all the new ideas as they occur to you without waiting for the thing as a whole to mature. Make a note of separate passages and interesting bits, not necessarily in the correct order. Later on you can use these as "bricks" to build the whole.’ Each time we met, Prokofiev would ask how my Concerto was progressing. He let me play parts of it to him and gave me very useful pointers."

 

Lev Oborin, winner of the first Chopin Competition in Warsaw, later to teach Ashkenazy, played the work for the first time with orchestra on 12th July 1937, with the Moscow Philharmonic under L steinberg. Overnight it became a sensation, achieving a fame even greater and more widespread than that of the First Symphony (shostakovich preferred it). In war-ravaged London Moura Lympany, with Alan Bush conducting the London Philharmonic, introduced it at the old Queen's Hall, Langham Place, on 13th March 1940, subsequently recording it for Decca under Fistoulari. Oborin and Mravinsky later took it to Prague in 1946. Other champions of the time included William Kapell, Oscar Levant and Artur Rubinstein, all of whom played it regularly enough to establish something of a cult following for its author, especially in America.

 

Reviewing the work (Sovetskaya muzika, September 1939), Georgi Khubov thought it the "epitome of modern lyricism [full of] perfect inner harmony, vitality and folk character. Its orientalism can be easily recognised from the structure of the melodies used, with their stress on narrow intervals within eight and nine-note scales. Suggestive of Borodin -and of Liszt, too, for that matter - are not only the sweep and surge of theme, but the thematic unity of the structure as an entirety. Material first stated in the opening movement, for instance - in particular a cyclically recurrent festive idea of Armenian cadence - returns with redoubled force in the finale. The exotic, romanza-like effect of the Andante is achieved through a combination of fresh harmonies, folk mood, and laconic expression. The whole gives an impression of great simplicity, contrasting sharply with the often theatrical brilliance of the outer movements." In the opinion of one latterday Soviet commentator (quoted anonymously in the London Symphony Orchestra programme notes for the composer's final visit to Britain in January 1977), it remains unrivalled of its kind, a "most original" work, "a masterpiece of rare quality and stature" .

 

The opening Allegro is nominally a sonata-design, with an extended cadenza preceeding the coda, and an expressive second subject group of intentionally improvisational leaning. "My love of improvisation," Khachaturian maintained, "has its source in folk music. But this is an innate peculiarity of my individuality as a composer and should not be taken as leaning towards an anarchistic looseness of musical development. Improvisation is not a blind wandering 'without compass or rudder' over the keyboard in search of 'spicy' sonorities. Improvisation is only good if you know exactly what you are after, what you want to find. It then acts as a spur on your imagination, as an impulse to creative thought, enabling you to build a harmonious and balanced whole. Improvisation should go hand in hand with a sense of logic in the construction of form determined as it is by the ideological conception of the work, by its content" (1952). Commenting on the development section, Stanley D. Krebs (1970) has pointed out how "the art of Khachaturian polarises most frequently in ostinato. Less kindly, one would call him a slave to the ornamented beat: and he enslaves his audiences well..."

 

The central Andante, a 3/4 theme and variations in modal A minor, exudes a heavy perfume. Commenting on its folk derivation, Khachaturian wrote in 1952: "1 found the main theme ...by means of drastically modifying the tune of a simple little Armenian song, very popular in its time, which I had heard in old Tbilisi and which any inhabitant of the Transcaucasus knows well... Despite easily grasped melodic elements, it is a curious fact that even the Georgian and Armenian musicians I spoke to could not recognise my theme's popular prototype..." Most eery, colouristically, is the optional use of a steel flexatone ghosting first violins.

 

The finale is pulsative and brilliantly incandescent, a rhapsodic glitter of song and dance in kaleidoscopic confronation. "The relentless energy of the rhythmic ostinato," Krebs says, "presents the various tunes like a skilful card sharp dealing a hand of stud, face up. The ultimate ace is the return of the first theme of the first movement, after an extended section for piano alone." In the old Tsarist "war horse" tradition of the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Concerto, the Second and Third Concertos of Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev's First, the maestoso coda takes the form of an especially grand apotheosis, at once emotionally climactic, cadentially resplendant and pianistically spectacular.

 

"A concerto," Khachaturian told Nicolas Slonimsky (7th December 1962), "is music with chandeliers burning bright; a rhapsody is music with chandeliers dimmed". Attempting to redefine concerto convention, the concerto-rhapsody was a single-movement, multi-sectioned concept balanced between cadenza and fantasy, unique in title certainly, if not perhaps form: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue arguably anticipated the idea Khachaturian wrote three in all, awarded a USSR State Prize in 1971: for piano (1955, rev. 1968, the final version for Nikolai Petrov), violin (1961-62, for Leonid Kogan), and cello (1963, for Rostropovich). A Triple Concerto-Rhapsody for piano, violin and cello was also contemplated but never written. The first performance of the present D flat example was given in Gorki on 9th December 1968 by Petrov with the Symphony Orchestra of Soviet Radio and Television conducted by Rozhdestvensky. The Moscow premiere followed a week later, on 16th December. (In 1977 it was Petrov who came to London with Khachaturian to play the Piano Concerto. And it was he who later that year for Melodiya recorded both it and the Concerto-Rhapsody under the composer's direction – an historic collaboration.) Launched by a cadenza of torrential energy (tailor-made for Petrov, silver-medallist at the first van Cliburn Competition in 1962), and climaxed by a coda only a little less stunning, the work is an arresting cocktail of socialist motorism and republican folksiness.

 

The Piano Concerto is scored for double woodwind (with additional piccolo and bass clarinet), four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (including flexatone, side and military drums), and strings. The

Concerto-Rhapsody is for double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, percussion (including xylophone, marimba and vibraphone), harp, and strings.

 

@ 1997 Ates Orga

 

 

 

 

 

 


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