Khachaturian: Cello Concerto (CD review)

Also, Concerto-Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra. Dmitry Yablonsky, cello; Maxim Fedotov, Moscow City Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.570463.

Much of the music of Armenian composer-conductor Ayam Khachaturian (1903-1978) seems to me noisy and bombastic, and some of it even at its best, as in the ballets Gayaneh and Spartacus, can be a little tiring. But his Cello Concerto of 1946 was so out of line with the traditional guidelines of the Communist Party that they ousted him from the Composers' Union over it (among other things). I must admit I have never been too fond of the piece myself, although the present recording goes a fair way toward helping to change that opinion.

The first movement of the Cello Concerto is all over the map: It starts out dark and threatening, it lightens up, it gets bouncy, it takes on a Gypsy flair, it turns sinister, then martial, you name it. Khachaturian studied cello for several years while in his early twenties, so he knew the instrument and how best to employ it. Nevertheless, here the cello seems barely able to keep up with the rest of the music. The booklet note tells us that the Cello Concerto never caught on with the public any more than it impressed the Soviet overseers in things musical, the note suggesting that the reason was because Khachaturian used the Concerto to continue "the emotional unease of the wartime Second Symphony" of a few years earlier. Fair enough, especially when one remembers that the public wanted to forget the War as soon as possible.

The slow second movement Andante is quite atmospheric and expressive and sounds as though it might serve as the musical score of a mystery thriller, a film noir perhaps. You just about see John Garfield or Robert Mitchum lurking in the shadows. The mellow sound of Dmitry Yablonsky's cello perfectly complements the mood of the section.

The concluding movement begins in a zippy fashion, with Yablonsky taking great relish in the music's eloquence and bustle. As the tempo continues to build, the players maintain the momentum of the mounting tension. The piece ends on a high, if not quite fever, pitch.

If the Cello Concerto can sound somewhat harsh and off-putting to some listeners, the composer's Concerto-Rhapsody from 1963 is more approachable.  It is more flowing, more harmonic, more poetic, and more impassioned than the Concerto. It's single, twenty-odd-minute movement contains some lovely passages for the cello and nicely showcases Mr. Yablonsky's virtuosity. The cellist provides all the grace, enthusiasm, and verve the music demands, producing a more-accessible work than the Cello Concerto. Yablonsky, Fedotov, and the Moscow City Symphony Orchestra work impressively together and create a strong degree of spark and sparkle in their music making.

Recorded in 2007, the sound is typical of Naxos's better efforts. It's clear and well balanced, with the cellist placed front and center and the orchestra properly spread out behind him. While there is not the greatest amount of orchestral depth nor the most-extensive transparency involved, it's a reasonably realistic presentation, lacking maybe the last ounce of dynamic range, frequency response, and impact.  The cello itself, however, appears quite natural, and the solo parts stand out exceptionally well.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa