The Adventures of Ivan – piano pieces to delight young and old

The Adventures of Ivan is a suite of eight characterful piano miniatures by Aram Khatchaturian (1903-78), the titles of which suggest a narrative or snapshots in the life of a young boy called Ivan. Perhaps best known for his concertos and scores for the ballets Spartacus and Gayaneh (which includes the brilliant ‘Sabre Dance’), he also composed symphonies and other orchestral works, film and theatre music, chamber and band music, and a large number of patriotic and popular songs. His music is rich in the idioms of his Armenian heritage, marked by a strong rhythmic drive beautiful cantabile melodies and colourful textures. He was one of the most popular and successful composers of the Soviet period, alongside Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The Adventures of Ivan offers a fascinating glimpse into Khatchaturian’s distinctive style. Each piece in the suite has an evocative title which assist the pianist in shaping character, mood, and expression in the music, and each offers interesting technical and musical challenges, making the pieces very satisfying to play and to teach. ‘Ivan Sings’, for example, (the first work in the suite, written in 1926, and the best known) is marked Andantino and cantabile and has a singing melody in the right hand over tenuto chords in the left hand, which turn into a gentle syncopated rhythm in the second half of the piece. There is much scope for shaping of the melody, understanding how to balance the melody with the accompaniment, and syncopated pedal. The descending melody and piquant harmonies lend a wistfulness to this piece which is hard to resist.

In contrast, ‘Ivan Can’t Go Out Today’, scored in 3/8, has the dancing, swirling rhythms of a tarantella and is an exercise in coordination between the hands. It’s lively and dramatic, with crunchy harmonies, emphasised by accents to suggest Ivan’s frustration at being kept indoors, perhaps because it is raining or maybe because he has been naughty. But the final C major chord suggests the sun has come out again and Ivan is allowed out to play.

‘Ivan Goes to a Party’ is a humorous light-hearted waltz with hints of Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante Op 18 (particularly in its grandiose opening), while ‘Ivan is Very Busy’ is a sparkling little number, all staccato chattering. The works are intermediate level (the first two are cGrade 3) and there is much to delight pianists young and old in this charming suite.

 

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