Sergey Khachatryan is a brilliant young Armenian violinist, winner a couple of years ago of the prestigious Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition. His earlier release of the Sibelius and Khachaturian concerti was rapturously received by me as well as any number of others. When I heard that he was recording the two Shostakovich concerti I knew I had to have them. He recorded them in July 2006 with Kurt Masur and the Orchestre National de France and now it is out on the adventurous French label, Naïve.
I wish I could be rapturous about this one. But I'm afraid that this time it's a case of modified rapture. It's not that the violinist stints in his playing, but I have to say that Khachatryan's is such a Apollonian approach that some of the anguish and grittiness of the First Concerto is missing. When one considers the genesis of the work it is impossible to deny that it is one of Shostakovich's most personal works. It was written in 1947-48. During its composition Shostakovich and Prokofiev, along with others, were publicly brutalized by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's cultural commissar, and when the concerto was finished it was put away and not premiered until seven years later. Originally assigned opus number 77, when it was premiered and then published in 1955 it had been very slightly modified (in one spot) and was given a new number, Op. 99, as a sop to the still-prevailing but somewhat loosened strictures of the post-Stalin government. Later, though, Shostakovich insisted that the work be reassigned its original opus number as a subtle sign that it had been written at the earlier time during which he and his colleagues were victimized. Unfortunately, the published opus number, Op. 99, has stuck. Still, Shostakovich's insistence about the opus number suggests how strongly he felt about the work and its subtextual meaning. All this explanation is in service of noting that Khachatryan's performance of the work's emotional core, the Passacaglia, is emotionally too cool. Likewise, the savagery of the Scherzo, almost certainly a musical portrait of Stalin, is too tame. Part of this impression can be accounted for by the occasionally colorless playing of the Orchestre National de France under Masur.
If one does not take these matters into consideration, however, there is something to be said musically for the way Khachatryan plays the work. It certainly benefits in the first movement and parts of the third (especially the long cadenza leading into the fourth movement) from Khachatryan's emotionally restrained manner. And from a technical standpoint, and allowing for Khachatryan's choices about approach, the performance is a knockout. He has absolutely no technical limitations and his elegant tone has just enough edge to cut through the heaviest orchestration (although this is helped here by somewhat close miking).
The Second Concerto is definitely well-played by all parties. Its very nature is less anguished than that of the First, and Khachatryan and Masur seem to be of one mind about how it should go. The Second is, however, a weaker sibling than the monumental First. It has its own felicities but it tends not to evince much reaction on the part of its occasional listeners. I have never heard it in concert or indeed ever seen it programmed. I think that says volumes about its relationship to the powerful First.
I continue to think that Sergey Khachatryan is an immensely talented violinist and a growing musician. Even if one disagrees with his approach to the First, one can admire him for having had his own ideas about how it should be played. I remain interested in anything this young man records and will certainly go to hear him live any chance I get.