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The two composers represented here symbolize two entirely different eras in Russian music—Lyapunov from the end of the Romanov Empire and Khachaturian from the height of the Soviet Union—yet their works are perhaps more an expression of continuities, of perennial concerns for Russian composers, such as the need to integrate folkloric elements with the demands of sophisticated musical structures for concert performance, and adherence to the great Russian traditions of violin-playing that go back to the middle of the 19th century.
Sergei Mikhailovich Lyapunov was born in Yaroslav on 30 November (18 November New Style) 1859. He studied first in Nizhny-Novgorod and then from 1878 to 1883 at the Moscow Conservatory, where Karl Klindworth was among his piano teachers and Sergei Taneyev his mentor in composition. Subsequently he settled in St Petersburg, where he came to know the surviving members of the Moguchaya Kutchka or ‘mighty handful’, the Russian Nationalist grouping of composers led by Balakirev. Developing as a folklorist, conductor and virtuoso pianist as well as a composer, Lyapunov was particularly close to Balakirev (after the older composer’s death in 1910 he completed his Second Piano Concerto and published his posthumous works). In 1893, together with Balakirev and Liadov, Lyapunov was commissioned by the Imperial Geographical Society to make expeditions to collect folksongs in various parts of the Russian Empire, especially its northern territories: an endeavour which resulted in it publishing a monumental three-volume collection of such material.
From 1891 to 1902 Lyapunov was assistant director of the Imperial Chapel, from 1908 to 1911 director of the Free Musical School, and from 1910 to 1918 professor of piano at the St Petersburg Conservatory. In 1919, after the October Revolution, he left Russia and took refuge in Paris, where he died in 1924 at the age of 64. Only the previous year, the leading critic and Russian music authority M. D. Calvocoressi had written in Eaglefield Hull’s notable Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians that Lyapunov was ‘nowadays … the foremost living representative of the nationalist tendencies as exemplified in the works of Balakirev and his contemporaries’.
As that verdict suggests, Lyapunov’s idiom remained fairly conservative by the standards of the early 20th century, comfortably ensconced in the well-established patterns of ‘St Petersburg Classicism’—against which his younger contemporaries (such as Stravinsky and Prokofiev) reacted so strongly. But for Lyapunov that Russo-Germanic style, so strongly policed by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and those who chose the programmes of the prestigious Beliaeff Concerts (financed by the wealthy entrepreneur Mitrofan Beliaeff, who also ran a publishing house devoted to Russian music in Leipzig), was not—as it became for some—a form of dutiful academic nationalism. Moreover, like Balakirev, he was much influenced by the music of Franz Liszt, as can be heard most clearly in his copious output of piano music, much of it of virtuoso standard and including a monumental set of 12 Études d’exécution transcendante composed between 1897 and 1905 and intended as a continuation of Liszt’s own Transcendental Etudes. Lyapunov’s other works include two symphonies, two piano concertos, a Rhapsody on Ukrainian Themes for piano and orchestra, an exotic oriental tone-poem Hashish and a large number of songs and partsongs.
Lyapunov’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 61, his only essay in the genre, was written in 1915; he completed it on 9 August of that year, and revised it in 1921, making it an exact contemporary of what is probably his most important chamber work, the Sextet Op 63 for piano, string quartet and double bass. Although the concerto was premiered in Petrograd on 22 November 1916 by the violinist I. R. Nalbandian, this was only with piano accompaniment: the first known performance with orchestra took place in Moscow on 19 December 1944, given by the violinist Yulian Sitkovetsky and an orchestra conducted by V. Degtyarenko. The revision, completed in Paris on 28 February 1921, was largely devoted to improving the solo part, in collaboration with the violinist and composer Joseph Achron.
Like a number of recent Russian concertos (eg Arensky’s for violin, Rimsky-Korsakov’s and Glazunov’s for piano) Lyapunov cast his Violin Concerto in a single large movement. It opens Allegro appassionato with a flowing yet dark-hued theme announced by the violin in its lowest register. The pervasive 3/4 time occasionally gives the music the character of a passionate waltz, and soloist and orchestra develop this theme with increasing ardour until the introduction of a gorgeous and melancholically expressive second subject, Un poco più tranquillo, which appears in F major (the relative major of D minor). After this has also been developed, and the first theme briefly restated, concluding what would normally be the exposition of a sonata-form movement, Lyapunov introduces a playful scherzo-like episode with a new, rather folk-like theme, which he ingeniously combines in counterpoint with the concerto’s opening theme.
Further development leads to an Adagio in D flat major that serves the concerto as a ‘slow movement’ and has its own mellifluous theme which the soloist decorates in filigree fashion. Within the Adagio is a magical central episode, in which the violin is accompanied by harp while in dialogue with the woodwind and muted strings. After this section the opening Allegro appassionato returns, initiating a recapitulatory section in which we not only re-encounter the second subject—now in D major—but also a return of the folk-like scherzando material. When this has run its course the soloist is finally allowed a large-scale unaccompanied cadenza of transcendental virtuosity, that draws together the work’s various threads and leads to a Più mosso, agitato coda in which the demands of the violin writing remain just as formidable. The coda culminates in a brief, passionate apotheosis of the Adagio theme before the fiery concluding bars that bring the concerto to an end in breathtaking style.
