Wednesday 21 May 2014

Hideko Udagawa and Boris Berezovsky in music for violin and piano by Khachaturian, with beguiling melodic ideas to unashamedly revel in, on a new disc from Nimbus

Aram Il’yich Khachaturian (1903-1978) was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. The son of an Armenian bookbinder, he first studied medicine, receiving his musical education fairly late. First studying cello and composition at the Gnessin Musical Institute, from 1929 to 1937 he attended the Moscow Conservatory, studying under Nicolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950). The Armenian music and culture of his childhood greatly influenced his music.

His name became known to a wider public with his piano concerto (1936) and Violin Concerto (1940). Of his three colourful ballets the best known are Gayaneh (1939–41) and Spartacus (1950–54). In addition to his ballets and concertos, he wrote three symphonies, vocal and instrumental works, works for brass band, piano works, incidental music, film scores and chamber works.

He became a close friend of Shostakovich who later recounted an amusing story of the occasion when both composers took part in a national competition, in 1943, to compose a new National Anthem. Stalin ordered that the two composers write an Anthem together, a difficult job given that the two were so different in musical style and given Khachaturian’s enthusiasm for eating and drinking before ever getting down to any work. They managed to patch together an anthem but didn’t win.

It is both Khachaturian’s ebullience and Armenian folk influences that feature in a new recording of works for violin and piano from Nimbus Performed by Hideko Udagawa (violin) and Boris Berezovsky (piano) they offer a tantalising glimpse of what the young composer was writing during his Conservatory years as well as providing arrangements of popular works from his maturity.

A number of the works performed on this new release are world premiere recordings.

Song Poem (1929) was dedicated ‘in honour of the Ashugs’ or itinerant bands that plays in the Caucasus. A piano flourish opens the piece before the violin joins in an attractive melody tinged with the flavour of Khachaturian’s native Armenia. There is some lovely writing for the piano and violin, particularly in the quieter, later stages, beautifully handled by Hideko Udagawa and Boris Berezovsky.

Dance No.1 (1925) receives its world premiere recording here and proves to be a memorable piece with a jaunty theme full of lovely pianistic and violinistic touches in this lovely performance.

Another world premiere recording is Elegy (1925). Originally written for cello, in this arrangement it is the piano that opens with a gentle motif before the violin develops the theme, full of lovely inflections with some beautifully hushed playing from Berezovsky. Udagawa draws much pathos from the violin part.

Dance (1926) brings more Caucasian sounding melody with a lively rhythmic dance theme brilliantly played by Udagawa and Berezovsky. There is a sultry central section, beautifully realised, where hints of the violin concerto are heard. There are some pretty virtuosic moments before the lovely coda.

Khachaturian’s Sonata for violin and piano (1932), perhaps the most substantial work here, receives its world premiere recording.

Rather strident piano discords open the first movement Lent. Rubato ed espressivo. before the violin provides a flowing melody, the piano retaining a somewhat more astringent edge, before eventually giving in to the melody. Nevertheless, there remains some dissonance between the violin and piano in this passionate movement. There is a short cadenza before a slower section for piano where, when the violin re-joins, is full of hints of Khachaturian’s violin concerto in its inflections and intervals.

The much longer Allegro ma non troppo finds both players launching straight into the direct and forceful theme. As the movement progresses the theme is subjected to much virtuosic variation with some beautiful textures from Udagawa as well as a fine section for piano. The music leads through some flowing, languid passages as well as some pretty challenging writing for both violin and piano. It has, at times, a rather unstoppable feel as the music keeps its forward momentum. Eventually there is a more extended cadenza brilliantly played by Udagawa. When the piano re-joins there is no let up for the violinist as both have some pretty demanding parts to negotiate right up to the coda.

Udagawa and Berezovsky provide a terrific premiere recording of this interesting and attractive early work that provides many indications as to what was to come.

Following on from these early works are a number of arrangements of pieces from his ballet suites and the incidental music Masquerade (1940). This performance of Nocturne from Masquerade receives a world premiere recording with some very fine playing in this effective arrangement.

Whatever one’s view of the Sabre Dance from Khachaturian’s ballet, Gayaneh (1942), no one can say that the composer didn’t have a gift for memorable tunes.  In this arrangement these players throw themselves into it, with Udagawa providing some terrific violinistic effects. Some of the colour of the orchestration is, of course, lost but this is great fun all the same with Berezovsky often providing a terrific counterpoint to Udagawa’s vibrant playing.

The ballet contains a feast of lovely exotic melodies including Ayesha’s Dance, a slow lilting dance where, in this arrangement, the violin part is particularly full of virtuosic writing. There is an exquisitely played coda.

The rhythmic Nuneh Variation, with this arrangement billed as another world premiere recording, has a folk style tune that receives terrific playing from Udagawa.

Finely there is a typically Khachaturian style Lullaby so beautifully played by these two artists. Again it is remarkable how Khachaturian could summon up so many simple, yet lovely melodies. The piece gains in power and passion midway before the hushed coda.

Khachaturian’s last ballet, Spartacus (1954), has an equal number of memorable tunes, not least of which re-appears in the Grand Adagio. Before that we have the lively Dance of Aegina with some lovely little rhythmic snaps, again brilliantly played.

The piano introduces the well-known theme of the Grand Adagio before the violin enters to reveal it in its full glory. These two players push the melody forward without any undue emphasis of emotion and keeping a tempo that retained its ballet roots. Once again the benefit of Khachaturian’s colourful orchestration is missed but these fine players make the music seem natural for these forces. Berezovsky provides terrific playing in the dynamic piano section before the music builds to its peroration, eventually dropping to the quiet coda with such fine playing from both artists.

Both of these arrangements for violin and piano receive their world premiere recordings.

This is very much a partnership of equals with Udagawa and Berezovsky bringing out so much from this music. Such beguiling melodic ideas make for a disc to unashamedly revel in.

They receive a close but finely detailed recording from The Recital Hall, The Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, USA.

There are excellent booklet notes by Daniel Jaffé.

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