Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Violin Concerto (cadenza by Artur Avanesov) (1940) [37:40]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Violin Concerto Op.14 (1939) [23:03]
Adagio for Strings Op.11 (1936) [9:47]
Mikhail Simonyan (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra/Kristjan Järvi
rec. 30 May - 1 June 2011, LSO St.Luke’s, London.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9827 [70:33]
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 and memorable.
Passionate and memorable.