Wednesday 19 October 2022

Highly persuasive: pianist Iyad Sughayer in Aram Khachaturian's Piano Concerto and Concerto-Rhapsody

Aram Khachaturian: Piano Concerto, Masquerade Suite, Concerto-Rhapsody; Iyad Sughayer, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Andrew Litton; BIS
Aram Khachaturian: Piano Concerto, Masquerade Suite, Concerto-Rhapsody; Iyad Sughayer, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Andrew Litton; BIS
Reviewed 19 October 2022 (★★★★)

After impressing with his disc of the composer's solo piano music, Jordanian-Palestinian pianist Iyad Sughayer returns with Khachaturian's two piano concertante works, combining technical bravura with lyricism into persuasive performances

Having recorded a fine disc of Khachaturian's solo piano music for BIS [see my review], pianist Iyad Sughayer has returned to the music for the composer's two works for piano and orchestra. Iyad Sughayer is joined by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Andrew Litton for Khachaturian's Piano Concerto and Concerto Rhapsody, and the disc is rounded off with the Masquerade Suite arranged for piano solo.

Born in Tblisi, Georgia in an Armenian family, Khachaturian was much influenced by the folk music around him. He studied in Moscow with Gliere and then with Myaskovsky. Though he was denounced in the 1948 decree which also denounced Shostakovich and Prokofiev, he was soon rehabilitated probably because it was not his music which was found to be objectionable but his administrative role in the Composers' Union. Khachaturian remained a Communist throughout his life, regarding the Sovietisation of Georgia as being key to his being able to become a musical artist. He was secretary of the Composers' Union from 1957 until his death, and this administrative role rather reduced his ability to compose so that many of his major works, the three symphonies, three concertos and the ballets Gayaneh and Spartacus date from the first period of his life. From the 1950s he toured widely as a conductor, including making recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra.

His Piano Concerto dates from 1936, the first of his three concertos (the others being for violin, 1941 and for cello, 1946). It is a large-scale work that clearly owes something to the Russian tradition. Having been premiered in Moscow in 1936 by its dedicatee, Lev Oborin (winner of the first Chopin Competition in 1927) it received its UK premiere in 1940 (with Moura Lympany at the Queen's Hall) and the USA in 1942. It is the work that established Khachaturian's name in the West and whilst not being common fare, is not unknown in the catalogue.

It is a big work, lasting over 30 minutes, and is full of music that is dramatic and immediate. The opening seems to recall Prokofiev (who, in fact, gave the composer advice) and throughout the work there is a stylistic plurality to Khachaturian's writing, linked together by his melodic generosity. And it is this sense of melody that threads through the work. In the first movement, Sughayer brings out the lyricism of Khachaturian's percussive opening piano motif, but later on he successfully surmounts the fistfuls of notes required of him, shaping the piece musically. Neither Sughayer nor Litton seems embarrassed by the movement's episodic nature, and they enjoy the various episodes that Khachaturian sends the music through. But in our ending is our beginning, and the closing bars return us to the opening material.

The second movement is lyrical and dramatic, full of strong orchestral colours. The piano's first entry is with a lovely, limpid folk-inflected tune, hauntingly played by Sughayer. This folk-inflection remains throughout the movement, but a few minutes in we are catapulted into a vastly different world. The theme is played on a musical saw; it is this moment that I remember from my very first encounter with the work many years ago. in the score, the flexatone is specified but this primitive electronic instrument is usually taken for a substitute for the saw. Here, the saw player makes a strong case and the music seems to move into the Hollywood film soundtrack. But this is a small moment, the music gets more complex, more restless yet Sughayer always brings out a sense of the lyrical impulse whilst Litton and the orchestra give us a fine array of colours. For the finale, we seem to be returning to the Prokofiev-inflected work, with percussive elements to the writing and a wry wit to the music. Certainly, for all the sheafs of notes, Sughayer certain sounds as if he's having fun.

Khachaturian's incidental music for Mikhail Lermontov's play Masquerade was written for the play's premiere in 1941, and the composer later arranged the music into an orchestral suite which has become well known. Sughayer plays Alexander Dolukhanian's 1952 arrangement for piano solo. This is wonderfully appealing music, full of great and memorable tunes, but though Sughayer gives the melodies their due, he thankfully doesn't wallow, so the opening waltz has a great sense of structure and rhythm to it. Throughout the five movements, Sughayer's sense of the music's structural elements plays an important role, full of wonderful articulations and firm fingers, yet woven in with those wonderful tunes.

During his later period, Khachaturian wrote less, and his main symphonic works were three Concerto-Rhapsodies. That for piano was the third in 1967 (preceded by those for violin, 1961, and cello, 1963). Though the Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra was drafted in the 1950s, it was not completed until 1967. It is in one single movement, but this is in recognisable sections (which are usefully tracked separately). As might be expected from its title, the orchestra plays a big role, but the opening is a dazzling piano solo. The piano writing is strenuous, and the orchestra writing is edgier with less of a sense of melodic generosity than the earlier works. But there is also far less of a sense of Khachaturian looking over his shoulder at his great predecessors, this is perhaps much more him. There is drama here, and fistfuls of notes, but also magical moments with evocative scoring. Yes, for 1967 it can perhaps seem somewhat tradition, but we are more comfortable now with this pluralism and Sughayer, Litton and the orchestra give the work with a terrific sense of commitment, energy and imagination, and Sughayer is positively dazzling in the fistfuls of notes required of him in the work's closing pages.

Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) - Piano Concerto in D flat major (1936) [35:28]
Aram Khachaturian, arr. Alexander Dolukhanian - Masquerade Suite (1944) [16:00]
Aram Khachaturian - Concerto-Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1967) [23:08]
Iyad Sughayer (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Andrew Litton (conductor)
Recorded 20-22 October 2021 at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
BIS BIS-2586 1 SACD [75.35]

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