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Aram Ilyich Khachaturian: Centenary Concert; George Pehlivanian (con), Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Levon Chilingirian (violin), Alexander Chaushian (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra; RFH: 13th October, 2003 (AR)

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 his birth.

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 concert).

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.

Alex Russell

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