Violinist Sergey Khachatryan makes remarkable Chicago debut at Mandel Hall

Sat Nov 05, 2011 at 12:44 pm

By Michael Cameron

Violinist Sergey Khachatryan made his belated Chicago debut Friday night at Mandel Hall.

If you’re an area concertgoer, you can be forgiven your probable unfamiliarity with violinist Sergey Khachatryan, even though the young Armenian has amassed an impressive body of credentials that include a victory in the prestigious Sibelius competition at the astonishing age of 15, and a subsequent win at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels.

His tours of North America have included concerto appearances with most major orchestras, with the notable exception of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A Ravinia appearance a few years ago has been the only local one before Friday night’s long overdue Chicago debut at Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago. There he presented illuminating performances of three sonatas of Beethoven and Shostakovich with his equally gifted sister, pianist Lusine Khachatryan.

The 26-year-old Armenian seems determined to shed the stereotypical prodigy label, bearing a repertoire almost entirely constructed from the established canonical masterworks. One hopes his seriousness of purpose will one day extend beyond preservation of the canon to its expansion, much like his heroes Oistrakh and Rostropovich.

The duo’s program seemed designed to bypass the composers’ most commonly acknowledged attributes, while highlighting contrasts between the three pieces in the starkest possible terms.  The two early sonatas of Beethoven avoid the bold and heroic posture of many of his best-loved works in favor of high spirits and youthful vigor. The brash, mocking Shostakovich is nowhere to be found in his Violin Sonata of 1968. This birthday present for David Oistrakh is one of his late, bleak masterworks, a moving portrait of seething anger and exhausted resignation.

In recordings and in this concert, Khachatryan’s sound is sweet and beguiling, though the volume is not particularly substantial. Fiddle aficionados might be surprised by his sonic footprint, given his current use of the renowned 1740 “Ysa├┐e” Guarneri owned previously by Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman, violinists not known for introversion. His range of sonority in quieter dynamic is remarkable, but over long stretches it can sound thin and vaguely anemic. Yet once the ear adjusts to the subtleties, his appropriation of color illuminates his musical purposes with remarkable nuance and sophistication.

Lusine Khachatryan

Anyone who has suffered the trauma of Thanksgiving political discussions with relatives knows that gene-sharing is no guarantee of conciliation. Happily, from the opening pages of Beethoven’s A Major Sonata (op. 12, no. 2), the pair made it clear that they were of a single mind, a true dual collaboration of equals.  With Lusine’s shapely and transparent passagework and her brother’s feathery touch and diaphanous sound in accompanying phrases, the two tastefully shifted the focus between them as the score dictated. Tempos were brisk but organic to the source, and the score’s structure was clear and unforced.

Much the same can be said of the “Spring” Sonata (op. 24), where the violinist’s limpid tone and the pianist’s gossamer scales suited the cheery score perfectly. Both broadened their sound for the finale as the dramatic discourse was ramped up a few notches.

Khachatryan has spoken of the parallels between Armenia’s tragic history and the profound despair so central to Shostakovich’s later years. Still, no comparison could have prepared the audience for the duo’s deeply penetrating account of the Soviet composer’s Sonata for Violin. The siblings were ideally suited to the skeletal textures and whispered dynamics of the opening Andante.

Suddenly, all earlier restraint was thrown to the wind in a dizzying account of the gut-wrenching middle movement. This knife-edged reading was almost frightening in its ferocity, with severed horsehair, aggressive pizzicatos that nearly pulled the strings off the violin’s bridge, and thick resonant piano chords that seemed to conjure a chilling and deathly primal scream.  The pale, evaporating final bars sounded not so much like a creation by Shostakovich as an act of musical surrender.

The duo consented to an encore with a brilliant and blistering Moto Perpetuo composed by an unnamed fellow Armenian. As if to not completely surrender the theme of the previous piece, the ancient Dies Irae was embedded midway.

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