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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Violin Concerto No.1 in A Minor op. 99 (1948) [38:27]
Violin Concerto No.2 in C Sharp minor op. 129 (1967) [31:47]
Sergey Khachatryan (violin)
Orchestre National de France/Kurt Masur
rec. 5-7 July 2006, Salle Olivier Messiaen, Maison de la Radio, Paris, France. DDD
NAÏVE V5025 [70:23]

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Shostakovich’s centenary year has certainly resulted in a plethora of events, concerts and recordings. Naturally the violin concertos have been to the fore in the celebrations. A number of discs having featured the first concerto to the extent that Erik Levy, the critic, writing in the BBC Music Magazine (November), feared it might be in danger of over-exposure. This I doubt as it is such a wonderful work that I’m sure it can stand up to any amount of scrutiny. It is interesting though that it is mainly the young violinists who have tackled it rather than the next generation yet it includes some fiendishly difficult passages. Even David Oistrakh, its dedicatee, found there were problems to overcome. It had a difficult "birth" in any case and was held back from publication for seven years after it was written in 1948 when the composer was in disgrace with the authorities.

This concerto needs a truly great performance to do it justice and to reveal all its hidden depths. This is particularly so in the passacaglia which is full of pathos and heartfelt outpourings of sadness and tragedy. When you hear a great performance then this work really speaks to you in a very special way and remains with you for long afterwards.

Earlier this year I reviewed Daniel Hope’s recording of both the concertos and this mightily impressed me. It seemed to me that he had really got inside the works and had a thorough understanding of and love for them which shone through the performances. I found the recording of the First absolutely electrifying. The sound in both was crystal clear and the violin came across as sharp as a razor as it cut a swathe through the orchestral backing. Hope’s playing in the passacaglia is enough to bring on tears. This just goes to prove that great works like this and great performers like him are a hugely powerful combination vital to bring the work off as it should be. I can’t get enough of this disc and return to it often. I defy anyone to get tired of it.

At the time I reviewed that disc I also listened to the young Latvian violinist Baiba Skride’s disc [review by ED]; one she made in 2005. On listening to it again for the purposes of this review I have been forced to reappraise it and have found it a most rewarding experience. She is much better than my first impression gave me to believe with a beautifully crafted tone matched by a true understanding of the work’s eloquent statements. Her performance is muscular with a power to really impress. Her opening movement is full of gorgeous playing which shows a real love for the work and she makes it seem an easy piece to play which it decidedly is not. Her playing in the scherzo is brilliant, making the spiky rhythms an exciting listen and the breakneck finish is simply superb. Her reading of the passacaglia is especially moving with the feelings of pathos and tragedy brought off with a heart-rending and incisive accuracy that fulfils Shostakovich’s intentions to the musical letter. Like Daniel Hope she makes the cadenza emerge quite naturally and not simply seem a showy demonstration of her art; self-evident throughout in any case. She crowns the performance with a thrilling burlesque that is quite brilliant. It really is a humbling thought that anyone could produce such playing at only 25. She has a fantastic career ahead of her.

Now to the subject of this review – Sergey Khachatryan (b.1985, Yerevan, Armenia) and his performances of both concertos. He also finds no difficulty in meeting the musical challenges in the writing of the First Concerto. In fact his playing is technically brilliant with some breathtaking violin pyrotechnics in the scherzo and burlesque. Overall though I feel the performance lacks the humanity with which Hope and Skride managed so eloquently to imbue this wonderful work. I get the feeling of rather too clinical a performance. Brilliance alone is not enough to get Shostakovich’s musical message across. Don’t get me wrong; he is a marvellous violinist who will doubtless improve with age and maturity. The fact that the engineers have placed him too close to the mike making the interchange between violin and orchestra more tenuous and less well defined than it should be, doesn’t help. And the overall impression is that Kurt Masur presides over a somewhat sluggish and muddy sound at times.

The Second Concerto is less well known and, though it doesn’t present as many problems for the soloist, it is, nevertheless, a beautiful work that does not deserve to remain in the shadow of it earlier stable-mate. When Daniel Hope’s disc was reviewed in BBC Music Magazine his performance of this concerto was chosen to become the benchmark and with good reason for it is truly superb. In this centenary year this performance should help it to gain the recognition it ought to have and to find a more regular place in concert programmes. At this juncture I really ought to pay the orchestra and conductor the compliments they deserve as they do a fantastic job in support of Hope (in both concertos). In Shostakovich’s works the orchestra has major statements to make which the BBC Symphony Orchestra achieve convincingly in spades. The fact that it is Shostakovich’s son who is at the helm makes for an authenticity that is difficult for other conductors to match. The engineers have done a superlative job on this disc of getting the balance absolutely perfect and the partnership between soloist and orchestra is ever apparent whilst the sound is crystal clear. Finally it is the stamp of authority that Hope manages to put on these works that is the overriding feeling one is left with after listening to his performances. Here is someone who really knows the music and is not just using his undoubted ability merely to play the notes. It is difficult to single out any particular parts to highlight but a good example is the closing passages of the second movement which are simply gorgeous. Also around 6 minutes into the last movement Hope’s brilliance is amply demonstrated both pyrotechnically as well as tonally. Hope dedicated his disc to David Oistrakh but he needn’t feel that he is in his shadow – he is a true equal.

As with the first concerto Khachatryan plays the second wonderfully well and there is no lack of ability on display – far from it. I just get the feeling that he hasn’t yet managed to entirely plumb the depths of these works and to get to grips with the emotional messages that Shostakovich programmed into the music. I’m convinced this will come with time and experience though he might be forgiven for wondering what else he has to do to "improve" on his performances. You don’t learn these things, I’m sure. They just click into place one day. It’s difficult to say anything else but I don’t want anyone to think that this disc is to be set aside in favour of Daniel Hope’s; it would be worth having both. Khachatryan is an obvious rising star whose progress I shall watch with keen interest. His playing is technically impeccable. It is the emotional side that is somewhat lacking but, as I say, it will surely come and then he will be a force to be reckoned with and the contests between violinists will have reached even greater heights than at present.

Steve Arloff


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