Aram Ilyich Khachaturian was born in Kidzhori near Tblisi on June 6th 1903 to a poor Armenian family. In his youth, he was fascinated by the music he heard around him, but he remained self-taught until the early 1920s, when he moved to Moscow where his brother had become stage director of the Second Moscow Art Theatre. Although he had almost no musical education, Khachaturian showed such promise that he was admitted to the Gnessin Institute, where he studied cello and, from 1925, composition with the Institute’s founder, the Russian-Jewish composer Mikhail Gnessin. In 1929, he entered the Moscow Conservatory where he studied composition with Nikolai Myaskovsky and orchestration with Sergei Vasilenko. He graduated in 1934 and wrote most of his important works—the symphonies, ballets and the principal concertos—over the following 20 years. In 1951, he became professor at the Gnessin State Musical and Pedagogical Institute (Moscow) and at the Moscow Conservatory. He also held important posts at the Composers’ Union: he became deputy chairman of the Moscow branch in 1937, and was appointed vice-chairman of the Organizing Committee of Soviet Composers in 1939.
In 1948, however, he temporarily fell from official favour and was condemned by Andrei Zhdanov, secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, along with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky and other Soviet composers as ‘formalist’ and ‘anti-popular’. This despite the fact that the composers in question became established internationally as the leading figures in Soviet Music, and that Khachaturian had always striven to incorporate Armenian folk elements into his music. He, like the others, was forced to make a public apology for his ‘stylistic deviations from the socialist path’. In time, however, Khachaturian was able to regain official favour, and after the death of Stalin he was the first prominent composer to call publicly for the relaxation of bureaucratic restraints on composers’ creative work. He received many state awards both before and after the Zhdanov decree, and went on to serve again as Secretary of the Board of the Composers’ Union, from 1957. Though Khachaturian lived most of his life in Moscow (where he died in 1978) he was buried in Yerevan, Armenia, along with other distinguished who made Armenian art accessible to the whole world. In 1998, he was honoured by appearing on the Armenian 50-dram banknote.
Though probably most widely known for his famous ballets Gayane and Spartacus, Khachaturian is also celebrated for his series of concertos—indeed the Piano Concerto (1936) and Violin Concerto (1940) have become part of the standard 20th-century repertoire. While those works are in the standard three movements, in the early 1960s Khachaturian composed a series of one-movement concertos—or ‘concerto-rhapsodies’, as he called them—one each for violin, cello and piano. The first of these was the Concerto-Rhapsody in B flat minor for violin and orchestra composed in 1961–62; in its single-movement arch and episodic form, not to mention its underlying romanticism, it is not impossibly distant, stylistically, from Lyapunov’s concerto. Khachaturian composed the work for the violinist Leonid Kogan, who gave the premiere on 3 November 1962 with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kiril Kondrashin.
By this stage of his career Khachaturian’s music was less concerned with Armenian intonation and colouring, or with the aggressive rhythms of his earlier music, and his orchestration had become more impressionistic. The Concerto-Rhapsody combines the various appearances of a principal theme, which haunts the work despite many side episodes, with an overall two-part, fast-slow form distantly reminiscent of the rhapsodies of Liszt, Bartók and Enescu. It is so inventive, within its smaller compass, that it is probably a finer work than the better-known 1940 Violin Concerto, a work in which repetition tends to steer near to redundancy.
The Concerto-Rhapsody opens in lamenting mood, with imploring music for strings and brass set against a mysterious ostinato and creating a tense, uneasy atmosphere. Flute and harp lead to the entry of the soloist, with an elaborate cadenza-like monologue which leads to a rhapsodic statement and elaboration of the main theme over pulsating wind chords. The music becomes more animated and the solo part ever more decorative, assuming an increasingly folk-like character, before reaching an eloquently soulful version of the main theme that marks the mid-point of the piece and the lyrical high point so far. Despite its kaleidoscopic changes of colour, the music is somehow hypnotic in its gradual building-up of tension.
Robustly fiddling, gypsy-style music for the soloist opens the work’s livelier and more brilliant second half, in which Khachaturian’s typically aggressive rhythmic writing for brass and percussion makes itself felt. The headlong vigour of the music slows for a time as the opening theme returns, opening up a vein of soulful passion for soloist and orchestra, as do other, haunting elements from the work’s opening moments. But evocations of folk-dance provoke the biggest climax so far, and the outcome is a fiery and virtuosic closing section that drives to an exhilaratingly decisive close.
Towards the end of his life Khachaturian wrote a series of works for solo string instruments, which formed his final musical legacy. The Sonata-Monologue for solo violin was his penultimate work, composed in 1975 for the gifted Kiev-born violinist Viktor Pikaizen, a pupil of David Oistrakh. Khachaturian may have been thinking of Pikaizen’s reputation as an exponent of the unaccompanied violin works of Paganini and J. S. Bach, which he had made very much his own in terms of repertoire. The term ‘monologue’ in the title is no conventional epithet: Khachaturian was clearly inspired by the idea of the violinist as a lonely, bardic voice, and the folkloric aspects of his style are accordingly in prominence once again. The implied image of the work is that of an Armenian ashug or itinerant bard and mystic who improvises songs: it is worth noting that two of Khachaturian’s earliest works were a piece entitled Roaming Ashug’s Song for cello and piano (1925) and a Song-Poem, In Honour of the Ashugs, for violin and piano (1929).
The single-movement Sonata-Monologue juxtaposes voluble, rhapsodic outpourings in alternation with more obstinate rhythmic episodes where a single phrase may be explored through exhaustive repetition, but the overall effect is of something concentrated and controlled. The monologue character, like a keening or protesting vocalise, has a power and intensity offset dramatically by the forward drive of the more rhythmic sections. The music passes through a succession of emotional states, only to end in a questioning, unresolved coda, as if the lone figure of the bard, still singing, has passed on into the distance.
Malcolm MacDonald © 2012