Aram Khachaturian: Piano Concerto. Pavel Bořkovec: Piano Concerto No. 2. Antonin Jemelik, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Alois Klima, Karel Ancerl. Urania US 5164-CD (1989), barcode 036922051646
Khachaturian recorded 1960 (?), Bořkovec recorded 30-31 January 1961
A fine surprise and an important version of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 20 October 2008
If you were asked to designate the best recordings of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto and failed to mention this one, from 1960, by Antonin Jemelik and the Czech Philharmonic under Alois Klima, you wouldn’t be to blame: hardly artists of any big reputation. Yet, this is what we get here, and here is why. Ever since the famous 1946 recording by William Kapell and Serge Koussevitzky (reissued on RCA GD 60921 barcode 0035626092122 or 09026-60920-2 barcode 090266092024, or Naxos Historical 8.110673 barcode 636943167328, both paired with Prokofiev’s Third under Dorati- I haven’t heard the earlier one from May 1945 by Moura Lympany, originally on Decca, reissued in 1998 on Dutton CDEA 5506, barcode 763587550626), there has been, I feel, some problems with the “traditional” interpretation of Khachaturian’s 1936 composition.
One is the choice of opening tempos in the first movement: “Allegro maestoso” (says my Hawkes pocket score) or “allegro ma non troppo maestoso” (as some CD booklets have it). Following Kapell-Koussevitzky’s circa 100-104 quarter-notes per minute (the composer’s metronome mark is 108-120), many have obviously given precedence to the “maestoso” over the “allegro”, adopting a majestic and powerful approach indeed, but also one that is stately, when not trudging, and ultimately insufferably bombastic.
It isn’t just a matter of being slower than the composer’s intended tempo, though. Even those who are at the higher end of his metronome instructions – Oscar Levant with Mitropoulos in 1950 (in United Artists’ Mitropoulos set UAR 002.4 barcode 3760138170026), Lympany in her classic LP remake from 1952 (reissued in Decca’s Originals Masters 2-CD set 475 6368 barcode 028947563686), Jakov Flier with Kondrachin in 1963, (Melodiya MEL CD 10 01006 barcode 4600317110063, with the Third Symphony) – don’t entirely dispel the impression. And likewise in the finale – an all-out “allegro brillante” here. Composer’s metronome now is quarter-note 120-126, and most versions are precisely there. But Kapell-Koussevitzky’s 138 is electrifying. Compared to them, all the others sound somewhat staid.
In the second movement, I don’t mind as much the liberties taken by everyone I’ve heard except the composer-conducting with dedicatee and premiere performer Lev Oborin (sadly not reissued on CD as far as I know, but available on YouTube), changing it from the prescribed “andante con anima” and metronome mark of quarter-note 69-72 to a dreamy adagio taken at anywhere from circa 54-56 (Kapell, but also Mindru Katz, once reissued with Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto on PRT 8376 barcode 5011664837623, then with same pairing on Cembal d’Amour CD 109 barcode 675754179922) to 60-63 (Orbelian-Järvi on Chandos, see my review). It works well that way. Important is to have the infamous flexatone (Koussevitzky and, astoundingly, the composer omit it), a kind of musical saw whose kitsch is integral to the music’s character.
Back to Jemelik-Klima, then. With them, no stately and majestic trudging in the outer movements. They dash into the first movement at a frenzied 138, turning the “maestoso” into a “feroce” – and it’s fab’. Suddenly all the bombast is gone, in favor of a hair-raising drive and intensity. Jemelik doesn’t sound like a virtuoso of the same order as Kapell, his technique shows traces of strain in the octave runs, and some of the finger-work isn’t as crisp and clear as Kapell’s but remember that he is playing nearly 40 % faster. His finale is even more hectic – he is the only one I know who take it faster than Kapell. Truth is, now, after re-hearing Jemelik-Klima, I find them maybe too relentlessly fast. Some passages sound like cartoon music, Wild Coyote running over the cliff, and Jemelik’s technique (as well as of the orchestral soloists), while impressive, can be dangerously on the edge. But it’s hard to resist the excitement, although those raised on Lympany and Kapell will no doubt find them hard-driven and ungiving in these outer movements.
Their slow movement on the other hand is very “traditional” – e.g. slow. As mentioned, I don’t mind it that way, although the composer proves that HIS way is at least equally effective. One nice point is their marked acceleration in the middle section at 4:47, factoring in a welcome contrast. In most other versions, the acceleration hardly registers. More detrimental however, the flexatone is barely audible.
But there is another area in which Jemelik-Klima are as “traditional” as everybody else except the composer, and that is in their non-observance of Khachaturian’s intended tempo relationships in the first two movements. Basically, the composer sets one tempo and sticks to it. There may be accelerations or ritenutos or, in the slow movement, a faster middle section, but then it returns to tempo I.
Nobody except the composer observes that, including Jemelik-Klima. It all starts with the first movement’s second, folksy theme, here at 2:03. Like about everybody, they take it markedly slower than their opening tempo, circa 90 (Järvi is one in a kind in taking it faster). I don’t mind so much: it conveys a nice, sensuous, “Arabian Nights” character. The price to pay is that it stems the relentless forward momentum, turning the passage into a strongly contrasted slow section. All considerations of the written score aside (one doesn’t need to be a radical in such matters), I find the approach quite effective, and at least Klima maintains THAT tempo relationship when the theme returns at 8:44. Same comments apply in the second movement, at the end of the faster section (5:59), when enters a derivation of that same folksy theme, played significantly faster than the movement’s opening tempo – like everybody except, this time, Limpany-Fistoulari, but including, it must be confessed, the composer.
Nobody without a score is likely to be bothered by these interpretive options. They make sense musically. But the composer’s version (other than that point in the slow movement) proves that his views work as well, if not better.
Good remastering, good stereo sound, with a better piano definition than on Orbelian and Järvi’s 1987 recording, for instance, and moderate tape hiss.
The piano Concerto of Pavel Bořkovec comes as a substantial bonus, all the more so as it is conducted by Karel Ancerl (it has also been reissued under the label Panton, 81 9018-2 011, barcode 099925901820, with other contemporary works for piano and orchestra, by Petr Eben and Klement Slavický, then in Supraphon’s Ancerl Gold Collection, paired with the Violin and Cello Concertos of Hindemith, Supraphon SU 3690-2 011 barcode 099925369026. That’s where I get the dating from, January 30-31, 1961). Apt pairing: it is stylistically very much in the same vein as Khachaturian’s, very virtuosic, with big Romantic gestures, but without the Armenian composer’s unique folksy twist. It is undistinctive and unmemorable, but makes a welcome filler. TT 54:23.