Thursday, 13 June 2013

Mikhail Simonyan, and Catherine Manoukian

My generous friend Lee sent me a CD of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto as a birthday present. Very kind of him, and one must not look a birthday horse in the mouth, so I listened with interest. Violinist is Mikhail Simonyan (an Armenian) and this is his first commercial CD. Orchestra is the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi and, from the sound of it, the orchestra does not have many Armenian members; very polite and accurate, very British, and a long way from the frenetic Romanian Radio Orchestra directed by a wild Niyazi (for Julian Sitkovetsky). I found the orchestra under Järvi a little too interventionist for my liking (in this particular concerto).

The Khachaturian is a young person's concerto and pays dividends to a player who throws himself or herself into the music, with gusto. Simonyan is just the man; right from the start, his staccato playing stands out as incredible – Heifetz's jaw would have dropped. Like too many young players, he spoils the first movement a little by stamping on the brakes hard whenever a nice lyrical tune appears. He commissioned a new cadenza for the first movement (what was wrong with the old one?) and it goes on and on and on, becoming almost a new movement in itself. Black mark; cadenzas should be spectacular – and brief. The slow movement (andante) is a bit slow, but superbly played by the violinist, with a real ability to hold a long, melodic line. The finale brings back the stunning staccato playing and confirms Simonyan as a truly spectacular violinist. A pity about that cadenza, which should have been on a separate track so it could be skipped on future hearings. Bizarre or inappropriate cadenzas appear to be all the rage nowadays, as violinists and pianists try desperately to differentiate themselves from the last player with a Unique Selling Point (usp).

In for a penny; in for a pound, so I immediately dived into an alternative version with an Armenian by origin, Canadian by birth – Catherine Manoukian – with the Armenian Philharmonic conducted by Eduard Topchjan. The Armenian Philharmonic sounds less British than the LSO; no bad thing in Khachaturian. Some enthusiastic cymbal playing throughout. Manoukian lacks Simonyan's go-for-broke enthusiasm, and her playing is far more meditative – a warm evening in Yerevan. And she does not have Simonyan's spectacular staccato (but who does?) Coming immediately after Simonyan, she sounds almost careful in her playing, but that is down in the end simply to a contrast in approaches. Her first movement cadenza ain't short, either. A lovely, meditative slow movement and a well-judged finale.

As usual, it's swings and roundabouts. With Simonyan you get some really exciting violin playing with a staccato to die for. But you also get a somewhat unidiomatic orchestra and conductor, and that long first movement cadenza. With Manoukian you get some lovely playing and an orchestra that obviously knows and relishes the music. With Simonyan, you come away full of admiration for the violin playing. With Manoukian, you come away with admiration for Aram Khachaturian. Obviously, I'll have to keep both versions near to hand. Life is never simple.

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