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Aram Il’yich KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Cello Concerto in E minor [32:24]
Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra [24:22]
Dmitry Yablonsky (cello)
Russian Philharmonia/Maxim Fedotov
rec. 20-25 October, 2007, Studio 5, Russian State TV and Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow, Russia
NAXOS DIGITAL DOWNLOAD 8.570463 [56:46]
Experience Classicsonline


Exotic rhythms, exuberant and unmistakably Georgian folk melodies, woodwind solos filled with longing, passionate writing for the primary soloist, and an immediately appealing orchestral palette – lovers of Khachaturian’s classic Violin Concerto will recognize in his Cello Concerto all the elements that make this composer a 20th century favorite.
 

The work for cello and orchestra is not as well-known as its counterpart, but that is an injustice which this new recording attempts to counteract. Dmitry Yablonsky is the excellent soloist, and his account makes it clear that a potential audience favorite has been withheld from the standard repertoire for too long. 

Khachaturian no longer needs introduction to Western audiences. He is known from his ballets Gayaneh and Spartacus, and from his Violin Concerto, as a composer who pleases both the crowds and the critics. The Violin Concerto was premiered by legendary violinist David Oistrakh, and has been a staple of concert programs and new CDs ever since. It has been recorded by the likes of Leonid Kogan, Itzhak Perlman, Henryk Szeryng, Ruggiero Ricci and, more recently, Julia Fischer. The Cello Concerto has not received anything like that level of advocacy. By my count, this is just the seventh major recording of the stereo era. The work’s relative obscurity may have something to do with its gloomier overall atmosphere, its more troubled emotional state, and, worst of all, the harsh denunciations leveled at it by Soviet authorities after its premiere in 1946. Let us hope that this fantastic recording will inspire its return to the mainstream. 

The Cello Concerto opens with an orchestral introduction of only about a minute’s duration. It is heavy with foreboding and tapers off into one of the many moody, mysterious clarinet solos which punctuate the first movement. Then the cello enters and announces the memorable first theme. After that the movement is off to the races: brilliant color, skilful thematic development, and high drama mix in the same folksy idiom which characterizes so much of this composer’s music. A delicious clarinet solo prepares the way for the second subject, and there is a sudden reminiscence of the Dies irae theme by the orchestra as the cellist enters, but the Catholic hymn is warded off before it can really settle in. The development reaches its peak with a deliciously colorful dance in the seventh minute, before the cellist’s cadenza skillfully combines the movement’s dueling moods of exuberance and introspection. 

The second movement, beginning with an eerie flute solo, is a dramatic, stern creation in which we see only glimmers of the consoling ‘big tune’. One might compare it to a view of a harsh landscape with a mere hint of lush green far in the distance. The lyrical heart of this movement is evasive and fleeting. 

The finale brings the expected fireworks, but it also presents the main structural flaw: the energy level in the second half of the finale consistently decreases until the lightning-fast coda shocks the music out of its slumber. Perhaps this is partially the responsibility of the performers, but I doubt it. Dmitry Yablonsky’s cello playing is consistently riveting; his regular work as a conductor on Naxos has concealed the fact that he is a very fine cellist indeed. What’s more, the Russian Philharmonia plays superbly throughout. The orchestra itself is somewhat of an enigma — it was previously known as the TV 6 Orchestra and does not appear to give public concerts — but the level of the playing here is impressive. As mentioned, the first-desk wind players are especially praiseworthy. And, even when the final coda seems to come too soon, it is a mark of Khachaturian’s skill that we are left hungering for more rather than wishing there had been less. 

Luckily there is more. The Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra is a twenty-four minute work in a single movement. It makes even greater demands on Yablonsky than the longer concerto. Within a minute we are launched into an extremely long and grueling solo cadenza, in which the cellist presents all the themes we will soon be hearing amid much fiercely difficult passage-work. The Concerto-Rhapsody is, perhaps, more interesting on first listen, because its musical idiom is largely more advanced and more forbidding than a typical Khachaturian work. Oddly, on repeated hearings it is the simpler, more tuneful concerto which is more rewarding. The Concerto-Rhapsody, which occasionally quotes the Dies irae idea from the earlier work, simply does not have enough thematic material to justify its twenty-four minutes. There is a frankly dull and repetitive stretch in the development passage, which is a pity because the titanic cadenza had commanded our attention so powerfully. Near the end Khachaturian pitches in a few spectacular moments for the percussion and brass which recall the peasant dances from Gayaneh, but this comes after an awful lot of dithering over a very small number of interesting musical ideas. By contrast, the Concerto is both a potential crowd-pleaser and a satisfying, intelligent piece. 

This recording makes me wonder just why the Cello Concerto isn’t a smash hit in concert halls across the world right now. It’s instantly appealing, emotionally complex, fantastically orchestrated, virtuosic, and filled with an abundance of good tunes. At the very least, one would expect more recordings to be available, but there is almost no major competition for this Yablonsky performance. A Chandos disc featuring Raphael Wallfisch puts the Concerto in a more elegiac light and features very polished, expressive cello playing, though the acoustic is not always flattering to the cello itself and the London Philharmonic winds are not as characterful as their Russian counterparts. Wallfisch has a definite edge on Yablonsky in the expressive slow movement, but Yablonsky takes extra trouble to make the repeated-note theme in the finale genuinely interesting and varied, where Wallfisch simply runs the notes together. The coupling on the Chandos disc is the Violin Concerto, which most Khachaturian fans will likely already have. 

I have not heard the Regis recording with cellist Marina Tarasova, but the disappointed reviews on this site by Michael Cookson and Jonathan Woolf suggest that that performance, a full four minutes slower than Yablonsky’s, is not a good advocate of the piece. A Philips CD starring Christine Walevska and conductor Eliahu Inbal is long out of print. 

This new recording featuring Dmitry Yablonsky is, then, the finest available performance of the Khachaturian Cello Concerto, and as such merits the strongest possible recommendation. If the Concerto-Rhapsody does not always reach the same level of inspiration, Yablonsky’s playing is still breathtaking. These are recordings which any fan of Khachaturian would delight to have, and which should commend a richly enjoyable but long-forgotten concerto to a much wider audience. Rich, clear sound completes the package. 

As a part of the Naxos Digital imprint, this album is currently only available for download at the website Classicsonline, where it sells for rather less than the price of a physical compact disc. Naxos informs me that they plan a CD release of these recordings for early 2010.

Brian Reinhart



 
 


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