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Composed: 1940 Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambourine), harp, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 18, 1964, Sixten Ehrling conducting, with soloist Edith Peinemann
When the latest compositions began to make their way out of the Soviet Union toward the end of World War II, Khachaturian quickly became an international favorite: a composer who could entertain with lush, oriental-sounding melodies that had the world singing, dancing, and clapping. The cultural commissars, too, clapped their hands, for this was not only music that satisfied the basic requirements of Soviet music – it was tuneful, upbeat, accessible, and when a message was needed (e.g., life and love on a collective farm, as in his Gayne ballet, the source of the egregious “Sabre Dance”) he was your man, too. And, the cherry on top: he represented an ethnic minority, the Armenians (he was in fact born to Armenian parents in Georgia), giving credence to the Soviet Union’s loudly broadcast claims of inclusiveness.
The composer began work on the Violin Concerto, dedicated to David Oistrakh, in the summer of 1940, completing it in only two months. When the draft was ready, “the violinist invited me to his country home,” Khachaturian informs. “I played it for him [on the piano], trying for some degree of synthesis – the harmony with my left hand and the violin part with my right, singing some of the cantilena parts and the violin melody with the entire accompaniment....”
Subsequently, “Oistrakh came to play the Concerto for me,” the composer further reports. “My little cottage was full of people. It was summer and the door to the porch was open. Many musicians were there... Oistrakh played as if he had been practicing it for months, when in fact it was only a few days... and the same spontaneity marked his playing of it on the concert stage...” which happened for the first time on November 16, 1940, in Moscow, with Alexander Gauk conducting the USSR State Symphony, part of a ten-day festival of Soviet music at which Shostakovich also introduced his Piano Quintet.
Oistrakh’s first recorded performance became a worldwide favorite immediately after the war, a calling card for the great violinist, who frequently performed it under the composer’s baton, and recorded it on several further occasions. The Concerto’s high-flying virtuosity, its yearning melodic intensity, its exoticism appealed as much to audiences as Oistrakh’s playing of it, which thrilled even those (professional critics, mainly) who found the score “lacking in depth” and perhaps a little too much fun. With the passing of Oistrakh it began to fade from view until very recently, when it has proven catnip to such young violinists as Gil Shaham, Julia Fischer, and Sergei Khachatryan.
I recently spoke by telephone to Gil Shaham about what drew him, belatedly, to the Khachaturian Concerto. “Very simply, it’s wonderful. Here’s a composer with an incredible gift for melody who lived not far from our time, and all that luscious melody has made some suspicious of it. And the Armenian musical language just lies so well for the violin. I, too, grew up on the Oistrakh recording and I’d always wanted to play the Concerto, and friends of mine had already learned it at early ages. But for some reason, maybe that few conductors were interested in it or really knew it, put me off until quite recently. Now I’m in love with every measure of it, the slow movement in particular, its chromatic inflections, the Armenian modes. And so original! Those augmented seconds [he sings]... and I think... enharmonic is a word I’m looking for, like F-natural becoming an E-sharp [he illustrates with violin pizzicatos]... so touching. The most challenging part is to get into its national character, like learning a role in a play. And it requires tremendous stamina. For instance after the cadenza [Shaham plays the composer’s own at these concerts] you get three bars, then you’re racing on again, with music just as demanding for the performer... and so it goes to the end.”