Audio Video Club of Atlanta Review of "The Sound of Black & White"- steel-riveting performances plumb the depths

“The Sound of Black & White,” music of Khachaturian, Levant, Gershwin Raffi Besalyan, piano (Sono Luminus)

Raffi Besalyan conceives the present program as a dual tribute to both Aram Khachaturian, the great national figure from his native Republic of Armenia, and George Gershwin, the musical genius of his adopted home the United States, with Oscar Levant bridging the gap between the two towering figures.

Besalyan makes no secret of the reverence he feels for Gershwin and Khachaturian, as his steel-riveting performances plumb the depths of some of the richest harmonies and most pungent rhythms in all music. Khachaturian comes first, with the piquant Waltz from his Masquerade Suite. Then we have the intensely moving Adagio from the Spartacus ballet, eight and a half minutes of music that captures the tenderness of the love of the rebel Spartacus and the slave girl Phrygia, with a dark undertow foreboding their tragic ending.

Khachaturian’s seldom-heard Sonatina is next in the program, and Besalyan does a great job acquainting us with the abundant riches and variety that are hinted-at in the titles of its three movements: I. Allegro giocoso, II. Andante con anima, rubato, III. Allegro mosso. 

Concerning the last, how can music be lively (allegro) and sad (mosso) at the same time? (Maybe it comes easier if you’re an Armenian.) It is followed by the incredibly tender Lullaby from the ballet Gayane, in a fine piano setting by Oscar Levant.

And speaking of Levant, whose career as a serious composer has long been overshadowed by his fame as an acerbic personality in MGM musicals, he finally gets a hearing on his own in Besalyan’s intelligent account of his finely wrought Piano Sonatina. Its three movements, marked I. Con ritmo II. Andantino poco mosso, and III. Allegro deciso, come across, respectively, as rhythmic, a little sad, and decisive, just like the man said. One is intrigued to want to hear more music by this enigmatic, neglected figure.

On to Gershwin, next, beginning with Besalyan’s performances of four delicious Virtuoso Etudes from the set of seven arranged from Gershwin songs by master pianist Earl Wild: Somebody Loves Me, Fascinatin’ Rhythm, Embraceable You, and The Man I Love. Wild himself couldn’t have given more infectious and compelling accounts of these old favorites.

The high point of the Gershwin part of the program are the 3 Preludes, fast, rhythmic and decisive as the markings for 1 and 3 tell us, and flavored with a delicious amount of rubato in 2. Besalyan’s accounts show why these Preludes have been so enormously popular with pianists over the years. He continues his inspired work with a performance of the original piano version of Rhapsody in Blue.

Gershwin, as we know, was not trained in the art of orchestration at the time of the work’s 1924 premiere by Paul Whiteman’s concert band, and so the work of arranging it for orchestra was entrusted to Ferde Grofé, with results that ensured its great success. A funny thing, but, as Besalyan’s account of the piano version shows us, clear hints as to what was needed in the way of orchestration were already present.

What do you do for an encore after Rhapsody in Blue? Besalyan selects Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance from Gayane, coming though with such a smashing performance, you wonder if the poor piano had to be sent out for repairs?