Concerto in D Minor

            Aram Khatchaturian was the third member of the mighty triumvirate of Soviet composers—the others, of course, being Shostakovich and Prokofiev.  And like the others, he too, enjoyed a long, and hot and cold relationship with the Communist party and those who dictated the musical æsthetics of that troubled time.  A native Armenian—and born in Georgia like Stalin—he early on moved to Moscow to further his musical studies, but for the rest of his life infused his music with vivid stylistic influences from his Armenian heritage.  His personal musical language is almost unmistakable, often characterized by melodies that are oriented to folk or popular elements, a remarkable rhythmic drive, and a masterful command of colorful orchestral writing.

            American audiences have long known his ballets, Spartacus (1950-54) and Gayane (1942), the latter being the source of the immortal “Saber Dance.”  While writing in the usual media of symphony, piano, and instrumental chamber works, he is well known for his many contributions to incidental music for plays, film scores, and even Soviet Army brass bands.  His Concerto in D Minor (1940) was originally written for violin and orchestra (dedicated to the renowned Russian violinist David Oistrakh)—and is widely performed thus.   Years later, the eminent French flautist, Jean-Pierre Rampal came to Khatchaturian and requested a flute concerto.  For various reasons it didn’t materialize, but with the composer’s blessing and encouragement, Rampal arranged the Concerto in D Minor for flute.  The original cadenza, like all cadenzas is completely idiomatic for the solo instrument, in that case the violin, so Rampal sensibly wrote his own cadenza to suite his virtuosity on the flute.   Completed in 1967,  Rampal’s arrangement has become a respected addition to the concert repertoire, and is performed the world over.

            The first movement opens with a big statement from the whole orchestra, and the solo flute gets right to work with a driving, almost frenetic theme that is catchy, and rather dance-like.  Khatchaturian’s signature, almost hypnotic rhythms, and “punchy” accents carry it all along. Some contrasting themes eventually come along that are more lyrical and somewhat pseudo-oriental to take us to the middle section, which is framed by cadenzas for the solo flute.  The second cadenza is extensive (written by Rampal), and after a sedate beginning, is marked by exchanges with the solo clarinet.  The music intensifies, and a recap of the themes careens to the end.  It’s a long movement, but it certainly entertains.

            The second movement opens with melancholy solos by the bassoon and the clarinet, aptly setting up a rather stark mood.  Throughout the movement the solo flute languorously evokes the exoticism that so often is characteristic of Armenian composers, and reminds of again that Khatchaturian was not an ethnic Russian, but rather a Soviet citizen.  An dramatic outburst provides contrast near middle of the movement, before the bleak atmosphere returns.

            A big fanfare from the orchestra that would do 20th Century Fox justice clues us to what we’re in store for in the finale.  The main theme is not exactly singable, as the flute spews forth torrents of notes that sound at times like a virtuoso bebop improvisation.  If you remember the composer’s “Saber Dance,” the excitement generated is familiar.  Along the way, tunes from earlier in the concerto are heard as we zip along in a veritable moto perpetuo.   We’re spurred ahead by another of Khatchaturian’s mannerisms:  strong accents that temporarily confuse the meter.  Are we in two or three?  From time to time there are rather lyrical, reflective episodes to rest our nerves, but the wild, Mongolian pony ride resumes, and a cascade of notes from the flute ends this musical flamboyance.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan