Classical CD Reviews

“Two Souls” = KHACHATURIAN: Violin Concerto in D Minor; BARBER: Violin Concerto in A Minor; Adagio for Strings – Mikhail Simonyan, v./ London Sym. Orch./ Kristjan Jarvi – DGG

Youthful violin virtuoso Mikhail Simonyan displays his affection for two distinct characters in his musical make-up, Armenian and American, and Kristjan Jarvi adds his own passions.

Published on April 4, 2013

“Two Souls” = KHACHATURIAN: Violin Concerto in D Minor; BARBER: Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 14; Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 – Mikhail Simonyan, v./ London Sym. Orch./ Kristjan Jarvi – DGG B0016170-02, 70:33 [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Two souls reside, alas, within my breast,
And each one from the other would be parted.
The one holds fast, in sturdy lust for love,
With clutching organs clinging to the world;
The other strongly rises from the gloom
To lofty fields of ancient heritage.

Goethe, Faust I, Scene 2, lines 1112-1117.

Armenian violin virtuoso Mikhail Simonyan has recorded (30 May – 1 June 2011) the Khachaturian and Barber concertos to express his dual nature that he shares with conductor Kristjan Jarvi, the latter raised as a protégé of “Uncle Aram,” the composer Khachaturian, who had befriended father Neeme Jarvi. But since Simonyan studied with Victor Danchenko – a famed David Oistrakh pupil – at the Curtis Institute, his own Russian heritage has the direct benefit of the Oistrakh tradition as well as the American temperament. Simonyan toured the United States early, age thirteen, as soloist with the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra, so his “divided” personality runs deep with currents of both worlds.

In order to “authenticate” his version of the 1940 Khachaturian Concerto, Simonyan commissioned Artur Avanesov to write a new cadenza, one “with a strong feeling of Armenian church music. . . .our deep, ancient and unique church-music tradition. This element brings a whole new color to the concerto.” Simonyan plays with the lightning facility we know from both Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan in this compound of virtuosic and eminently lyrical elements. Simonyan likes to lean into the phrases for emotional emphasis, and the LSO supports his singularly emotional outbursts with a panoply of colors. Conductor Jarvi does not stint on the sudden, convulsive thrusts forward, the often ravishing flights of fancy accompanied by strings, harp, gurgling winds, and percussion that might remind us of rattling sabers. The cadenza itself proves a mixed blessing, having shed Oistrakh’s bravura contribution for a series of modal colors in the form of broken chant-like figures whose reliance on harmonics sounds less idiomatic than we might prefer. Sounds like an unaccompanied sonata by Schnittke or derivative Ysaye? With the return of the orchestra, the familiar fireworks flame up once more, and we feel grateful for home ground, though it be “merely” virtuosic.

The songful Andante sostenuto rocks dreamy, like a variation on Satie’s first Gymnopedie, here become a plaintive lullaby in Armenian colors. Certainly touches of Khachaturian’s affinity for the ballet insinuate themselves into the melodic contour, which several times hints at the Adagio from Spartacus.  Suave and polychromatic, the last movement Allegro vivace hustles through its motions with fleet assurance, a real joie de vivre. Simonyan loves to use a slight rallentando at the end of phrases coupled with a subito diminuendo to underline his poignant affection for this ceaselessly energetic tribute to the Armenian spirit and its first purveyor, David Oistrakh.

The Barber A Minor Concerto, curiously, moves us a continent westward spatially, but the music (1939) speaks contemporaneously with Khachaturian, though a world of syntax away. Applying his zestful, singing tone to the Barber, Simonyan projects the same ardor of expression as in the Khachaturian piece, again leaning into phrases with the effect of increasing our sense of poignant melancholy.  The LSO under Jarvi responds with lovely, transparent colors, quite resonant and idiomatic. Lovers of the Barber Andante movement will easily savor Simonyan and Jarvi’s sympathetic approach, rife with the yearning sense of the American heartland that informs portions of Knoxville, Summer of 1915. Jarvi and Simonyan deliberately choose to slow down the otherwise frenetic pace of the final movement, Presto in moto perpetuo, the very bravura of which had at first pronounced the concerto unplayable. With the tympani and sudden strings in the background, the music perhaps gains a country hoe-down character that undaunted speed would not have revealed. The woodwinds and horns add their portion of mustard seed to the mix, and the accumulated energy galvanizes to a colossal peroration. The last pages play like a martial confrontation which ends with a decisive thud.

Yet another Adagio for Strings joins a long list of slow drawn-out readings, loving and deeply valedictory. Does anyone recall that Barber lifted this tune from Torelli?  But with recent politics of our old nemesis in North Korea, the tragic sentiment expressed for the film Platoon is perhaps not unwarranted.

—Gary Lemco

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