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Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978)
Piano Concerto in D flat major (1936) [35]
Masquerade Suite, arranged for piano solo by Alexander Dolukhanian (1944) [16]
Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra in D flat major (1967) [23]
Iyad Sughayer (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Andrew Litton
rec. 2021, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, UK
BIS BIS-2586 SACD [75]

I first came across Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto some 50 years ago, when, as a mathematics student, I used to borrow LPs from the University library. I was just beginning my exploration of classical music, and was immediately struck by the concerto’s unusual melodic cast, exotic sound-world, thematic memorability, and a weird wailing noise in the slow movement! It later transpired that this strange sound was produced by a flexatone, an instrument that I have not seen or heard live to this day. Spurred on by this recording and others, I have found a YouTube video showing just how the instrument is played. It is impossible to describe its appearance, so if you are intrigued, please investigate for yourself.

The booklet notes say that Khachaturian’s score asked for a flexatone, but he intended the part to be played on the musical saw. That is the instrument used in this recording. I have neither seen nor heard a musical saw. I was surprised to learn it is nothing less than a wood saw, whose vibrations are produced by a bow moved along the edge. On listening, I was struck by the very prominent balance accorded to the saw, and hurried to compare it to the flexatone presumably played in my two other recordings, Naxos 8.550799 and Chandos CHAN 8542 (both still available). In the former, the instrument is all but inaudible; the booklet says that the part is optional, but it might just be naturally balanced in the depths of the orchestra. In the latter, the instrument sounds nuanced and delicate, and I much prefer that to this new version. Chandos have a much more recent issue of the concerto, coupled with Tchaikovsky’s 2nd Concerto, favourably reviewed here; the flexatone is said to be naturally balanced in the orchestra.

The concerto was apparently quite popular in the West when it was composed, but now seems to have faded from performance. That is a shame, because it is melodically distinctive, memorable even, blending rhythmic verve and percussive elements with an oriental exoticism and sinuous melody. Khachaturian used a “drastically modified” Armenian folk song in the slow movement, which I find to be so memorable that I have been humming it for a day or two. The first movement opens with a powerful orchestral statement which carries over into the first theme, announced by the soloist and woodwind. There is much pianistic improvisation, or so it sounds, but the composer specifically claimed that he had composed it in such a way that it would sound improvisational, probably to reflect the performance of Armenian folk music. The finale is propulsive and incandescent. When the first theme of the first movement returns in triumph, it assures an audience pleasing conclusion. hachaturians’s use of woodwind sonorities is notable, and it contributes massively to the colour of the score.

With the exception of the forward balance given to the saw, I have much enjoyed the concerto recording. It is excitingly performed, though a minute or so slower in the finale than the Chandos version, which gives the latter a slight propulsive edge.

The disc continues with a delightful piano arrangement of Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite. This is the composer at his most melodic. Henry Mancini used the tune of the Romance (perhaps unwittingly) in the song from Charade which Andy Williams made so popular.

Khachaturian’s Concerto-Rhapsody, composed three decades later than the Piano Concerto, is to my mind much less attractive. I get the impression that I am listening to the Concerto, but as if “through a glass darkly”. The composer is trying to stay true to his Armenian roots, but at the same time to sound more modern. I do not think he manages it, although there is a short lyrical central section that momentarily sounds almost Spanish in idiom. There are striking moments, for example when the very repetitive opening chords on the piano are terminated by a loud gong stroke which introduces the orchestra. Khachaturian clearly has not forgotten how to orchestrate in a colourful fashion. Actually, I consider much of the thematic material to be dour, so that even after three or four hearings I cannot summon much enthusiasm for the work.

The production by BIS is well up to the company’s usual high standard. I have listened to the Super Audio CD recording through stereo speakers and a two-channel SACD player. The sound is natural and spacious, and the orchestra play in a committed manner under the expert guidance of Andrew Litton. Naturally enough, the soloist is more than up to the demands of the composer’s writing. The booklet in English, French and German contains decent notes. The packaging is all cardboard, no plastic.
Jim Westhead

Published: October 14, 2022

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