Mikhail Simonyan has mixed Russian and Armenian parentage.
During his teen years he moved to the USA where he studied at
the Curtis Institute. For his debut concerto recording he chose
to represent these two parts of his life by these two beautiful
concertos: the first quintessentially Armenian, the other maybe
not so American. Barber always kept his distance from “Americana”.
It’s still very Western but not in the cowboy sense. The
album is a meeting place for East and West. The disc closes
with Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
The first movement of the Khachaturian is fire-breathing
and full-bodied. Its first theme is angular and bouncy and finds
the soloist demonstrating excellent phrasing. In this concerto
the orchestra is not a supporter but an equal partner and equals
the soloist in enthusiastic brilliance. The tempi are alive
and the drive is irresistible. In the second subject, Simonyan
wears his heart on his sleeve. This theme is the glowing quintessence
of the Armenian soul, and the soloist declares his roots unambiguously.
The violin sings and dances and cries and laughs and flies on
the wind. There’s just the right amount of pressure with
the voice of the violin full and beautiful. All the effects
are done with a sure hand - a presentation one would expect
from a seasoned veteran, not from a debut recording. The long
and elaborate cadenza by Artur Avanesov (commissioned by Simonyan)
is not standard. It is deeply Armenian, maybe less of the postcard
type than Khachaturian’s music. It is darker and more
serious with roots growing from Armenian Church music. It reminded
me strongly of Bartòk. This cadenza makes the entire
work more sombre and serious; a good choice.
The slow movement is a sweet, exotic romance, like Nights
in the Gardens of Armenia: a sensual, generously spiced
lullaby over the mesmerizing slow rocking motion. The performers
do not make the music lightweight and pretty but emphasise its
living, difficult beauty. Clever phrasing brings in the sense
of a narrative. The finale is a careless dance, colourful and
witty. The tempo is fast, yet everything is well articulated.
Simonyan does not make a single false step in this strenuous
race. The music is propelled forward by accents which avoid
it degrading into a commonplace moto perpetuo.
The recording quality is excellent. The violin is placed at
the centre of the world with each nuance well registered. Overall,
this is a really memorable account.
The first movement of Barber’s Concerto is bittersweet,
a mix of nostalgic sadness with smiles; of sunny happiness with
fairytale mystery. The performance speaks of aquiline flight,
with an almost Beethovenian grandeur; the performers respect
the pauses and do not rush. The slow movement is songlike and
cool, almost Sibelian, a poem with a dramatic climax. Barber’s
music is more personal than Khachaturian’s, so whereas
the first concerto was about the Armenian soul, this one is
about Barber’s soul: dark and saddened yet still with
seas of love and beauty under the shell of ice. The performance
is passionate, avoiding all glossy smoothness.
The finale never made complete sense to me. It seems a fussy
display of virtuosity, attached but not quite connected to the
other two movements. Khachaturian’s concerto in this sense
is more monolithic and balanced. This is not really much ado
about nothing, but certainly too much ado. Simonyan and Järvi
bring reason into this flicker of notes, by good phrasing and
putting accents so that there is a sense of aim and development.
Their tempo is not breakneck fast, and the soloist - by his
own words - “tried to use an almost folklike fiddling
style”. As a result, instead of the usual irritation,
I feel fascination. The recording balance between the soloist
and the orchestra is especially important in this movement,
and it is impeccably measured, so that the violin and the orchestra
merge naturally. Simonyan plays with “even brilliance”,
never letting the reins go slack. There’s an awful lot
of notes, but Simonyan shows the purpose and importance of each
and every one; they are all well articulated, but without rumbling.
The disc is closed by Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings,
arranged from the middle movement of his String Quartet, Op.11.
The melody has an unusual character: it starts on a stable tone,
and then goes away and around, avoiding any resolution, only
returning to the stable shelf for fleeting moments only to slip
back into the unsure. This leads to a feeling of endlessness
and disconcert. It’s like seeing the firmament slowly
slipping away. The tension builds to a soul-shattering yet transparent
climax, a cutting, needle-sharp unison. I compared this reading
with Bernstein and the LAPO. Bernstein’s reading is slower,
quieter, tender and depressed, but also more luminous and transparent.
Järvi and the LSO are more austere and solid, yet there
is a feeling of freshness and sincerity. Their reading is completely
devoid of sentimental goo.
I cannot say this new record is better than the classic David
Oistrakh in Khachaturian or Isaac Stern in Barber, but it isn’t
worse, either. It is different and, considering the excellent
sound from the DG engineers, can be recommended even as the
first and only recording of these two concertos. It is passionate