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GP673 - KHACHATURIAN, A.: Original Piano Works and Transcriptions (Poghosyan)
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Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978)


Born in Tbilisi on 6 June 1903, Aram Khachaturian became the most significant twentieth-century musical figure in the former Soviet Republic of Armenia. He studied cello at Moscow’s Gnesin Institute during 1922–5, from which latter year come his earliest known works, then composition with Reinhold Glière until 1929. He then studied at the Moscow Conservatoire with such figures as Nikolay Myaskovsky until 1936, having joined the Composers’ Union four years earlier. Despite the hiatus occasioned by his denunciation as part of the ‘Zhdanov Decree’ of 1948, he retained a major rôle in Soviet musical life—serving as deputy chairman of the Composers’ Union’s organizing committee through 1939–48 and as its secretary from 1957 until his death. He toured internationally after 1950 as a conductor and made numerous recordings of his music (not least those by 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 made a Hero of Socialist Labour. He died in Moscow on 1 May 1978.

Although Khachaturian was a relatively late starter as a composer, the majority of his works date from the earlier half of his career. These include three symphonies (1934, 1943 and 1947), 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 much 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 unaccompanied sonatas for cello, violin and viola (1974–6) that marked a belated return to chamber music. He also left a number of piano works, along with numerous scores for theatre and cinema—the suites of which, along with those from his ballets, kept his name alive in the concert hall despite the absence of larger symphonic works. Not in doubt is the expressive immediacy of his music, with its sensuous yet direct melodic writing, highly resourceful orchestration and elemental rhythmic drive—resulting in a popularity equalled by very few composers of his generation.

Khachaturian left a sizable body of piano music, of which the first three pieces on this recording comprise an informal Suite (1932). Most often heard as a stand-alone item, the Toccata is a fine instance of virtuosic writing within the Russian tradition. It is launched with a hectic succession of motifs whose propulsion gives way to a more inward section with prominent usage of the whole-tone scale. Its rhapsodic continuation builds to the striding return of the initial music, then culminates with a rhetorical flourish. Of the remaining pieces, the Waltz-Caprice unfolds as a rather reluctant waltz, gaining emotional ardour as it heads to a more demonstrative culmination, whereas the even briefer Dance opens with a repeated-note idea which functions as a refrain between rather more suave passages before the sardonic close.

The ballet Spartacus tells of the leader of the slave uprising against the Romans that became known as the Third Servile War, though the storyline takes some liberties with historical fact. Khachaturian composed the ballet in 1954, and was awarded a Lenin Prize that same year. It was first staged, with choreography by Leonid Yakobson, at the Kirov Theatre, Leningrad in 1956. The Bolshoy Theatre, Moscow followed in 1958, with choreography by Igor Moiseev, but it was the 1968 production, with choreography by Yury Grigorovich, which achieved the greatest acclaim. It remains one of the composer’s best known works and is also the last full-length ballet to have established itself in the international repertoire. Khachaturian extracted four suites from the score, the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia opening the second of these.

Even in its piano transcription (here by Matthew Cameron), this piece amply casts its spell. Over a gently undulating accompaniment, the indelible melody takes flight—soon gaining emotional force as it builds towards a brief climax then subsides into a more restive episode. This in turn culminates with fanfare-like gestures and rushing passagework which brings the heightened return of the main melody. This gradually evanesces into a poetic coda, in which the melody is folded into its accompanying patterns as the music draws to its lingering close.

Poem (1927) is among Khachaturian’s earliest piano works, and also finds this composer in combative mood while attempting to fit his material within a disciplined formal framework. The piece opens with a vigorous idea that soon makes way for a more reflective theme, and which unfolds at length prior to a brief return of the opening music. A central section begins pensively, before gaining in impetus as it evolves into a modified reprise of the initial theme—its successor taking on a more forceful profile before it subsides into the tranquil final bars.

Khachaturian wrote few abstract compositions during his final two decades, and among the most significant is the Piano Sonata (1961). First performed by Emil Gilels in Leningrad on 15 February 1963, it is among the most formally Classical of the composer’s larger works. The first movement opens with a lively theme over an equally nimble accompaniment, with left and right hands exchanging numerous motifs as the music maintains its rapid course. A second theme consists of a more expressive idea over an intricate undertow, though this is soon subsumed into the initial theme and an elaborate development ensues. This arrives at a pensive pause, from which the second theme acts as transition into a modified reprise of the main theme—after which the music heads into a headlong coda. The slow movement begins with a mesmeric succession of chords which only gradually coalesces into an actual theme, its limpid eloquence made more so through its very poise. At length this arrives at a far more demonstrative central section, which builds rapidly to a powerfully rhetorical climax before subsiding into a rapt recollection of the main theme—now unfolding ruminatively in the left hand. A return to the opening chords brings decidedly ambivalent closure. The finale sets off at a headlong pace with an athletic theme given added impetus through its constantly altering rhythmic emphasis. A subsidiary idea lightens the mood without slackening the pace, while the main theme undergoes considerable modification before it returns in something akin to its original guise to steer this movement—and the work as a whole—to its explosive conclusion.

The incidental music to Masquerade was written for the play by Mikhail Lermontov and was given its première on 21 June 1941 at the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow. The composer had been asked to write music for the production by its director Ruben Simonov. Masquerade was the last production by the Vakhtangov before the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany, and the music is best known in a five-movement suite devised in 1944. The present selection was arranged in 1952 and is an overview of what is among the composer’s most appealing scores. The Nocturne, with its wistful theme inseparable from its halting accompaniment, typifies the bittersweet mood of this score as a whole. The Romance furthers this mood through a theme even more evocative of ‘past times’ than that of its predecessor, though here the music fails to linger as it fades into the warm regret of its final chords. The Waltz (Khachaturian’s third most famous piece) centres on a suave melody whose ominous tone is only partly offset by the vaunting central section—the main melody thence continuing on its inimitable course.

Richard Whitehouse

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