Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978)
Concerto-Rhapsody in B flat minor Violin Concerto in Dminor
Although his star can fairly be said to have waned duringthe quarter century since his death, the music of Armenian composer AramKhachaturian was, in its day, performed as often as that by Prokofiev andShostakovich, thanks in part to his frequent appearances as a conductor. A latestarter when he began his studies at the Moscow Conservatory in 1929,Khachaturian scored a major success with his graduation exercise, the FirstSymphony of 1935, consolidated at home and in the West with a series of concertosand, at the start of the so-called Great Patriotic War, the ballet Gayaneh. Thefailure of his Third Symphony in 1947, and subsequent denunciation as part ofthe notorious Zhdanov Decree the following year, was a serious setback whichthe success of his 1950s ballet Spartacus only partly remedied. During hislater years, Khachaturian was respected as a musical statesman rather thanadmired as a composer, a situation which may change now that the centenary ofhis birth is upon us.
Khachaturian composed three Concerto-Rhapsodies during the1960s. Freely unfolding in a single movement, they form a counterpart to theearlier concertos, while confirming that the composer was happier workingoutside the constraints of integrated symphonic form. The Concerto-Rhapsody inB flat minor was written in 1962 for the violinist Leonid Kogan, who gave thefirst performance, with Kyril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra,on 3rd November of that year. The work opens with imploring music for stringsand brass, creating a tense, uneasy atmosphere. A quizzical descending figurefor flute and harp presages the entry of the soloist in an elaborate,cadenza-like passage which leads to a presentation of the initial theme, nowover pulsating wind chords. This pattern continues as the music becomes moreanimated, taking on something of a folk-like ambience, before reaching asoulful 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'stypically robust writing for brass and percussion makes itself felt. Theopening theme returns to steer the work into more elegiac territory, and thedescending figure returns to widen the expressive range still further, then adetermined response incites both soloist and orchestra towards a lively andvirtuosic conclusion.
Composed in two months during the summer of 1940, and firstperformed in Moscow on 16th November of that year by its dedicatee DavidOistrakh, the Violin Concerto in D minor is the second in a triptych ofconcertos which Khachaturian wrote over the decade from the mid-1930s, andwhich helped seal his reputation as the leading Armenian composer of hisgeneration. Continuing directly the lineage of large-scale Romantic violinconcertos (not least that by Tchaikovsky), the work was quickly taken up bysoloists from both East and West, and retains much of its popularitytoday.
The opening Allegro con fermezza sets off with a brusquelydescending orchestral gesture, after which the soloist leads off with anincisive, folk-inflected theme. A plaintive oboe introduces the second theme,the soloist pensive over pulsating flute and harp chords, before a return tothe initial activity and a central development section, imaginatively scored,which resourcefully contrasts and combines both themes. The cadenza, occupiedmainly with the second theme, arrives mid-way through the movement; then areference to its unmistakable rhythm brings back the first theme, as part of amodified reprise. The movement closes with an agile and peremptory coda.Bassoon and lower strings, succeeded by stabbing brass chords, usher in theAndante sostenuto, the soloist entrusted with a melody of pronounced Slavicbrooding. Strings intensify the prevailing mood, while woodwind interjectionsoffset any tendency towards the lachrymose. A brief orchestral outburst isfollowed by a recall of the lower strings from the opening, then the soloistresumes, leading to a heartfelt treatment of the main theme by the wholeorchestra. The close, however, returns to the shadows from which the movementemerged (and note the insinuating presence of the descending figure from theprevious movement's main theme at the very end). The Allegro vivace finalebegins with the strongest possible contrast, a haunting orchestral tutti whichsets the scene for the soloist's lively and memorable main melody, oftenmodified in its figuration during the course of the movement. In the centralsection, a soulful theme, derived directly from that in the first movement,offers some respite, though the frequently syncopated accompaniment ensures themain theme remains at least a background presence. A brief orchestral climaxbrings it back in full, then both themes are combined as the movement comesfull circle in a forceful and decisive conclusion.