Armenian cello BIS2648

Armenian Cello Concertos
Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978)
Concerto in E minor for Cello and Orchestra (1946)
Arno Babajanian (1921-1983)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1962)
Michel Petrossian (b.1973)
8.4, concerto for Cello and Orchestra (2021)
Alexander Chaushian (cello)
Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra/Eduard Topchjan
rec. 2022 Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall, Yerevan, Armenia
BIS BIS-2648 SACD [68]

This is the second BIS album from these same artists following up on their Armenian Rhapsody which had the Khachaturian Concerto-Rhapsody as its centrepiece – I have not heard that disc. However I do know the same conductor and orchestra’s fine version of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto on Marquis accompanying Catherine Manoukian, so they clearly have an ongoing engagement with this repertoire. Both on the violin concerto disc and here the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra under Eduard Topchjan play very well indeed. All of the production, engineering, mixing and editing is credited to Marcel Babazadeh. The resulting sound in BIS’ favoured DSD/SACD stereo/surround sound is good if not as absolutely demonstration level as many of their productions are. Whether this is a reflection of the actual recording venue or the playing I am not sure – I imagine the former. Certainly the sound has clarity and appealing definition and a well-defined sonic stage but not as much tonal weight as some BIS discs.

The playing of soloist Alexander Chaushian is very good throughout with an attractively focussed sound and secure technique. Again the fact that there is not as much weight to his tone might be a fair reflection of his playing style or the acoustic characteristics of the hall where these recordings were made. Chausian contributes fairly brief liner notes for the Khachaturian and Babajanian concerti. He quotes Khachaturian as stating that this cello concerto was his favourite of his three concerti. They were written in the decade from 1936 – 46 with one concerto each – in order – for piano, violin and cello. About 20 years later the composer then wrote three Concerto-Rhapsodies for the same instruments. I wonder about the ‘favourite’ quote. For sure this is an attractive folk-influenced work in the way that much of the composer’s music from this time is. But it is certainly the least extrovert – there is little or none of the muscular crudity (some may consider this a good thing!) and explicit energy that informs so many of Khachaturian’s scores. The premiere was given on October 30th 1946. Is it too much of a leap to wonder whether the cold-wind of the Zhdanovism was already beginning to blow through Soviet culture with a disempowering impact on those artists – including Khachaturian – caught in its baleful glare. The relative circumspection in the concerto is perhaps a consequence – conscious or otherwise. Not that that has prevented the work from being recorded many times over the intervening years. Chaushian’s tempi are very close to those adopted by Victor Simon with Vladimir Fedoseyev and the USSR TV & Radio Large Symphony Orchestra. This is an attractively primary-colours account in the tradition of Soviet performances with just an extra drop of intensity from all involved. Raphael Wallfisch with Bryden Thomson and the LPO on Chandos is a characteristically alert and polished version with typically warm Chandos sound which still sounds well some 36 years after it was recorded. What Wallfisch lacks is that extra intensity in the high-lying melodies that ooze a Russian/Armenian sensibility. Another – even older – version I have always enjoyed and one that sits closer to the emotional world of Chaushian is Christine Walevska recorded in Monte Carlo on Phillips with Eliahu Inbal as long ago as 1972. She plays with a similarly febrile intensity as Chaushian even if without the same idiomatic feeling for the folk-like melodies. Certainly this new performance is a fine one although the work as a whole does seem to lack the character that defines the two earlier concerti.

I had not heard of the composer Arno Babjanian before hearing his concerto on this disc. This is a three movement work that plays continuously for a few seconds under 20:00 in this performance. The concerto was written and premiered in 1962 and dedicated to Rostropovich. Chaushian writes in his note that; “the concerto is an enormous joy to play; although technically demanding, it is very well written for the instrument, and beautifully structured and paced.” As for so many composers in Soviet Russia at this time, the shade of Shostakovich (and indeed Khachaturian) and the requirements of the State to write ‘accessible’ music does result in a work where there is a certain generic resemblance to other works. That said it is attractive and it is certainly well played here. Babjanian uses a fairly large orchestra with skill. Chaushian also points towards the work being constructed from three modal scale patterns as well as the influence of Armenian folk music. The latter is most obviously apparent in the closing Allegro energico con fuoco which is one of those appealing 5/8 (the metre changes frequently but that is the dominant time signature). The work opens with a brooding cello cadenza which sets the stall out for the first half of the concerto. It is when there are passages where the impassioned high lying soloist is accompanied by implacable ‘chugging’ bass lines that the resemblance to Shostakovich is closest. But I do not want to make too much of those passing similarities – they occur in music of all countries and ages where there is a dominant musical personality. In its own right this is just as Chaushian says; an attractive well structured, well paced and rewarding work if not the most original work for cello and orchestra you have heard.

The disc is completed by Michel Petrossian’s 8.4 concerto for cello and orchestra. The concerto is dedicated to the performers on this disc although on his own website here there appears to make no reference to this work at all – a fact I find surprising given that his music does not appear to have received that many other international recordings of this stature to date. Petrossian is a French composer of Armenian heritage and the title of the work is taken from the book of Genesis in the Bible – Chapter 8 Verse 4. This is where Mount Ararat is first mentioned which Petrossian describes as “one of the main components of the Armenian collective imagination”. In the liner he further explains that 8.4 is an expression of both the lower and higher peaks of the mountain and as an expression of oppositions; long/short, fast/slow and as a representation of the proportions of the work’s two movements; 8:39 for the first movement Massis and 4:01 for the concluding Sis. For all the value that such considerations have for the composer during the creative phase of a work I am always slightly wary of music that requires an “instruction booklet” with it to best understand or explain it. Fortunately this work “works” with no knowledge of its origins at all. The two sections use strongly contrasting instrumentations but perhaps most impressively Petrossian evokes a strong sense of place and the emotional/spiritual significance of it. Melodic shapes evoke folk-inspired melismata and apparently also reference Armenian and Byzantine liturgical chants. The scoring is clearly more overtly modern than for the two preceding works but this is not a modernist score in the sense that the emotional and spiritual engagement is explicit and indeed powerful. I like the way Petrossian plays with the rhythms evoking the freedom of vocal melismas – with grace notes and arabesques ornamenting the lyrical line – removing any sense of metrical predictability. It strikes me that Chaushian’s lean and focussed tone and playing style is also particularly well-suited to this freer-form music. The end of the work is slightly unusual in that it does not so much fade away as peter out. After several listening I must admit I have not quite come to grips with this. However in the liner it is mentioned that the second movement should be considered a view of the mountain from below gazing up towards the summit. Perhaps if that summit is shrouded in mist that might provide an extra-musical explanation for this ending? Marcel Babazadeh’s engineering and production works well in this piece too where clarity of instrumental texture and a precise sense of the sound-stage is of greater importance than sheer weight of orchestral tone.

Overall another fine BIS disc showcasing the considerable talents of these Armenian performers and composers. For those interested in such music composed during and after the Soviet regime this is a rewarding and enjoyable listen.

Nick Barnard

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