> Aram KHACHATURIAN - Cello Concerto [MC]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Cello Concerto, in E minor (1964) [36:20]
Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, in D minor (1963) [26:36]
Marina Tarasova, Cello
Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Veronika Dudarova
Recorded in Moscow 1994 DDD
REGIS RRC 1094 [63:22]


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Khachaturian was born in Armenia in 1903 and at the age of eighteen he left his native country for Moscow. He learned to read Russian and entered music school at the Gnessin Institute moving on to the Moscow Conservatory to study the cello, then composition. Khachaturian’s teachers included luminaries such as Vasilenko, Gliere, Gnessin and Miaskovsky although his music remained strongly influenced by the folk music of his native Armenia.

Music writer David Ewen provides a quotation which aptly describes Khachaturian’s music: "The intonations, the rhythmic patterns, the oriental colourings, and the dramatic emotional contrasts found in Armenian folk songs and dances are the predominant traits of Khachaturian’s music." A similar view is given by musicologist Mark Morris who writes that Khachaturian had a, "Penchant for bright colours, traditional harmonies and bold tunes … [which] with his vivid sense of colour, melodious flow, gives his music a touch of exotic piquancy." Khachaturian’s ability to convey colour and rhythmic momentum in a highly dramatic and lyrical vein is clearly apparent even at the first hearing of his music.

‘Shackled together’ with his contemporaries Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Khachaturian’s music was censored for ‘bourgeois formalism’ and became unacceptable to the Soviet authorities. Although Khachaturian had done virtually everything asked of him, "His only sin was to have charmed the West with the excellence of his music," according to music writer Norman Lebrecht.

Khachaturian composed his Cello Concerto in 1946 and it was first performed by its dedicatee Sviatoslav Knushevitsky. The concerto is vigorous, felicitous and attractive with serious Armenian folk influences but it does not have the inspiration and thematic memorability of many of his other major works; such as the Gayaneh and Spartacus ballets and the violin concerto. The first movement allegro moderato is overlong at nearly 18 minutes and the movements do not contrast sufficiently to sustain the interest together with an uncharacteristic lack of a ‘big tune’. This rather reflective concerto represents Khachaturian’s first major post-war composition and clearly cannot be classed as one of his great concertos.

There are two significant competitors for the Cello Concerto the first from Chandos with Raphael Wallfisch as soloist with the LPO, under Bryden Thomson, where in a high quality recording Wallfisch and the orchestra collaborate rewardingly. The other notable version is on the BIS label with Mats Lidström as soloist giving an excellent performance with the Gothenburg SO under Vladimir Ashkenazy, although it must be said that the sound quality does not always match the quality of the playing.

On this Regis Records digital recording acclaimed soloist Marina Tarasova plays with total passion and commitment throughout. She is particularly impressive in the extended languorous passage in the second movement andante sostenuto that evolves into an intensified lament. Although Tarasova is one of Russia’s best kept secrets even she is unable to make this music sound better than average. The recording is bone dry but it is no worse for that with a bright orchestral sound throughout. However the forward placed cello does dominate the gutsy orchestral accompaniment more than one would prefer.

The Concerto-Rhapsody, for cello and orchestra, from 1963, was the middle one of a series of three rhapsodies that Khachaturian announced that he was composing for younger cellists. The Concerto-Rhapsody is a virtuoso work composed in a single movement with three distinguishable sections. The work was designed to exploit the phenomenal technique of the distinguished Russian cellist and its dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich who also gave the world premiere performance in the Royal Festival Hall, in London.

I have always rated this work very highly since having a copy of a Melodiya/EMI vinyl LP with the dedicatee Rostropovich as soloist and the USSR SO under Yevgeny Svetlanov in my collection for years. Malcolm Rayment provides a wonderful insight on the LP sleeve notes, "Much of the cello part lies extremely high and often there are rapid passages in double and triple stopping. Although the music is often improvisatory in nature, the overall construction is much tighter than the title would suggest."

Significantly much of the material in the Concerto-Rhapsody derives from a theme which is gradually build up by the orchestra first heard by the horns at the start of the work and returns frequently in a variety of guises. After a substantial statement by the orchestra the cello makes his entrance and is almost continually occupied thereafter making tremendous demands on the soloist. The highlight of the work is the huge cello cadenza for cello which plays for a large proportion of the first movement andante sostenuto e pesante.

Not for the faint hearted this Concerto-Rhapsody is a big-boned cello concerto in all but name and soloist Marina Tarasova was made for the part; bold and gutsy and taking the work by the scruff of the neck. Clearly revelling in this repertoire Tarasova has an extremely strong tone making light of the exacting technical and physical nature of the work. She plays with impeccable control and technique throughout. Tarasova’s expressive intensity and energetic performance is eminently persuasive, and I could not imagine this Concerto-Rhapsody being played better. The orchestral accompaniment is all that can be expected for having lost the fight with the cello and the recording is again dry and bright.

A rival version of the Concerto-Rhapsody has been available on a BMG/Melodiya Twofer played by Karine Georgian, with the USSR RTV Large SO, conducted by the Composer. According to the Penguin Guide the playing is passionate and full-bodied in tone with an acceptable recording.

Recorded in Moscow in 1994 this Regis Records release at superbargain price is well worth considering to obtain both the Cello Concerto and the Concerto-Rhapsody and recommendable for Tarasova’s amazing performances.

Michael Cookson

See also review by Jonathan Woolf

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