The symphonic form and its tone poem subgenre were the main focus for Jean Sibelius during his long and prolific career. He wrote only one concerto, and that was for his most beloved instrument, the violin. Nonetheless, this concerto stands as a titanic representation of that genre for its technical difficulties, melodic splendor and breadth of possibilities for the instrument. It remains one of the true tests for violinists, and it was performed with great emotional depth, technical prowess and touching beauty by young Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony, in a program featuring Berlioz’s Les francs-juges and ending with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor.

Sergey Khachatryan © Marco Borggreve
Sergey Khachatryan
© Marco Borggreve

In his return engagement with the orchestra after his impressive debut playing Shostakovich in 2013, Khachatryan proved himself worthy of the myriad of competition prizes he has earned since 2000. That year, he became the youngest person ever to win the Sibelius Competition; this performance confirmed that he is eminently equipped to perform the work.

Khachatryan not only demonstrated phenomenal technical proficiency, but also sensitivity in dynamic range and astonishing consistency and power of tone, from the upper ranges of the lowest string to the stratosphere of the highest. What made his rendition special was the way he communicated his intensity, focus and passion, both for the instrument and for the music, and his fearlessness in holding long pianissimo tones with an impressive steadiness of the bow, not unlike Pavarotti endlessly floating the final high note in “Celeste Aida”. Despite an almost gypsy-like sentimentality in some of the more fervent passages, Khachatryan’s interpretation was nonetheless thoroughly convincing.

Morlot provided an accompaniment that was wholly substantial in the monumental tutti passages and introspectively subtle when accompanying the soloist. The viola solo in the second subject of the first movement was especially well played, sensitively attuned to the interplay between that instrument and the solo violinist.

Les francs-juges was one of Berlioz’ lesser known overtures, perhaps because he abandoned his work on the opera he had based on the libretto his colleague Humbert Ferrand penned for him. Little, if any, of the opera music has survived; however, the overture, instantly recognizable as style typique for the youthful Berlioz, remains a popular part of the standard orchestral repertoire.

Morlot showed a keen understanding of his native Frenchman’s oeuvre, building from the solemn majesty of the opening Adagio to the lively, almost desperately frantic pace of the following sections. He brought out the all-important, foreboding Vehmic three-note phrase in the lower brass and the fits and starts of the lively sections; and gleefully mined the dramatic intensity of the tumultuous ending, subtly displaying hints of what was to come at the height of the Romantic era of which Berlioz was a trailblazer. That Berlioz scored the work to include two ophicleides was further proof of the composer’s appealing idiosyncrasies. It’s not every day that one has the opportunity to see two ophicleides/tubas perform together onstage, and these Seattle Symphony players seemed to relish every moment.

The zenith of the Romantic era initiated by Berlioz and Beethoven is epitomized by Tchaikovsky’s deeply passionate Fifth Symphony. Unlike Berlioz’s early operatic effort, this beloved Tchaikovsky work, completed in the composer’s prolific final five years, is as frequently performed as any of the most popular Romantic works. As familiar as it is, the piece does not play itself; it offers challenges for every section of the orchestra, which also equates into opportunities for those instruments to shine.

Morlot, conducting without a score, deftly controlled the tempi and dynamics to allow for bursts of passion to stand out at the appropriate moments. He immediately set a melancholy, operatic atmosphere in the Andante introduction of the first movement, with its foreboding lower winds reminiscent of the gloomier moments in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, which premiered just two years after his Fifth. The maestro deftly built on this weightiness in the Allegro con anima, culminating in a declamatory E minor climax that brings to mind the finale of Tchaikovsky’s much earlier opera Eugene Onegin, ending as solemnly as it began.

The ever popular Andante cantabile is justifiably revered as a mainstay of the French horn repertoire, especially when played as beautifully as it was here, heightened by sensitive counterpoint playing from the oboe. The cello section stood out for its lush melodic renderings in the movement’s more passionate moments.

Morlot kept the pace flowing throughout the Valse, tenderly played with Gounod-like sensibility and lightness, setting the stage for a dynamite rendering of the fourth movement, Tchaikovsky’s final symphonically exultant moment before his devastatingly tragic Pathétique