Preparing my pre-performance talk for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's concert last night, which included Khachaturian's lumpy behemoth of a Piano Concerto, I was expecting this in the middle movement:
whereas what we got was this:
Which was a pity, because the Khachaturian concerto has only two redeeming features: its opening melody, done to death, and the novelty value of what ought to be a solo for flexatone, not musical saw. The former instrument also has notable roles in Shostakovich - The Nose, The Golden Age, Hypothetically Murdered and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (for the Schoolteacher with his Gogolian question as to whether frogs have immortal souls) - Schoenberg (unlikely - the awful Variations for Orchestra) and Křenek's Jonny spielt auf; I had the lively 'Leb'wohl, mein Schatz' foxtrot lined up for the talk but didn't use it when I realised that one tantalising soundbite of the flexatone was enough if the audience wasn't going to hear it live in the concerto. Here's Khachaturian and piano, though I believe the concerto was too difficult for him to play.
For a clear definition of the flexatone, I resorted as so often to Norman Del Mar's A Companion to the Orchestra: 'the curious penetrating whine it produces is created by rapid oscillation of two little wooden knobs at the end of thin flexible strips against the broad curving metal plate, whose curvature - and hence pitch - is controlled by the thumb.'
The distinctive rattling timbre is nothing like that of the musical saw, but at least we got something in the form of consummate saw-ist, chanteuse and actress Katharina Micada, who I'm sure is the glammy lady pictured in the unattributed Wiki image above; I checked my Russian Disc recording with Nikolai Petrov as the pianist and Khachaturian conducting, and there's nothing, only violins taking the melody. David Fanning writes in his excellent programme notes: 'The instrument [flexatone] was only patented in 1922 [the concerto was written in 1936], and there is some evidence to suggest that in the 1920s and 30s 'flexatone' may also have been used to designate the musical saw, an 'instrument' known in traditional Russian and Armenian music'.
Well, I'm not convinced, since the tone-qualities are so dissimilar. Anyway, Micada has quite a career; she was off, a player told me, to Amsterdam today. And many contemporary scores do engage the musical saw; I can see why, even if it was a bit 'pitchy' last night.
But fundamentally I didn't care, since not even the virtuosity and shading of Marc-André Hamelin (pictured above by Sim Canetty-Clarke) could redeem the boggy meanders. He does Khachaturian no favours by reviving it; at his best, the Armenian can induce hilarity and exhilaration with wildly OTT scores like Spartacus, as I found at a delirious Bolshoi Ballet performance a couple of years ago, but this is (almost) his turgid worst. Anyway, here's the second movement, actually sounding more artistic in the hands of that profound musician Boris Berezovsky. The orchestra from the Urals furnishes a proper flexatonist, answering my question as to whether any still exist, though the sound is faint: he enters 2m18s in.
Hamelin disappointed, too, in his encore by bringing out yet again his unfunny-once-heard-once distortion of Chopin's 'Minute' Waltz. I'd have loved it if he'd played even only the last third of Balakirev's original Islamey.
For this, the only first-class work on the programme, we had Casella's overblown but entertaining orchestration to begin, allowing me to cue Lezginka links in the talk. Call me callow, but I didn't stay for Osmo Vänskä's interpretation of Kalinnikov's quite interesting First Symphony because a) I didn't have to - I wasn't reviewing, b) I thought I had to get up at 6am to travel to Bordeaux, though it turned out early this morning before I set out to catch the Eurostar that I'd got the day wrong and I leave tomorrow and c) I'd heard my hero among conductors Neeme Järvi conduct a really wonderful performance with this very orchestra and I don't much care for Vänskä's slightly bullying style. If you want to hear the complete concert, it's on the BBC Radio 3 iplayer for the next six days, and the Khachaturian concerto, of all things, seems to have been selected for 'clip' status which means it may never go away.
But all this Russian/Soviet stuff is small beer compared to what's happening as Kiev goes up in flames. Shame on Putin for labelling a people tired of a dictator terrorists - though there are extremists as in any situation which has gone too far - and on Medvedev for raising the spectre of a divided Ukraine, which according to many who live there - admittedly those with western contacts - is such a distortion of the situation (and latest reports suggest help for the protesters and obstruction of the military from all parts of the country, including the east).
Maybe the time for laughing at those two is over, but it's been a good way of dealing with Sochi. Peter Tatchell, whom I'm invoking for the second time in two days, produced a neat Valentine's Day card last Friday.
Seriously, my thoughts are with the poor people of the Ukraine. I watch developments with a terrible anxiety.