About this Piece
An Armenian born and raised in Tbilisi, Georgia, Khachaturian had wide-ranging early musical experiences but little formal training before moving to Moscow to study biology. In Tbilisi, he had played in an amateur band and composed some piano music, and in Moscow, he began to study cello and to write music for an Armenian theater group directed by his brother. In 1929, he entered the Moscow Conservatory, graduating in 1934. He stayed on for two years of graduate work, however, and his Piano Concerto, composed in 1936, was a breakthrough piece in terms of both public recognition and artistic development.
The ashugh tradition of Armenian bards was an important influence on Khachaturian, an influence apparent in the rhythmic and metrical games, instrumental color, and sheer virtuosity of his Piano Concerto. The piece is cast in the three fast-slow-fast movements of concerto tradition, but each movement is sectional itself, with clear motivic relationships developed across all the movements.
The dynamism and spiky “wrong note” harmony—A-natural against A-flat, for example—that characterize the Concerto are immediately apparent in the orchestral introduction, and the three notes of the piano’s entry form the foundation motive. Woodwinds introduce several important subjects, one of which is developed in a lyrical cadenza. The opening movement’s second cadenza contrasts strongly with the earlier one in decibels and speed, though not in motives.
The not-so-slow second movement—Andante con anima—opens darkly, with a characterful theme from the bass clarinet against the muted upper strings. Where the first movement was clearly based on D-flat, this one finds a quiet home in A minor, the inevitable explosive contrasts notwithstanding. There is no cadenza, but the movement’s sections suggest a sort of rondo form, with a clear sense of rounded recapitulation at the end, as the bass clarinet returns with a variant of its opening theme, over the same gently pulsing string texture.
The last movement holds all the dash and sparkle one could ask for in a concerto finale. It begins firmly on C, with aggressive energy and more “wrong” notes, vigorously at play in a field of shifting meters. This movement does have a kaleidoscopic cadenza, which tails off softly with a chromatic plunge to the bottom of the keyboard. From there, it is mainly a matter of gathering momentum again for a mad drive to D-flat and a thunderous, over-the-top coda that dramatically recalls the first movement. —John Henken