I’ve always thought Khachaturian’s ballet music superior to his concertos. Even James Ehnes’ customary fusion of virtuosity and insight cannot convince me otherwise. Despite the contribution David Oistrakh made to its composition, if I had to sum up the Violin Concerto in one word, I’m afraid it would be “racketty”. Even the “exotic” arabesques, which must have seemed original in the 1930s were much better when used by composers like Dmitri Tiomkin and Miklós Rózsa in 1950s “sword and sandal” epics. Ehnes ennobles virtually every piece of music he performs but I think his prodigious talent is wasted on this work.
The rest of the disc contains string quartets performed by Ehnes’ eponymous quartet, a curious juxtaposition because, while the Khachaturian has never really entered the “canon” of great violin concertos, it certainly does have audience appeal. Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet is his only work in this genre to have gained permanent status in the repertoire, but it’s still a hard nut to crack for the uninitiated listener. It’s a work of emotional extremes, although the very opening is played here with a warmth I’ve never heard before. The second movement is demented (even by Shostakovich’s standards) but these wonderful playful players manage without ever sacrificing ensemble or tonal radiance. The Third Quartet is less intense but equally beautifully played.