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Khachaturian: Piano Concerto

Khachaturian: Piano Concerto


858 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2014 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Piano Concerto in D-flat major, op. 38
Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978)
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

Composed 1936. First performance: July 12, 1937, Moscow. Lev Oborin, piano. Moscow Philharmonic conducted by Leonid Steinberg.

I. Allegro ma non troppo e maestoso
II. Andante con anima
III. Allegro brilliante

Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich spent their lives balancing their desire for artistic expression against the pressure to stay in the good graces (or at least avoid incurring the wrath) of the Soviet authorities. Though viewed today as titans of Soviet music, their lives were turbulent as they fell in and out of favor with the government. Unable to risk explicit social criticism, their frustration often emerged in the (not-so) subtle irony of works such as Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and The Little Anti-Formalist Paradise or Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7. The underlying criticism was occasionally detected even by sarcasm-impaired Soviet bureaucrats, and such pieces frequently did as much to undermine the composers’ position as they did to bring them back into favor.

Aram Khachaturian had no such problem. An ardent supporter of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union throughout his life, his first move upon the declaration of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was to join a nationwide propaganda tour promoting Communism. Seeing the power and influence of the ideological songs used on this journey, the 19-year-old revolutionary was moved to pursue a career as a musician, and he later described his own music as “expressing the Soviet people’s joy and pride in their great and mighty country.” Aside from a brief period of condemnation (along with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and others) for “formalism” and “anti-populism” in 1948, he managed consistently to occupy a position of the highest esteem within the Soviet Union. His loyalty to the Party and skill as a composer led him to become Secretary of the Board of the Composers’ Union and a Deputy in the Supreme Soviet.

Khachaturian’s music is characterized most notably by the influence of folk music. Born to an ethnic Armenian family in Georgia, he grew up steeped in the region’s culture. During his composition studies with Miaskovsky, the great pedagogue encouraged him to infuse his pieces with this experience. This was all the encouragement Khachaturian needed, and it embarked him on a lifelong fascination with the rhythms and sonorities of his people. This love was mutual, and he remains Armenia’s most beloved composer.

Khachaturian also strove earnestly to fulfill the officially-endorsed role of a composer in Soviet society: acting as an “engineer of the human soul” (Stalin’s phrase) by writing music that communicates directly with the common man and instills in listeners loyalty to the ideals of Communism, love for the Soviet Union, and pride in the working class. Khachaturian so successfully achieved this in his music that musicologist Boris Schwarz believed “he represented socialist realism at its best,” and he found himself in a unique position of national esteem. In fact, from 1944 until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Khachaturian’s “The Free World of Soviet Armenia” served as the national anthem of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Between 1936 and 1946, Khachaturian wrote a set of three concerti for the piano trio of Lev Oborin (piano), David Oistrakh (violin), and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky (cello). The Piano Concerto in D-flat major, op. 38—the first of these pieces—was conceived from the ground up as a crowd-pleasing showpiece, connecting directly with the audience and eschewing “formalist” experimentation. This concerto is a classic virtuoso competition between soloist and orchestra, standing in the footsteps of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, and each element shows skilled craftsmanship as it plays its role in achieving this goal.

The first movement is structured in standard sonata form. An insistent main theme establishes an atmosphere of exotic Armenian-inspired sonorities before giving way to a more lyrical second theme, which gives the impression of an improvised folk tune. Throughout, Khachaturian makes heavy use of ostinati—small groups of notes that are continuously repeated for an extended period of time. Elements such as these and the droning stationary bass line are some of the composer’s signature gestures, consciously derived from his Armenian heritage.

The second movement, marked con anima (“with soul”), exudes a deep sense of heartfelt lyricism. This movement is a series of variations on a modified Armenian folk melody—first heard in the bass clarinet at the beginning of the movement—that Khachaturian encountered while on a visit to Tbilisi. A unique bit of orchestration surfaces when he colors the violin melody with a flexatone, an eerie-sounding percussion instrument consisting of a vibrating metal sheet.

The final movement is a sparkling tour de force in the tradition of the great romantic piano concerti. Driving, energetic ostinati propel the music forward, tossing tunes and melodic fragments out one after the other with wild abandon. After an extended solo virtuosic demonstration by the piano, the orchestra brings back the opening theme of the first movement, leading us into a grand finale filled with pianistic fireworks and majestic melody that would make Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff proud.

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