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From Yerevan with Color

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
11/15/2023 -  
Aram Khachaturian: Spartacus: “Variations of Aegina and Bacchanalia”, “Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia” & “Dance of Gaditanae & Victory of Spartacus” – Violin Concerto
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op; 27

Sergey Khachatryan (Violin)
Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra, Eduard Topchjan (Conductor)

E. Topchjan (© ANPO)

I grew up in an atmosphere rich in folk music: popular festivities, rites, joyous and sad events in the life of the people always accompanied by music, the vivid tunes of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian songs and dances performed by folk bards and musicians–such were the impressions that became deeply engraved on my memory, that determined my musical thinking. They shaped my musical consciousness and lay at the foundations of my artistic personality... Whatever the changes and improvements that took place in my musical taste in later years, their original substance, formed in early childhood in close communion with the people, has always remained the natural soil nourishing all my work.
Aram Khachaturian

Last night’s performance by the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra (ANPO) was dedicated to the 120th Anniversary and 150th Anniversary of Aram Khachaturian and Sergei Rachmaninoff respectively. Far more surprising to this listener is that the ANPO itself will be 100 years old in two years. And that in this time, they have worked with famed artists from Ashkenazy to Zukerman, have performed around the world, and recorded many disks.

One shouldn’t really be surprised. Armenia, whose kingdom once spread all the way across Anatolia, has produced composers like Hovhaness, Khachaturian, and Penderecki (the latter born in Poland but with an Armenian grandparents), great churches and one of my favorite writers, William Saroyan. Plus, the musical scales, harmonies and melodies are absolutely unique.

Some composers might try to hide this unlikely combination of Arabic/Hebraic/Ancient Greek/Caucasian. But Aram Khachaturian relished it, and his music is totally recognizable. Thus the two works last night seemed familiar–even for those who only knew his “Sabre Dance.”

Obviously the ANPO is made for this music, and under conductor Eduard Topchjan, their individual colors were manifest. What this meant above all were gorgeous strings. The tones were hard (never harsh), they soared when the music demanded, and were otherwise luscious. The wind solos were excellent (no list of the players were included, so I can’t give accreditation.) Brass and percussion, so necessary for the composer, were controlled but always effective.

Maestro Topchjan had two assets, one (what I thought) liability. The assets were his total control of the orchestra and an unerring sense of Khachaturian’s structure. Essential to the composer is orchestral crescendo. No matter how solemn is a beginning (as the Adagio from Spartacus), inevitably the orchestra ascended, fuller, flashier. And Mr. Topchjan managed these moments with nuance and utmost control.

The problem in the Violin Concerto, that Adagio and the following Rachmaninoff was that the slow moments were oh so slow. Almost laggard. Yes, he dragged the ANPO quickly out of the doldrums to the spectacular moments, but his echt‑romantic feelings were prevalent.

Those three excerpts from Spartacus were lovely (Khachaturian is always endearing). The Violin Concerto was super‑elegant.

S. Khachatryan

Like the conductor, violinist Sergey Khachatryan is without theatrics, without Joshua Bell‑like attitudes. The tones coming from his Guarneri del Gesù fiddle were resonant, never showy, always focused in all three cadenzas.

This, though, is a concerto with the highest energy levels. Mr. Khachatryan was vigorous enough, and the Andante sostenuto became ravishingly beautiful after a rather doleful introduction.

That was a crowd-pleaser–and it must have pleased Josef Stalin as well. One difference with Shostakovich. The latter was forced to please Stalin, his music contained codes and cryptic passages. They are as mysterious as triumphant. Aram Khachaturian had few problems with the Cultural Politburo. His Armenian music was extrovert, impulsive and showed his own personality.

Both the Armenian and Sergei Rachmaninoff were born at the wrong time. In the mid‑20th Century, they were unbowed Romantics. The Russian lost some popularity (though it’s soared recently thanks to bravura piano playing). Khachaturian is still considered...well, déclassé in some circles. Nice exotic melodies are not appreciated by “serious” musicians.

The Rachmaninoff Second Symphony is appealing for its soaring melodies, its lush textures and–inevitably–brassy loud finales. Eduard Topchjan caught it all with his fine orchestra. The tempos in the second and fourth movements were suitably exciting, and those final moments were blatantly gorgeous.

I did lose a bet with his encore. I wagered a few dollars it would be “Sabre Dance.” No, it was the other showpiece, the waltz from Masquerade. The audience ineluctably found it ravishing and as lush at it deserved.

Harry Rolnick



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