A great debut concert in Scotland’s capital by this young virtuoso orchestra from Armenia

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Khachaturian, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky: Armenian State Symphony Orchestra / Sergey Smbatyan (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 19.2.2023. (GT)

Sergey Smbatyan conducts violinist Jennifer Pike and the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra

Khachaturian – Excerpts from Spartacus
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

This is the orchestra’s second tour of the UK, but the first to Scotland, and based on this performance, it should not be the last. This year marks the 120th anniversary of Armenia’s great composer Aram Khachaturian’s birth. I well remember attending an enjoyable performance of Spartacus at the Bolshoi Theatre and seeing the composer and his wife (a fellow composer Nina Makarova) congratulating the conductor at the end of the show.

Khachaturian wrote several ballets and three concertos for cello, violin and piano, each displaying brilliance in orchestration and invention in the Lisztian style. They also require brilliant virtuosity, which has resulted in their relative obscurity in the concert hall. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, the composer studied with Nicolai Myaskovsky and wrote extraordinary avant-garde pieces in his youth. The Piano Concerto and Violin Concerto are the pieces which established his career as a composer, but he earned his bread by writing a great deal of incidental music for the theatre, cinema and ballet. His three symphonies are all quite different, and his Third is an extraordinary work deserving of greater popularity.

The first excerpt from Spartacus, the ‘Variation of Aegina and the Bacchanalia’ was exciting in characterising the drama of the arrival of the Emperor to Rome with brilliant harmonies from the woodwind group and rhapsodic colours from the graceful strings. It was followed by the romance of the ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’ with the strings led by Erik Manukyan bringing out all the spectacular colours of this piece. Of course, for those old enough to remember, this music gained huge popularity in the seventies when it was the theme tune of BBC TV’s The Onedin Line.

Since Jennifer Pike won the BBC Young Musician of the Year at the age of 12 years and quickly followed this by winning the Menuhin International Violin Competition, she has progressed as an outstanding musician on the international concert stage. She has also made some fine recordings including discs of Polish works – a significant feature in her exploring unfamiliar repertoire. She has carefully developed a repertoire mixing the classics with new music, with the great popular classics.

The Mendelssohn concerto opened with the briefly colourful introduction to the Allegro molto appassionato, before Pike announced the first idea, heard over fragile quaver figures in the strings, which built up in whirling triplets repeated fortissimo by the orchestra. The young English violinist was magnificent in the sequence of virtuosity exhibiting brilliant runs, passages and double stops. Ultimately, Pike’s violin descended to a gentle pianissimo. The cadenza was played with great authority and broad arpeggios coming to an ardently affected close. The Andante opened with a beautiful theme from the soloist of prodigious harmony supported superbly by the orchestra. In the finale (Allegretto non troppo – Allegro molto vivace) conductor Sergey Smbatyan evinced all the fairy tale colours of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and allowed this main idea to dominate with the languishing violin idea posing as a counterpoint to the principal theme. This reversal in harmonies led to the brilliance of the final coda. In response to the enthusiastic applause, Pike played an encore of the Sarabande by Bach.

Sergey Smbatyan conducts the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra

It was interesting to hear Smbatyan’s reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony – which also features in this season’s Royal Scottish National Orchestra concert series of the final three symphonies. Personally, I would have preferred one of Khachaturian’s three symphonies, but this masterwork certainly allows one to judge the standards of the orchestra. The Fourth was the composer’s first great work in the genre, and we know in detail the composer’s thoughts from the association with his sponsor Nadezhda von Meck.

In the opening (Andante sostenuto) the theme of fate was announced by the trumpets and horns – as Tchaikovsky wrote ‘This power hangs constantly over our heads, like Damocles’ sword.’ The secondary dream-like theme was intoned eloquently by the virtuosic woodwind. Smbatyan handled the contrasting themes showing a great sensitivity. The conductor doesn’t use a podium or a baton and avoids excessive drama. It was clear that everything was prepared in advance with his musicians ably fulfilling his choice of tempi and directions. It was nice to see the joy displayed on the young faces of the Armenian musicians in some of the passages.

The second movement (Andantino in modo di canzona) opened in a melancholic idiom characterised well by the oboe of Martine Varnik. The folk song theme was heard in the clarinets and bassoons in a dance-like sequence heralding the reprise of the first idea from the violins and the bassoons. The third movement (Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro) opened spectacularly with pizzicato strings invoking the sound of plucking balalaikas, heralding colourful arabesques. Then the oboe led to the Trio invocation of a carousing peasant song and a street song, and imagery of a far-off march – masterly conducted by Smbatyan.

The Finale: Allegro con fuoco launched a flamboyant surge of music before the folksong ‘In the woods, there stood a birch tree’ unleashed a colourful series of variations, each showing the remarkable virtuosity of the fine orchestra. The passage built to an exciting festivity before the return of the theme of fate and Smbatyan dramatically launching into the final culmination of high spirits and great joy.

This was an enjoyable concert from musicians who clearly enjoy bringing their compatriot’s music to audiences far from Armenia, and one hopes that this ensemble will visit Scotland once again, perhaps with more music from him.

Gregor Tassie

Leave a Comment