Violinist-conductor Levon Ambartsumian was born in Moscow in 1955. He studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in the same city, where his teachers included Leonid Kogan. Zagreb, Montréal, and Riga were the sites of some of his competition victories. Eventually, he joined the faculty of the Conservatory, but in the past few years he has shifted his operations to the United States. He now teaches violin at the University of Georgia (Athens) – an opportunity, I imagine, for Phoenix USA to become acquainted with him.
Composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) challenged audiences with his music, which ranges in influences from Russian Orthodox church music to pithy and uncompromising atonality, and to what seems almost a bitter mockery of audiences, musicians, and composers themselves. All of these can be demonstrated on Ambartsumian's Schnittke disc. The 1968 Second Violin Sonata, the oldest work here, is subtitled "Quasi una Sonata," and it is to violin sonatas what Fellini's "8 ½" is to films. Brutal and petulant gestures from both the violinist and the pianist simultaneously invite and subvert the creative and recreative process. When one musical outrage has run its course, Schnittke launches another. This is not easy music to listen to, but it's honest and thought-provoking. The same also is true of A Paganini, which was written in 1982 for solo violin. If one considers the egotism of Romantic virtuosity about as far as one can get from the ideals of Socialist Realism, then writing a fractured homage to the granddaddy of such virtuosity is a Statement indeed. Like Shostakovich (whose music is nevertheless very different), Schnittke writes music of many layers. Some layers are official, some (farther down) are for the musicians and for the careful listeners, and some (the deepest of all) are private and for Schnittke alone.
The Third Violin Concerto (1982) is probably the most approachable of these three works. It starts with edgy trills from the soloist, but its overall direction of travel is into the silent darkness. Elegiac, it nevertheless offers little comfort.
All of these works have been recorded before. Ambartsumian's playing, compared to that of his predecessors, is appropriately rough and uncompromising. This violinist has played the Romantic confections of Wieniawski and Tchaikovsky, but Schnittke doesn't give him much of an opportunity to show how pretty his tone can be. This is expert playing coupled to frank interpretations. Ambartsumian's partners are good, and the engineering, while close, isn't claustrophobic.
For the Shostakovich disc, it would be a cliché to say that Ambartsumian trades his violin bow in for a conductor's baton. However, Ambartsumian (like Leopold Stokowski) appears to conduct without one, if the picture in Phoenix's booklet is correct! I was not necessarily thrilled to see this particular pairing of works; Shostakovich's First Piano Concerto often gets oddly coupled with the Op. 110a Chamber Symphony (an arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of the String Quartet #8). Ambartsumian pulls it off, though, with interpretations that bring something new to this familiar music.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The CD opens with the remarkable Two Pieces. These were written at about the same time that Shostakovich wrote his masterful First Symphony as a graduation exercise for the Leningrad Conservatory; they occupy adjacent opus numbers. The first piece is an intense Prélude whose stabbing chords and mournful melodies sound like the work of an already mature composer. The second piece, marked Scherzo, intensifies the mournfulness into anguish and panic. There are some astonishing passages for parallel chords in this second piece. The composer wrote these Two Pieces for double string quartet. Here, they are played by a full string orchestra – a change that Phoenix doesn't say anything about. Never mind: I thought I knew Shostakovich's music well, but here was a major discovery for me. These 11 minutes alone would make the CD worthwhile.
Ambartsumian plays down the slapstick in the First Piano Concerto, making it a more serious work than usual. The characteristic impudence is there, but the conductor lets darker emotions come into play. The second movement is morbidly dreamy, and its final measures have never sounded so beautiful! Pianist Damon Denton scampers through Shostakovich's figurations with a keen ear for melody and texture. He and the conductor favor changeable tempos, and so the music is less rigid than it can be, too. The trumpeter, Fred Mills, is an alumnus of the Canadian Brass, and even he seems determined to add weight to a work often dismissed as lightweight.
No one would call the Chamber Symphony lightweight. Ambartsumian and the ARCO Chamber Orchestra (like the conductor, formerly of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and now a Western entity) play it grittily, without excessive refinement. I thought I was growing tired of this work, but this recording gave me new pleasure.
The engineering is good in the Two Pieces and in the Chamber Symphony, but the textures get muddier with the addition of the piano in the concerto. On the other hand, this is not one of those concerto recordings in which a behemoth piano drowns out the orchestra, so the attempt at achieving a realistic balance is appreciated. The venue was the Hugh Hodgson Hall in the University of Georgia Performing Arts Center. The typographical errors in the booklet suggest that it was edited by someone with a limited knowledge of classical music – who are "Henryk Szering," "Katchaturian," and "Frank"?
Copyright © 2001, Raymond Tuttle