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Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Violin Concerto (1940) [38.46]
Concerto-Rhapsody for violin and orchestra (1961) [23.36]
Mihaela Martin (violin)
National Symphony Orchestra/Theodore Kuchar
rec. Grand Concert Studio, National Radio Company of the Ukraine, Kiev, 25-27 Dec 2001
NAXOS 8.555919 [62.22]

The concerto is rather démodé these days. This is a pity as it has much that is exciting and beguiling. It is almost sixty years since the work took the world by storm, hot on the heels of Shostakovich's Leningrad. It has somehow shaken down into the same part of the concerto ‘sack’ as the Korngold. However don't be ashamed to enjoy this concerto. It is, by turns, gaudy, poetic and catchy.

Martin and Kuchar lean towards the languorous and at 38.46 this must be among the slowest of versions. While slow late-Bernstein can be outrageously fascinating I am not at all sure that this approach comes off successfully here. In any event you know what you are going to get. When the music offers an opportunity for introspection the Romanian violinist Mihaela Martin and Kuchar are there, ready and willing. My preference in the concerto extends to Oistrakh or the dedicatee Kogan or Mordkovitch on Chandos.

However when we turn to the Concerto-Rhapsody, Martin turns the tables on us. The catalogue is not exactly thriving with versions of this single movement 1961 work. It is one of three such Concerto-Rhapsodies (one of each for piano, cello, violin) which Khachaturian wrote during the 1960s. None of these have really caught on ... so far. This version, however, is the best I have heard. It labours under the disadvantage of melodic invention that lacks the memorability of his writing in the 1930s and 1940s. That is a problem shared by all three single movement rhapsodies. Martin however makes the work a real avocation. Listen to the way she makes essentially mundane ideas shine at 5.30, shaping ideas thoughtfully. She is imaginatively partnered by Kuchar's orchestra - how long has he been with them now? The sparks fly in all directions later on. The last six minutes of this arguably overlong work show why we should keep an eye on Martin. Her legato phrasing sings smoothly but also draws out the louring clouds of the work. The rash and rattling virtuosity from 21.00 onwards is quite stunning with Hungarian flavouring, a hoarse Dervish whirl and fruity elegance aplenty (22.01).

A rather introspective take on this Concerto (if you can imagine such a thing) but the reference recording of the Concerto-Rhapsody.

Rob Barnett

Kevin Sutton has also listened to this disc

Aram Khachaturian, like his colleague Shostakovich, spent a large part of his career dodging the whims of the Soviet government, falling in and out of favor, and thus suffering a bit of a roller-coaster ride in terms of his international recognition and popularity. Although certainly a product of the Soviet school that included such stars as Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Vainberg and Shostakovich, the Armenian-born Khachaturian never seems to have lost his native voice. His music is evocative of his eastern homeland.

The two substantial works for violin and orchestra presented in this recording were both composed for major Russian soloists; the Concerto of 1940 for David Oistrakh and the Concerto-Rhapsody of 1961 for Leonid Kogan. Both draw on folk themes from the composer’s native Armenia and both are packed with emotion-laden Slavic moodiness.

The 1940 concerto opens with a rollicking dance-like theme that is followed by a more lyrical second idea. After a mid-movement cadenza, the first theme returns with a vengeance. There follows a rhapsodic slow movement that sweeps one into a brooding wintry landscape. The finale is a whirlwind of motion and virtuosity.

The Concerto-Rhapsody is less classically structured than the earlier work, and in many ways, more freely composed in terms of its melodic sweep and rhythmic gesture. That Khachaturian composed two other works in this same genre indicates perhaps that he was at his most comfortable in music of less strict formal structure.

Mihaela Martin is a violinist who combines passion, control and careful thought with a bit of risk. She is never afraid to dig into the strings of her violin, eliciting a somewhat raspy tone in order to pump up the adrenaline levels in her listeners. She is quite technically comfortable too, and she tears off the lightning-fast virtuoso passages with the ease that one would rip off sheets from a memo pad.

Not at all limited to displays of pyrotechnical finger work, Ms. Martin is quite the singer too, making the lyrical passages come alive with her fine sense of line and the rise and fall of emotional intensity.

Theodore Kuchar and his National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is an excellent match for this fine soloist. Maestro Kuchar knows exactly when the orchestra is in the lead and when it must be subordinate to the soloist. He matches Ms. Martin with a fine display of both technical precision and jolly abandon. Soloist and orchestra alike revel in the sheer fun of making music together on so high a level.

Richard Whitehouse turns in fine program notes as is his custom, and the sound quality is first rate. Splendid music made splendidly. Highly recommended.

Kevin Sutton


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