I was privileged to actually hear Aram Ilyich Khachaturian (1903-1978)
conduct his own music with the LSO at the RFH in 1977 and still have
strong memories of both the superlative conducting and immaculate playing.
Not hearing his music in concert since then, I thought it would be a
refreshing experience to return to the same venue to hear this rather
neglected composer again, in a concert celebrating the centenary of
Apart from the profoundly sensitive playing of
violinists, Sergey Khachatryan and Levon Chilingirian, the music making
can only be described as meretricious and pulverisingly loud. Throughout
the evening the fault lay with the conductor, George Pehlivanian, whose
podium antics can be tactfully described as embarrassingly crass. Nevertheless,
the ‘pop classics’ audience seemed titillated by the conductor’s dancing
and applauded after every excerpt of music. It must also be said that
the Philharmonia Orchestra were in very bad form, playing in a manner
which was both unforgivable and unacceptable: this was some of the worst
playing of its kind I have experienced.
The evening opened with Khachaturian’s best known
party piece: the Sabre Dance from the ballet Gayaneh.
Here the orchestral textures were both too heavy and coarse grained.
The following four excerpts from the Gayaneh Suite fared no better
with the Dance of the Mountaineers breaking the sound barrier,
while the concluding Lezghinka was crudely bashed out. It often
felt like passing through the pain threshold level.
The saving grace of the concert was a wonderful
performance of Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D minor played
by the 18 year old Armenian Sergey Khachatryan. What makes his mature
playing sound so unique is its rawness of edge, eschewing the sweet
purity of tone which marks (and mars) the contemporary conveyer- belt
standardised sounds from violin virtuosi. What let him down was the
heavy handed conducting and orchestral playing which seemed to be working
against his concentrated and refined conception. The cadenza came as
a great relief where the soloist shone with a miraculous and melting
radiance of exquisite sounds. The slow movement was far more successful
because the Philharmonia mercifully did not have much to do. Here Khachatryan
played with a suave and subdued elegance and was, surprisingly, beautifully
accompanied by the violas who blended well with his melting tones.
The concluding carnivalesque movement had the
soloist adopting a charming frivolity, his violin assuming a spiky,
cutting edge in the gypsy manner. The Philharmonia ‘cellos, however,
seemed to be miming - they produced sound that was barely audible and
simply lacked body. Indeed, I noted that the violinist had far more
presence and weight than the entire Philharmonia strings (and I am not
exaggerating). I felt throughout the orchestral writing for this concerto
had no real musical substance or invention, and it was all rather a
waste of time for such a supremely gifted and talented young violinist.
Next came three movements from the incidental
music to Masquerade (1941). The conductor got the right lilt
in Waltz but again got carried away throwing his baton into the
‘cellos and getting it handed back to him before he started conducting
the Nocturne. Here we were treated to the superb violin solo
of Levon Chilingirian. This was one of the most enchanting moments of
the evening which, like the playing of Sergey Khachatryan, had more
to do with the soloist than the work. The concluding Mazurka was
a total travesty, however: the percussion were far too loud, while one
could hardly hear the strings at all, the conductor giving scant attention
to the ‘cellos and double –basses (as he seemingly did throughout the
Part two opened with the composer’s Concerto-Rhapsody
for Cello and Orchestra (1962). This second rate score has overt
references to Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo -A Hebrew Rhapsody
for cello and orchestra
but lacks its imaginative inventiveness and becomes merely a hollow
vehicle for virtuosi. Unfortunately, we did not have a virtuoso in Armenian
Alexander Chaushian, whose scratchy playing lacked characterisation,
panache and style: it was all a question of mechanically getting the
notes right in the manner of a touch typist.
The concert ended with six excerpts from the Spartacus
Suite (1956). While the conductor paced the music with the appropriate
lilting swagger (dancing more than conducting) he distorted the orchestral
dynamics, with the percussion and brass again playing far too loudly,
in stark contrast to the strings who again sounded etiolated and barely
present. This was clearly evident in the Adagio of Spartacus
- made popular by the nineteen-seventies BBC TV drama The Onedin
Line - where the strings sounded particularly sour and thin.
Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury,
felt sufficiently moved to give a standing ovation after the Sabre
Dance encore – presumably Christian charity clouded his critical
perception. And I thanked God it was not broadcast.