Khachaturian: Piano Concerto, Gayaneh Ballet-Suite, Maskerade-Suite. Constantine Orbelian, Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi. Chandos 8542 (1987), barcode 5014682854221, 095115854228
How good to Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto is a good “traditional” interpretation?
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 21 October 2008
Orbelian and Järvi offer a good, traditional interpretation of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto. Now, how good is a good traditional interpretation, how good is it to Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, that is the question.
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, Naxos Historical 8.110673 barcode 636943167328, both paired with Prokofiev’s Third under Dorati) – I haven’t yet heard Moura Lympany’s earlier one from May 1945, originally on Decca, reissued in 1998 on Dutton CDEA 5506, barcode 763587550626), there has been, IMO, a problem in the way performers have “interpreted” Khachaturian’s character indication at the top of the first movement: “Allegro maestoso”. Following Kapell-Koussevitzky, most versions I have heard, from Oscar Levant-Dimitri Mitropoulos 1950 (in United Artists’ Mitropoulos set UAR 002.4 barcode 3760138170026, to Lorin Holländer-André Previn 1964 (Japanese BMG-RCA BVCC-38477 barcode 4988017651674, paired with Nielsen’s First Symphony), have adopted a majestic and powerful approach indeed, but one that is also stately, when not trudging, and ultimately (to my ears) terribly bombastic.
It is a question of tempo – and Kapell-Koussevitzky’s opening tempo of circa 100-104 quarter-notes per minute (the composer’s metronome mark is 108-120) doesn’t help – but not only: even those who do take it at the higher end of Khachaturian’s metronome, like Levant, Lympany (in her classic LP remake from 1952, again with Fistoulari, reissued in Decca’s Originals Masters 2-CD set 475 6368 barcode 028947563686) or Yakov Flier (with Kondrachin, 1963, Melodiya MEL CD 10 01006 barcode 4600317110063, with the Third Symphony), don’t entirely dispel the impression, whatever their efforts at snappy articulation and muscular pounding. It is only when I heard the live 1946 recording in Prague by the work’s dedicatee and premiere performer Lev Oborin, Mravinsky conducting, regrettably in awful sound (on Praga PR 250 017, barcode 3149025058560, reissued PR 50017 bc 794881739820), and the obscure Czech team of Antonin Jemelik and Alois Klima from 1960 (Urania US 5164-CD barcode 036922051646, with a Piano Concerto by Pavel Borkovec), that I realized the benefits of playing significantly FASTER than the composer’s metronome and, in the process, of dropping the “maestoso” in favor of a “feroce”: suddenly the bombast is gone, turned into hair-raising drive and intensity. Orbelian and Järvi take it at 108, the lower end of Khachaturian’s metronome. Lush sonics helping, it is grand. But it generates little excitement.
The beginning is not an end, and the first movement offers other cues where to produce drive and adrenalin. When comes the allegro section later in the movement, Kapell is dazzling. Here, Orbelian (at 5:22) lacks a touch of furious forward drive and sounds a bit lazy in comparison. His second cadenza on the other hand (10:53) has fury galore.
Same thing with the finale. I can’t fault Orbelian-Järvi here for snailing behind the composer’s indicated tempo: they take it at circa 132, slightly faster than Khachaturian’s metronome of quarter-note 120-126. But Kapell and Jemelik take it even faster, and it gives an extra drive compared to which Orbelian sounds somewhat timid. But in the reprise after the cadenza at 6:02 he has great drive, and the return of the opening theme, at 7:23, sounds grandiose indeed. Too bad it wasn’t all played like those last 3 minutes.
As for the second movement, everybody I’ve heard (including Jemelik-Klima), except one (more anon), takes it significantly slower than the composer’s prescribed “andante con anima” and metronome of quarter-note 69-72 – turning it into a dreamy adagio. I don’t mind: it works well that way. In fact, Järvi takes it rather faster than most: 60-63. Kapell was at circa 56, Jemelik-Klima 54. The kitschy flexatone comes out vividly – and it should.
But the opening tempo(s) is not the only problem involved in the customary approach. There is also the matter of tempo relationships, especially in the first two movements. Basically, Khachaturian sets one tempo and sticks to it. There may be accelerations or rallentandos or (in the second movement) a faster middle section, but then it returns to “tempo I”.
Nobody (with the same one exception) does that. Everybody disrupts the intended tempo relationships. It starts in the first movement with the second, folksy theme (here at 2:32), which most (including Jemelik-Klima) take markedly slower than their opening tempo – whatever that was. Again, I don’t mind so much: it does give a welcome, sensuous, “Arabian Nights” character to the tune. Actually Järvi is one in a category in taking it not slower, but faster than his opening pace – it loses something in character. Same thing in the slow movement: when returns tempo I at 5:17 with a derivation of the first movement’s folksy theme. Järvi Orbelian are now MUCH faster: circa 108 to their opening 60-63 – in fact, closer (but still not as fast) as its tempo in the first movement.
Granted, without a score, no-one is likely to be disturbed by these options. They make sense musically. Still, one is left with a nagging interrogation: how would it sound played like the composer actually wrote it – and, presumably, intended it?
One version does – this is the exception mentioned above. The composer’s own recording with Oborin, from the 1950s, hasn’t been reissued on CD as far as I know (shame!), but it is on YouTube. Tempo-wise, Khachaturian the interpreter does exactly what the composer prescribes, bang on the mark, and while it may not always generate the same kind of excitement as Jemelik-Klima or Oborin-Mravinsky (or Kapell-Koussevitzky in the faster sections), I also find it illuminating and entirely convincing.
I’m no radical of abiding by the score – indeed, I prefer faster tempos in the outer movements – as long as the liberties taken by the interpreter “work”. Whether they do or not is, of course, matter of taste, but also of taste informed by knowledge. I know that Khachaturian’s Concerto needn’t be as bombastic as most make it. I also know that disregarding his tempo relationships, as valid as it may sound on its own terms, isn’t as convincing as observing them. As for Orbelian-Järvi, I find that, within their interpretive parameters, they don’t generate as much excitement as Kapell. Their vivid sonics, though, are a definite plus, bringing out all the colors of Khachaturian’s lush orchestration.
Although my comments will be more tentative, as I don’t have many other versions to compare his to, I’m more convinced by Järvi’s excerpts from Masquerade. The lush recording brings out the orchestral colors, and Järvi plays with fine character: the Waltz has great sweep, and the Nocturne flows naturally. The same is true with Gayaneh’s Lullaby, but Järvi’s Lezghinka (still from Gayaneh) has more epic sweep and decibel power than frenzy, as the one elicited by the composer in his recording made for EMI in 1954 (reissued in their Composers in Person series, CDC 5 55035 2, barcode 724355503527, with the Violin Concerto with Oistrakh), and likewise with his Sabre Dance, which doesn’t come near the wild fury of the composer, sounding civilized and almost tame instead. On the other hand, these same two number under Järvi are very similar to the composer’s stereo remake with the Vienna Phil in 1962 (reissued on Decca Entreprise 425 619-2, barcode 028942561922, with the Second Symphony), even slightly more rambunctious in Lezghinka. Also note that, unlike what is announced on the disc’s cover, Järvi doesn’t play the complete Gayaneh-Suite but only four excerpts. I regret the absence of the Adagio, of “2001 A Space Odyssey” fame (Kubrick used the DG recording by Rozhdestvensky, which you can find on a French DG CD, “Collection du Millénaire”, “Les Chefs-d’oeuvre de la musique Russe”, 459 213-2 barcode 028945921327).