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Violin Concerto in D minor

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Aram Khachaturian
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Itzhak Perlman, Conductor/Emmanuel Pahud, Flute May 15 - 17, 2003
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document

Khachaturian composed concertos for piano, for violin and for cello, but none for the flute; the work performed in the present concerts is a transcription of his Violin Concerto (composed in 1940), by the celebrated flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal (born January 7, 1922, Marseilles; died May 20, 2000, Paris), who introduced this version in the Toledo Philharmonic Orchestra under Serge Fournier on November 3 and 4, 1967. Mr. Rampal subsequently performed the work with the National Symphony Orchestra's concerts celebrating his 60th birthday, with Mstislav Rostropovich conducting, on January 5, 6, 7 and 8, 1982; on November 1, 2, 3 and 6, 1990, his Irish colleague James Galway performed his own transcription for the flute with the NSO, again with Mr. Rostropovich conducting. Emmanuel Pahud's performances of the Rampal version in this week's concerts are the NSO's first of either version for the flute since then.

In addition to the solo flute, the score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, harp, and strings. Duration, 35 minutes.

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Jean-Pierre Rampal, in common with countless listeners everywhere, immensely enjoyed Aram Khachaturian's colorful music for the ballet Gayaneh and his two big concertos--one for piano, one for violin--which, like the ballet music, became enormously popular in the years following World War II. In or about 1960, by which time he had established himself as the pre-eminent flutist of his time, Rampal asked Khachaturian to compose a concerto for him, but the composer never got round do it, and eventually he suggested that Rampal make his own transcription of the famous Violin Concerto, a work originally composed and introduced in 1940. Rampal completed his transcription in October 1967, just in time for the Toledo premiere early the following month, and the composer subsequently expressed his wholehearted approval.

Rampal, in making this transcription, and Khachaturian, in suggesting it, were following an old and honored tradition, established in the Baroque era, in which the violin and the flute have been used interchangeably in many works in both the orchestral and chamber-music repertories. Examples abound in the works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and their contemporaries. As late as the early years of the 20th century, in fact, Beethoven string quartets and Mozart string quintets were sometimes performed with the first violin part reassigned to a flute, and in the middle of that century Prokofiev composed a flute sonata (his Op. 94) which he himself adapted to become his Second Violin Sonata. James Galway has not only made his own transcription of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, but has similarly transcribed Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. Rampal's version of the Khachaturian Concerto, with the composer's imprimatur, has by now established itself in the repertory of grateful flutists everywhere. Rampal left the orchestral material virtually untouched, but in addition to transcribing the solo part for the flute he composed a new and of course idiomatic cadenza for the first movement.

All the works by which Khachaturian remains best-known the world over were produced within a fairly brief period before the composer turned 40: the Piano Concerto (1936), the incidental music for Lermontov's drama Masquerade (1939), from which the popular orchestral suite was drawn; the Violin Concerto (1940), and the ballet Gayaneh (1940). All but the second of these four works are steeped in the flavor of Armenian folk-music, as exemplified in the instrumental coloring as well as the exotic-sounding themes and the contrasting vigorous and languorous rhythms. The Violin Concerto is especially close to the music of Gayaneh in this respect, and it is especially interesting to note that it was preceded, in 1939, by another ballet, called Happniess, in which Khachaturian was to borrow abundantly in creating the score for Gayaneh; the Concerto, then, may be regarded as the midpoint in a continuous cycle of music built on similar--and occasionally directly related--materials.

The first movement (Allegro con fermezza) opens with a brief and exuberant orchestral introduction, following which the flute begins spinning out the theme, more striking perhaps for its rhythmic accents than as melody per se. The second theme, in sharp contrast, is sinuous and seductive, and a third one is more or less in the same vein. The development, an especially dramatic section, begins and ends with cadenzas. The first one is brief and is performed on the flute essentially as Khachaturian composed it for the violin; the second begins with a little dialogue between flute and clarinet, and from that point on it is original material by Rampal, as idiomatic to the flute as the composer's own cadenza is to the violin. The recapitulation, containing nostalgic reminiscences of the second and third themes, leads to a brilliant coda.

The slow movement (Andante sostenuto) takes us into the nocturnal realm associated with the Lullaby in Gayaneh. Here the music, particularly that for the solo instrument, is conspicuously more inward and meditative than anything in the outer movements, though not with a sense of urgency. The form is a free-flowing rondo, with an unexpectedly impassioned middle section breaking the deep calm and returning even more forcefully before the movement ends.

The brilliant and dancelike the final movement (Allegro vivace) sums up in the most genial manner. The opening of this finale, grander than the passage that began the work, suggests a grand ballet divertissement, and much of the soloist's energetic material has an ingratiatingly improvisatory feel to it. Recollections of the first movement's second theme are heard in the solo material about halfway through, and return in the cellos when the flute resumes the finale's own theme. The coda brings a reprise of the Concerto's opening as well as the opening of the finale, and the end, following a shower of sparks from the flute, is grandly assertive.