April 24, 2008


Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major; Shostakovich: Violin Sonata, op. 134. Sergey Khachatryan, violin; Lusine Khachatryan, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

Tango Notturno: Tangos by Arno Babadjanian, Fareed El-Atrache, Unto Mononen, Jacob Gade, Carlos Gardel, Anibal Troilo, Matos Rodriguez, Kurt Weill, Astor Piazzolla, Hans-Otto Borgmann and Anselmo Aieta. Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano; Tango Ensemble conducted by Serouj Kradjian. CBC. $16.99.

      Both these CDs are packaged to play up the performers at least as much as the music, and indeed the performers are rising stars in their respective fields. For those who come to the CDs purely for the music, though, the performances fall a bit short of star quality.

      Franck’s Violin Sonata was written when the composer was 64 and practically oozes maturity and beauty. Perhaps this is why 23-year-old Sergey Khachatryan and his 25-year-old sister Lusine seem a trifle ill at ease with it. The first movement sounds a little tentative, as if the Khachatryans are trying to figure out where to take it while they are playing it. Its lovely flow is never as smooth as it could be. The second movement is more effective, despite some screechy violin tone. The third is gentle but a bit hesitant, without much sense of ensemble – it sounds as if the Khachatryans are playing apart rather than genuinely communicating through their instruments. The fourth movement opens with good sweep, but some of the violin notes are slurred, and the piano seems more an accompaniment than a genuine partner. This is certainly not a bad performance, but neither is it one that has successfully plumbed the depths of the music.

      The Shostakovich is much more successful. The odd sonorities of the first movement come through well, and here the separation of the voices of violin and piano actually serves the music. The angularity and intensity of the second movement are effective, and Sergey Khachatryan’s pizzicati are particularly well done. In the extended finale, the performers go in their own directions much of the time; but, again, that works in this passacaglia – which is a variation form – as it does not in the longer lines of the Franck sonata. There is a thinness of the overall sound in this movement that works well, and the two “cadenza” variations – one each for piano and violin – are handled with aplomb. Shostakovich was only a bit younger when he wrote this work – he was 62 – than Franck was when he composed his sonata. Perhaps the performers are simply more comfortable with Shostakovich’s extreme chromaticism and ventures into serialism than they are with Franck’s broader concepts and thoroughly Romantic mood.

      Isabel Bayrakdarian has done a considerable amount of opera singing, and her husband, Serouj Kradjian, has been piano soloist with a number of orchestras. Their collaboration on tangos – 11 with lyrics, five instrumental and one with instruments and wordless voice – has many interesting spots, but becomes a bit dull after a while, simply because of the rhythmic similarity of most of the pieces. Imagine an entire CD of minuets by the greatest minuet composers and you will get the idea: what works wonderfully by itself is less effective when it is one item out of 17. Nor is Bayrakdarian’s voice ideally suited to this music: it does not have the smoky, sultry lower register that would fit most tangos ideally. Still, she uses her voice very well, effectively modifying her delivery for the different emotions of these pieces; and the ensemble under Kradjian plays with great spirit – especially Fabián Carbone on bandoneon (Carbone and Kradjian share arranger credits on the CD).

      Despite its humble origins in the 19th-century bordellos of Argentina, the tango can communicate a wide variety of emotions, as is clear from several samples here. Astor Piazzolla pretty well defines the extremes. His “Che Tango Che” is a hot and intense listing of everything the tango can do (“grated, gashed, ground and grilled…who raped me, who corrupted me, who dumped me…”). His “Rinascerò” has intensity of a far different sort, being an affirmation and plea for rebirth in the year 3001. Some of the other tangos have a great deal to offer as well, including two famed instrumental ones: Jacob Gade’s “Jalousie” and Matos Rodriguez’ “La Cumparsita.” Occasional parallel subjects crop up: Unto Mononen’s “Satumaa” and Kurt Weill’s “Youkali” are both about magical lands far across the sea, but Mononen’s work offers at least a shred of hope and calm, while Weill’s is steeped in despair. In totality, the works are of uneven quality and interest, although any tango lover will likely find at least some of them appealing. The full hour-and-a-quarter CD, though, turns out to be a bit much.

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