Armenian State Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall ★★★★

In his own country the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian is a musical and cultural icon in the way that Sibelius is in Finland and Verdi in Italy. It’s the 120th anniversary of his birth this year and so, under the auspices of the Armenian Embassy in the United Kingdom, his homeland’s national orchestra was here to celebrate that landmark. Sergey Smbatyan founded the orchestra in 2005, when he was only eighteen, and here he was at the helm as artistic director and chief conductor. At the heart of the concert was Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D minor. It was premiered in 1940 by the great David Oistrakh, got the imprimatur of the Stalin Prize the next year and was the apogee of the composer’s success, drawing on Armenia’s folklore and indigenous music.

It’s a hugely enjoyable, tuneful, bear-hug of a work that’s too-seldom heard in our concert halls. Jennifer Pike brought musical finesse, grace and well-focused attack to the demanding solo part. The opening movement’s rapid and very catchy chugging rhythm, like a steam train snaking its way across the steppes, had her riding atop the orchestra’s relentless progress. In the succeeding slow movement Khachaturian’s sinuous, sensual mood-indigo music allowed Pike to slowly, sultrily charm and calm the orchestra into submission with her delicate legato playing. Then wham, they wake up and we’re off for a rollicking rustic finale with Pike leading the dance and the orchestra playing its collective heart out.

It’s a young orchestra, and quite a small one, and there were limitations to its playing most notably in the string sections. The string sound was, to be polite, a little lean and one wished for more weight, heft and polish in Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Capriccio Espagnol’ and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. In the former the percussion excelled but I found the leader’s solo playing (and intonation) not always ingratiating. In the symphony the lightness of the strings made it much easier for the neat and lively wind players to be heard – the clarinet was a perky presence all evening – and of course the brass revelled in the finale’s triumphant resurgence. The pizzicato scherzo, however, lacked the biting, penetrating guitar-like twang the best string sections can supply. No reservations about the encore – a glittering, brazen, battering performance of Khachaturian’s show-stopping sabre dance from his ballet ‘Gayene’, which sent the audience happily humming on their way home.

Norman Stinchcombe

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