Violinist-conductor Levon Ambartsumian was born in Moscow in 1955. He studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in the same city, where his teachers included Leonid Kogan. Zagreb, Montréal, and Riga were the sites of some of his competition victories. Eventually, he joined the faculty of the Conservatory, but in the past few years he has shifted his operations to the United States. He now teaches violin at the University of Georgia (Athens) – an opportunity, I imagine, for Phoenix USA to become acquainted with him.
Composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) challenged audiences with his music, which ranges in influences from Russian Orthodox church music to pithy and uncompromising atonality, and to what seems almost a bitter mockery of audiences, musicians, and composers themselves. All of these can be demonstrated on Ambartsumian's Schnittke disc. The 1968 Second Violin Sonata, the oldest work here, is subtitled "Quasi una Sonata," and it is to violin sonatas what Fellini's "8 ½" is to films. Brutal and petulant gestures from both the violinist and the pianist simultaneously invite and subvert the creative and recreative process. When one musical outrage has run its course, Schnittke launches another. This is not easy music to listen to, but it's honest and thought-provoking. The same also is true of A Paganini, which was written in 1982 for solo violin. If one considers the egotism of Romantic virtuosity about as far as one can get from the ideals of Socialist Realism, then writing a fractured homage to the granddaddy of such virtuosity is a Statement indeed. Like Shostakovich (whose music is nevertheless very different), Schnittke writes music of many layers. Some layers are official, some (farther down) are for the musicians and for the careful listeners, and some (the deepest of all) are private and for Schnittke alone.
The Third Violin Concerto (1982) is probably the most approachable of these three works. It starts with edgy trills from the soloist, but its overall direction of travel is into the silent darkness. Elegiac, it nevertheless offers little comfort.
All of these works have been recorded before. Ambartsumian's playing, compared to that of his predecessors, is appropriately rough and uncompromising. This violinist has played the Romantic confections of Wieniawski and Tchaikovsky, but Schnittke doesn't give him much of an opportunity to show how pretty his tone can be. This is expert playing coupled to frank interpretations. Ambartsumian's partners are good, and the engineering, while close, isn't claustrophobic.
Classical Net, 2001
This excellent disc includes some of Schnittke's most accomplished violin works. His pieces are not instantly accessible - their eclecticism can be disconcerting - but his fragmented use of many familiar forms and stylistic ideas is easy to follow (the concerto and sonata on this disc both remain rooted strictly in a classical form). However, these polystylistic structures are complicated further by Schnittke's flexible 20th-century approach to tonality - these in turn causes the harsh dissonances that are at first apparent.
Schnittke's use of 'polystylism' poses an interesting philosophical argument: he argues that, in the modern age, 'our concepts of time and space have undergone drastic transformations' and therefore the 'idea of the universal character of culture, of its integrity, seems particularly apt'. Schnittke has a point: in an age of rampant globalisation and international communication, a degree of cultural fusion is bound to occur, and his composition can be seen as a statement of this.
With this in mind, the Violin Concerto No. 3 does not seem especially avant-garde; the wind textures of the first movement Moderato often resemble Strauss, and dissonance is caused mainly by the violin line grating against the orchestral harmony. The Agitato second movement feels appropriately uncomfortable, and the forceful, unsettled temperament always pushes the piece forward. The writing becomes intensely anguished as it dissolves into the third movement, Andante, which is the focal point of the Concerto; the opening drone notes of the soloist are deeply haunting, and are precursors to the dark, foreboding ending, where Schnittke reveals an altogether more ominous compositional voice. The Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra are immaculate throughout, and Michail Kukushkin elicits from them an enchanting sense of subtlety and nuance. The same can be said for soloist Levon Ambartsumian, who echoes and leads with integrity, sensitively alternating between the solo and accompanimental voices that Schnittke's writing demands.
After such a volatile work, Sonata No. 2 (thoughtfully subtitled 'Sensa tempo') is something of a contrast. This was Schnittke's very first polystylistic experiment, and it contains a range of searing contrasts and unexpected (gimmicky?) dissonances - isolated moments that seem almost designed to shock and provoke the listener. An enforced struggle between harmony and disharmony ensues; this is Schnittke's metaphor for the conflict between the musical styles of the past and present respectively, and it is significant that the sonata never finds a conclusive centre in one tonality or another. Schnittke takes this concept further by introducing themes of Liszt (the B-A-C-H motif which Liszt adapted), and Beethoven (from Variations, Op.35) then tainting them with atonality, in order to '[rule] out the possibility of pure harmony in today's disjunct world'.
It is unfair to judge a violinist on the harsh sonorities of Schnittke alone, but the virtuosic playing of violinist Levon Ambartsumian (b.1955) is outstanding. As a prodigy of the former Eastern Bloc, Ambartsumian's reputation is confined mainly to Eastern Europe, and although since 1988 he has toured in Europe and taken residence in the USA, he is largely unknown in the West. On this disc, his sound is often intense, suiting the harshness and dissonances of the writing, yet he also finds room for moments of tenderness. The virtuoso requirements of the sonata and A Paganini are faultlessly executed with apparent ease.
A Paganini is a witty and mischievous piece with which to end the disc. A juxtaposition of harsh chords and snatches of melody from the 24 Caprices of Paganini, it is a nightmarishly dissonant take on the great violin maestro's devilish composition, and an appropriately unnerving note on which to end.
Simon Hewitt Jones
MusicWeb, August 2001