KHACHATURIAN: Violin Concerto. Concerto Rhapsody for Violin & Orchestra / Antje Weithaas, vln; Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie; Daniel Raiskin, cond / CPO 555093-2
German violinist Antje Weithaas, who studied with Werner Scholz at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and won the 1987 Kreisler Competition, here gives us a good, clean, energetic performance of one of Aram Khachaturian’s better late works, his Violin Concerto. Those listeners more familiar with the composer via his colorful but somewhat shallow Gayne ballet or his Colas Breugnon Overture might be in for a surprise, for this is a well-thought-out and developed piece that I found both interesting and charming.
True, the bracing rhythms that characterized those earlier works is still present here, as is his somewhat narrow exploration of harmonic dissonance, but in this work Khachaturian developed his themes more fully without sacrificing his earlier penchant for rhythm and bright orchestral sonorities. He used more contrasting tempi and dynamics in this work, leaning even more heavily in the direction of Eastern harmonies than previously. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that this is a work that should be programmed far more often than it is.
Weithaas’ playing is not as much in the Kreisler tradition as one might assume. She is also not really a proponent of the thicker German school of violin playing, as for instance is Anne-Sophie Mutter. Her tone is very bright, with a quick, narrow vibrato, more in the tradition of Russian and Italian players. She also uses a light portamento at certain points which I found charming, but for the most part her bracing, straightforward style has little trace of the softer school of women violinists exemplified by Rachel Barton Pine. She plays with guts and conviction, all of which I greatly appreciated in this music.
Returning to the music, I was especially impressed by the first-movement cadenza, which actually develops the music rather than halting the proceedings while the soloist shows off, despite the use of double-stops and accompanying oneself on the lower strings while continuing to play on the upper. Moreover, this cadenza takes up a great deal of the first movement, starting near the middle, rather than just being perhaps 24 bars or so near the end. Happily, her conductor, Daniel Raiskin, works hand-in-glove with her in producing a truly exciting performance.
Indeed, even the second movement fails to meet one’s expectations of mushy-romantic Russian music. The opening orchestral portion is filled with edgy effects, and even when the slow them in 3/4 time is introduced, the music has a somewhat Northern European chill about it. Although the violin’s melody is plaintive enough, there are rising moments of intensity throughout and a really intense orchestral uprising around the 6:12 mark. The brisk, energetic third movement comes the closest to early Khachaturian, yet even here the rhythms are more varied and the musical development more thorough and more interesting. There’s a particularly nice passage where the orchestra plays a rapid 6/8 figure behind the violin soloist, who is playing a fairly lyrical theme in a slow 4, and an even more rhythmically complex passage later on in which two conflicting rhythms—both fast—butt heads with one another. But it’s all wonderful music and delightful to hear.
As for the Concerto Rhapsody, it is of course (by definition) a more lyrical piece, atmospheric in the late-Romantic vein but with definite (much too definite for most classical music radio stations) touches of modern harmony, particularly in the folk-sounding theme that the soloist plays, which has more in common with Bartók than with Tchaikovsky. And once again, Khachaturian works out his themes and development exceedingly well, holding the listener’s interest as the music progresses through its 23-minute length.
At the 12:32 mark, the music suddenly becomes quicker, the violinist playing somewhat roughly on the edge of the strings; the soloist’s part then becomes quite virtuosic while the winds and lower strings play an alternate melody in the background, interrupted by an explosion of brass and percussion. The whole then becomes a swirling ball of motion, propelling the orchestra into the next theme with the violinist playing its own music in the foreground. Eventually things calm down a bit as the violin ruminates in the foreground before ramping up the excitement again here and there as the piece rushes towards its conclusion.
This is an excellent recording of very fine performances. I recommend it highly.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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