Is Khachatryan Great Violinist? -- In Principle, Yes.* 

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J. Sibelius, S.Khatchaturian Violin Concertos, , Khachatryan/Krivine/Sinfonia Varsovia
The Armenian Sergey Khachatryan, the current Queen Elizabeth competition winner (and consequently playing the Huggins Stradivarius previously played by Baiba Skride and Nikolaj Znaider) can be seen and heard several times in the Washington/Baltimore region this month: First with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (with which he played in this performance, Thursday night at Strathmore) today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday at 8PM and on Sunday at 3PM and then again on March 27th at the Kennedy Center as part of the London Philharmonic’s North American tour with Kurt Masur where he will share soloist duties with Arabella Steinbacher, a less famous but hardly lesser violinist. (Interestingly, both have recorded the Khatchaturian concerto on their first major CD release and both will record the Shostakovich concertos within the next year, allowing for direct comparison.)

Yuri Temirkanov was not able to conduct (and won’t be, for a while), a friend’s recent passing keeps him in St. Petersburg (back problems were the reason he extended his vacation the last time…) and so associate conductor Andrew Constantine stepped in. In the seemingly well rehearsed and faultlessly played Sibelius concerto, his good work was noticeable, if not particularly distinctive. But in the second half of the program – Prokofiev’s Ugly Duckling op.18 and the first of the three Cinderella Suites (op.107) he led a marvelously playing BSO to such grandeur that Maestro Temirkanov wouldn’t be missed even if he didn’t return until his farewell performance of Mahler’s second symphony. “Fairy Grandmother and Winter” was particularly well structured and the concluding “Midnight” scene was rousing. He was visibly pleased with the orchestra and the orchestra with itself; in a way it was Constantine who was the concert’s real discovery.

Before that there was also the well sung Duckling by American mezzo Barbara Rearick. To sing a work like this in the vernacular instead of the original language certainly makes sense – as it does especially with all those story-driven works of a less serious nature where the cuteness of the text plays a significant role next to the music that supports it. The better of these works can stand their own musically, but much more is gained by making it understandable to the audience just when the duck stumbles, than might be lost by switching from the natural rhythm of one language to a foreign tongue. Ms. Rearick’s good diction supported this choice.

Before Khachatryan’s appearance, the orchestra introduced itself with one of its fanfares rather than an orchestra member’s speech (much appreciated), but Adolphus Hailstork’s Intrada was slight and the applause mild. The Sibelius was a different story, altogether. Unfailing and soft in the beginning with a beautiful slow crescendo; an assertive piano slowly melting into a modest but commanding mf. Khachatryan’s sound had a few wooden moments after that, but soon found back to his pleasant tone that reminds a little of the leathery late Milstein’s – just less focused. That alone is highest possible praise and, despite Sergey Khachatryan’s nascent stardom, highly regarded recordings and his standing as one of the young violinists ‘to watch’, overshooting a little. No doubts that his command of instrument and work are splendid and his performance having been notably more assured than the recent one of Ryo Goto who was supported paternally, lovingly, by Ashkenazy’s direction. But his vibrato – especially in the slow movement – was applied in liberal quantities, to a point where one hopes it doesn’t get much wider… and the beginning of the finale (Allegro ma non tanto, in this case a.k.a. “as fast as you can play it”) was less than coherent in a few moments, his Huggins revealing a bit of a boxy sound in the low register. But then the last passages of this fiendish concerto and movement was exemplary again, and worth having gone to Strathmore for, alone. Khachatryan a great violinist? Yes: In the making.

The title, to those unfamiliar with the classic European "Radio Yerevan" jokes, refers to the basic set up of these jokes: Question to Radio Yerevan: "Is it possible to drive with Moskvich at 60 miles around sharp corner?" Radio Yerevan answers: "In principle, yes. But only once."

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