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Two Souls

Violin Concertos
Mikhail Simonyan v; London Symphony Orchestra/Kristjan Järvi
DG 4779827

Khachaturian: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (37:40)

  1. Allegro con fermezza (cadenza by Artur Avanesov)
  2. Andante sostenuto
  3. Allegro vivace

Barber: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op 14 (23:03)

  1. 1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Presto in moto perpetuo

Barber: Adagio for Strings Op 11 (9:47)

About Two Souls

When Mikhail Simonyan arrived at the London Symphony Orchestra’s home base, St. Luke’s, on a beautiful spring day in 2011, it marked both his first meeting with this orchestra and the start of his first concerto recording. With his friend Kristjan Järvi conducting, the young soloist, though working in great detail, seemed entirely happy and relaxed. “I’m very excited about working with the LSO and such good friends in my recording debut”, he enthused.

This programme of music by Aram Khachaturian and Samuel Barber, entitled Two Souls, is tailor-made for this exciting virtuoso: one soul is Armenian, the other American. Born in Novosibirsk, Mikhail Simonyan has mixed Russian and Armenian parentage, but spent his formative years in the US. When he was 13, he toured the US as soloist with the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra; soon afterwards he moved to America and entered the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to study with Victor Danchenko, a pupil of David Oistrakh.

“Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian – Victor Danchenko had known them all and studied their music with Oistrakh, who gave the premiere of many of their works, including the Khachaturian Concerto”, says Mikhail Simonyan. “It was wonderful to learn from him the traditions of performing that music.”

“I have the deepest respect for those traditions”, Mikhail Simonyan declares. “My teachers gave me a solid foundation on which to develop and integrate my own musical ideas. I try to make these concertos sound less violinistic and to bring out qualities that represent their country’s culture or folklore.”

His personal take is strongly supported by Järvi: “I’ve known Kristjan for 12 years – he was at my very first concert at Lincoln Center,” says Mikhail Simonyan, “and we have performed many times together since then. If you share the same musical ideas, the interpretation becomes a completely different proposition. We opened the score of these concertos and felt totally free.”

Järvi agrees: “To bring new ideas to the music is to do it a service. It’s vital to keep fresh thoughts coming in.” His connection with Khachaturian is powerful, too. The composer was a close friend of his father, the conductor Neeme Järvi: “To me he was just ‘Uncle Aram’ – quietly endearing, a big man with an even bigger personality.”

Mikhail Simonyan has commissioned a new cadenza for the Khachaturian Concerto from the Armenian composer Artur Avanesov. “Khachaturian is an incredibly Armenian composer, but I didn’t find pure Armenian music in his cadenza because it was essentially Oistrakh’s, violinistic and virtuosic. I wanted one which sounds more authentically Armenian. This new cadenza has a strong feeling of Armenian church music. Armenia was the first Christian country and has been persecuted for religion all through its history. Part of what it means to be an Armenian today is rooted in our deep, ancient and unique church music tradition. This element in Avanesov’s cadenza brings a whole new colour to the concerto.”

While the Khachaturian reflects Mikhail Simonyan’s Armenian side, the Samuel Barber Concerto is from the country where he spent his teens. Again, he has found an individual viewpoint to draw out its American character. For instance, the last movement, a hectic “perpetuum mobile”, is often played extremely fast: “I slowed the tempo slightly and tried to use an almost folklike fiddling style.” As for the Barber Adagio, which completes the programme, he remarks: “It’s simply one of the most beautiful pieces in the string repertoire.”

Another close friend at the heart of this recording is the violinmaker Christophe Landon. Mikhail Simonyan has adopted one of his instruments and “I’m also using a bow made by him”, he says. Mikhail Simonyan well remembers the genesis of his violin. “Over dinner in New York, Christophe told me he was finishing a violin that he thought could be something special. After a few days it was ready to try. I started to play it – and this incredible sound came out! Four days later I gave the instrument’s first concert: it was the Khachaturian Concerto, in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.”

The result is that Mikhail Simonyan is comfortable with the music, his instrument, his colleagues and himself. “I’m completely happy on stage and I never get nervous”, he says. “It doesn’t matter which country I’m in: walking onto the platform is like walking into my living room. I’m partly Armenian, partly Russian, I lived in America, now I live in Berlin. But my real home? It’s the stage.”

Jessica Duchen

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