About this Recording
8.570463 - KHACHATURIAN, A.I.: Cello Concerto / Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra (Yablonsky, Moscow City Symphony, Fedotov)

Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978)
Cello Concerto in E minor • Concerto-Rhapsody


Born in Tbilisi on 6 June 1903, Aram Khachaturian became the most significant twentieth-century musical figure in the then Soviet Republic of Armenia. He studied cello at Moscow’s Gnesin Institute during 1922–25, from which latter year come his earliest known works, then composition with Reinhold Glière until 1929. He subsequently studied at the Moscow Conservatory with such figures as Nikolay Myaskovsky until 1936, having been accepted into the Composers’ Union four years earlier. Despite the hiatus that was occasioned by his denunciation as part of the Zhdanov Decree of 1948, he maintained a leading rôle in Soviet musical life, serving as deputy chairman of the Composers’ Union’s organizing committee during 1939–48 and as its secretary from 1957 until his death. He enjoyed the friendship of a wide range of cultural figures inside and outside the Soviet Union, touring widely after 1950 as a conductor and also making numerous recordings of his music (not least those with the Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestras). His seventieth birthday was widely celebrated on both sides of the Iron Curtain, in which year he was also made Hero of Socialist Labour. He died in Moscow on 1 May 1978.

Although a relatively late starter as a composer, the majority of Khachaturian’s most significant works dates from the first half of his career. These include the three symphonies (1934, 1943 and 1947), the concertos for piano, violin and cello (1936, 1940 and 1946), and the ballets Gayaneh (1942) and Spartacus (1954). Thereafter his conducting and administration duties left him considerably less time for composition, though mention ought to be made of the Concerto-Rhapsodies for violin, for cello and for piano (1961, 1963 and 1968), as well as the unaccompanied sonatas for cello, violin and viola (1974–6) which also marked a belated return to chamber music. He also left a number of piano works, along with numerous scores for the theatre and cinema, the suites from which, together with those from his ballets, helped to keep his name alive in the concerthall, given the absence of larger-scale symphonic works. What was never in doubt is the sheer expressive immediacy of his music, indelibly marked by his Armenian heritage, with its sensuous and direct melodic writing, its vibrant but often resourceful orchestration and its elemental rhythmic drive, resulting in a popularity equalled by few composers of his generation.

The Cello Concerto has not so far shared in this popularity. Composed during the summer of 1946, while Khachaturian was staying at the Soviet Composers’ Union in Ivanovo, the work is well removed from the expressive directness of the Piano Concerto [Naxos 8.550799] or the melodic richness of the Violin Concerto [Naxos 8.570988]. Rather it continues the emotional unease of the wartime Second Symphony, though without that work’s epic demeanour and with a greater focus on motivic development, qualities which, despite a successful launch in Moscow that November by the cellist Svyatoslav Knushevitsky, saw it fade into oblivion in the wake of the composer’s denunciation at the conference presided over by Andrey Zhdanov just a year later. Perhaps the time is now right for this most resourceful of Khachaturian’s orchestral works to receive its due.

The first movement starts with an ominous theme for strings over brass and timpani, which is presently taken up by the soloist over an animated accompaniment. The pace then slows and the solo clarinet introduces the brooding second theme, again taken up by the soloist against plaintive woodwind comments. A brief though forceful orchestral tutti announces the development section, which sets off with strenuous passage-work from the soloist against an imaginative orchestral backdrop. When this dies down it is to make way for the extensive and virtuosic cadenza, alluding to both of the main themes during its course. At length, the orchestra enters with the first theme and a modified reprise ensues, but this time the second theme heads into an athletic coda that sees the music through to a decisive close.

The second movement opens with atmospheric writing for woodwind and brass against swirling strings and harp, duly making way for the soloist to unfold a moodily sensuous theme that has undoubted folk-music inflections. Its ambivalent undertones are intensified in the restive orchestral passage that follows, but the soloist subsequently restores a measure of calm as the music winds down to an expectant pause.

From here the third movement begins with a bustling theme shared between soloist and orchestra, with the latter heading into a suavely expressive melody which has pronounced Eastern overtones. This continues for some while until a lively oboe phrase reintroduces the opening theme, soon taken up by the soloist in tandem with glancing asides from the woodwind and strings. Gaining steadily in momentum, this reaches the briefest of solo cadenzas before the tempo increases still further and a hectic transformation of the main theme on full orchestra brings the work’s forceful but hardly affirmative ending.

The failure of Khachaturian to produce any further symphonic works during his last three decades has most often been explained by the criticism (notably that of the Third Symphony and the Cello Concerto) meted out by the Zhdanov Decree in 1948. Equally plausible is that the composer, never at ease with writing to classical formal principles, preferred to focus thereafter on pieces which avoided abstraction and often had an overtly descriptive element. The 1960s none the less saw him compose three concerto-rhapsodies where the relationship between solo instrument and orchestra is set out in a more intuitive manner. For all that, the Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, written in 1963 and first performed in Gorky the following January by Mstislav Rostropovich, pursues an overall formal trajectory which is rarely less than cohesive.

The piece starts with an arresting orchestral introduction that touches on most of the main thematic material. This makes way for an equally unequivocal passage for the soloist, athletic and resourceful in equal measure, which in due course brings back elements from the work’s opening. The incisive solo passagework soon gives way to a short orchestral tutti, before the strings alight on a descending phrase that the soloist fashions into an eloquent theme which is subtly heightened by sparing yet evocative orchestral contributions. At length the music comes to rest on a harmonically ambivalent chord, before the soloist initiates greater activity against acerbic woodwind and stealthy pizzicato strings. Brass and percussion now increase the dynamism, until a powerful fanfare-like gesture (side-drum to the fore) brings a halt to the momentum. The eloquent theme heard earlier is now brought back by the soloist, only to be questioned by the orchestra which presently brings about the main climax. The soloist continues on its pensive course, the music then tailing off in woodwind and harps, but a sudden surge of energy brings the full orchestra into play once more and a dashing momentum is sustained through to the breathless close.

Richard Whitehouse

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