Elegant Style and Emotional Restraint from the Khachatryan Duo

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Prokofiev, Franck: Sergey Khachatryan (violin), Lusine Khachatryan (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 13.4.2017. (CS)

Sergey Khachatryan
Sergey Khachatryan

Mozart – Violin Sonata in B-flat K.454
Prokofiev – Violin Sonata No.2 in D Op.94bis
Franck – Violin Sonata in A

One wonders whether it is the home-life of musical siblings that cultivates their mutual interest and success or whether individual family members are simply artistically gifted. Whatever, over time – from Wolfgang and Nannerl Mozart, and Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn to, more recently, Katia and Marielle Labèque, and Gil and Orli Shaham, to name but a few sibling duos – one imagines that the lives of many families have been enriched by the music-making of those who share close bonds.

At the Wigmore Hall the young Armenian brother-and-sister pair, Sergey and Lusine Khachatryan, joined forces for a varied programme of substantial and well-known violin sonatas. The recital was noteworthy for the violinist’s concentrated immersion in the musical worlds that he and Lusine created, and for the flashes of fieriness with which the pianist enlivened her brother’s ever-poised, honest communication.

Equipped with the knowledge that Sergey Khachatryan was the youngest ever winner of the Sibelius Competition, taking first prize in 2000 when he was just fifteen, it’s easy to take his phenomenal technical proficiency for granted, but it would be an inattentive listener who did not find his astonishing consistency of tone, and in particular the powerful clarity and beauty of his E-string melodising, compelling. He plays on the 1740 Guarneri ‘Ysaÿe’, which was previously owned by Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman, and his sound is unfailingly sweet – warm on the lower strings, firmer and more penetrating at the top – though not always ‘imposing’ or large.

This restraint – not really reticence or insularity, rather a matter of letting the music speak for itself – was occasionally a problem in the work with which the recital opened: Mozart’s arresting Sonata in B-flat K.454. The work was composed in 1784 for the Viennese debut of the flamboyant touring virtuoso, Regina Strinasacchi (who also trained as an opera singer), and it is full of theatricality. It is the only one of Mozart’s piano and violin sonatas to begin with a slow introduction. Though this introduction is quite grandiose, Khachatryan was intense but undemonstrative, making the audience listen carefully to appreciate the subtleties of phrasing within a fairly quiet dynamic in the bars leading to the Allegro. Lusine Khachatryan is a more exuberant performer, and at times her playful gestures overpowered her partner. In the Allegro, the balance wasn’t quite right in the lively interchanges between the instruments: the violin serene, the piano more high-spirited. While Mozart’s designation ‘for piano and violin’ may generally indicate an order of ‘seniority’, in actual fact the sonatas are chamber music in which interaction is uppermost; but, in this particular sonata, a more magisterial presence seems required of the violinist.

Sergey Khachatryan was at his best in the magical modulations of the Andante, showing us how malleable his tone is, as he teased every nuance of colour and shade from the central theme and articulated the embellishments richly. The concluding Rondo, though, didn’t quite find its sparkle.

Prokofiev’s Second Sonata followed and here Sergey Khachatryan’s lovely clean sound and technical assurance ensured a flawless performance: totally controlled, the lyrical phrases beautifully crafted, rhythms incisive and crisp, and the whole infused with a strong underlying classicism. More strongly than usual, I was reminded that this sonata was originally composed for flute, so pure was the floating melody with which the Moderato commences, so gentle the piano’s undulations; so bright and penetrating the Scherzo’s running fragments, so elegant the Andante’s tender song. It was ever apparent that dynamics and tempi had been thoughtfully considered.

But, alongside the predominant transparent sunniness of the sonata there lie darker shadows and more restless energies, and I didn’t feel that the violinist explored the range of moods within each movement. The square, dotted-rhythm march in the Moderato seem to me to challenge the opening theme more cheekily, before the latter is itself subsumed into a heroic fanfare variant at the start of the development section. The trio section of the Scherzo surely has a gypsy tinge? The chromatic oscillations of the central section of the Andante sway with a jazzy wooziness, a freedom which was lacking here, but which can make for a lovely contrast with the pathos of the main theme. Only in the Allegro con brio did Khachatryan play with more boldness and humour, giving us flashes of colour and more vigorous bow strokes, reminding us that Prokofiev is a supreme composer for the dance.

My misgivings were not quelled by the final sonata on the programme, Franck’s cyclic masterpiece. Again, the flowing curves of the Allegretto ben moderato theme were tastefully shaped, and there was a hint of the movement’s emotional depths – the pianissimos were wonderfully delicate and sustained but a sense of the music’s latent power was present. The second movement was, for once, taken at a sensible pace: a genuine surging Allegro rather than a breakneck Presto which reduces the impassioned ascents and descents to a scurry. Lusine Khachatryan injected energy from the depths of the piano’s rumbling prefatory warning, though Khachatryan’s cool temperament and general unselfconsciousness seemed to prevent him from truly ‘living‘ the violin’s more passionate torrents. I’d have liked the violinist to make the Recitative-Fantasia more ‘his own‘, but the Allegretto poco mosso brought forth a joyful outpouring and comforting ease.

Is a beautiful sound, on its own, sufficient to communicate Franck’s passion and turbulence, though? I feel that the beguiling canon should develop into a tussle as the players strive and soar together towards the apotheosis of the final thematic restatement. After all, from first rising and falling major third of the opening movement every note has been leading towards this moment. This performance was certainly immaculate and controlled, and I have no doubt that Khachatryan feels the music’s emotions, but he doesn’t always communicate them. The audience want and need to scratch more deeply beneath the lyrical surface.

That said, we were lucky to be able to enjoy the concert at all. The preceding week Sergey Khachatryan had been due to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia under Jakub Hrůša, at the Festival Hall, but visa problems required Lithuanian violinist Julian Rachlin to step into the breach. It’s a difficulty that one imagines will only become more frequent, and more detrimental to the UK’s musical life, in a post-Brexit world.

Claire Seymour

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