Notes from the underground

This week, I went into the weight room and lifted for the first time. Besides humbling me, this experience got the testosterone flowing in my veins, so when I returned home, I immediately put on a recording of the Khachaturian Piano Concerto (CD K42 2). This work, written in 1936, is a throwback to the big, Romantic concerti of the Nineteenth Century, and is also one of the most violent pieces of music I know.

Right from the opening, there is a sense of restlessness and overt aggression. The timpani play a large role in the first, creating a barbaric feel. The piano part, which is one of the more challenging to play in the repertoire, provides big, crashing chords, even during the early melodic sections. The movement does eventually slow down, but after a beautiful English horn solo, the orchestra seems to mock itself for failing to maintain its aggressive demeanor. The piano plays a long, lush solo, in which pentatonics and lovely colorings create a “foreign” feel. Khachaturian was an Armenian, and uses rhythms and melodies from his homeland to “spice up” his version of Romanticism. Following an enormous cadenza, the coda powerfully recalls the earlier, main theme of the work.

The second movement, while not quite peaceful, is certainly in contrast to the first. Of special interest is his use of the musical saw, a rarely heard instrument which sounds like it belongs in a 1950’s horror movie. It provides a distinct and beautiful color, an important addition because this movement is quite repetitive. Get used to the beautiful melody heard at the onset, because it is the basis for everything else that occurs in the movement. Khachaturian has a wonderful sense of drama, and that theme is turned into–what else?–a violent climax towards the end of the movement. It ends with increased tension to the quiet of the beginning, and seems to be waiting for the last movement to resolve it.

Khachaturian loved dances (as you will see later on in this disc), and the last movement has a dance-like character. At some points, it feels as though the entire orchestra is a chorus of drunken Armenians singing along with the piano, which carries the tune of an old folk song. This is not intellectual music, but it is wonderful. The piano has another large cadenza in the middle of the movement, during which the dance subsides. Finally, the timpani join with the piano, and the dance resumes. I was a little disappointed with Neeme Jarvi’s conducting at certain points. Sometimes he slows down the rhythmic drive of the piece for no good reason. However, he can’t stop the ending coda, which is an enormous recollection of the first movement’s main theme. Constantine Orbellian, the pianist, carries the work through with dramatic flair, and it ends with appropriate violence.

Remember how Khachaturian loved dances? Well, the rest of this disc is full of them: a suite from the incidental music for the play “Masquerade,” and four movements from the ballet “Gayaneh,” including the ever-famous Sabre Dance. These make the piano concerto seem intellectual by comparison, as they are nothing but fluff and bombast — well put-together fluff and bombast, but not particularly memorable. Next week, the music will once again involve your brain, but for now, let your ears have fun.