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Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich: ‘I’ve been wanting to play Khachaturian all my life’

The Sabre Dance is not to everyone’s taste but the German cellist is looking forward to performing it at the NCH

The best-known piece by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian is the high-tension, catchy and rhythmically insistent Sabre Dance from his ballet, Gayane. It was first produced in Perm in 1942 and quickly became his most popular work. Before the end of the decade the Sabre Dance had been covered by the likes of Woody Herman and The Andrews Sisters. Liberace played it, as did James Last, and it’s been featured in dozens of films, TV series and video games.

It’s one of those pieces that people seem either to love or to hate. “The music is garish and deeply unoriginal, but not without theatrical effectiveness,” wrote the Record Guide in 1955. Its enduring popularity attests to the majority view, and its status as an earworm is incontrovertible.

The Sabre Dance was performed by what was then the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra in 1949 under Aloys Fleischmann, and Goar Theis, a member of the orchestra’s cello section, gave the Dublin premiere of the Cello Concerto under Lieut Col JM Doyle in 1954. But the Cello Concerto has always come third behind the composer’s earlier concertos for piano and violin.

German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, who will play the concerto with the NSO under Elena Schwarz, on Friday, February 24th, is a fervent admirer of the work. However, he’s never performed it before. “I’ve been wanting to play it all my life and no one’s agreed until now. So I’m very happy that we’re doing it in Dublin. Very, very excited. It’s one of the last what I would call great concertos that I haven’t done.”


He says frankly, “I don’t know why it’s not known as much as the Violin Concerto. I don’t see it weaker in any way. I know that it was very badly received at the time, more so than the Violin Concerto. That can put a dent on pieces for a long time. As you know with the Elgar, for decades it wasn’t played, because of the first performance.”

He admits that it’s difficult, but says, “It’s not as difficult maybe as Prokofiev. So there’s no technical reason why it shouldn’t be played. It’s quite long, though, that’s usually a bit of a turn-off for presenters.”

His take on the work is quite unusual. “I think it’s amazing and it’s more radical than the Violin Concerto,” he says. “It’s really a kind of Armenian minimalism. You can really call it minimalist. The thematic material is not developed at all. It’s just repeated and slightly reshaped, recoloured, and repeated and repeated, and cut up, and put back together. But there is no motivic development. The themes are extremely simple. They couldn’t be simpler.”

He draws an analogy with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and its famous four-note motif, something he sees as making the work “so strong”. He draws attention to “the very colourful orchestration, these beautiful seventh and ninth chords… It’s completely unique. There’s no composer who wrote anything like it. Nobody was able to pick up on that as far as I know. That was just his language. It suits the cello very well, I think. So I hope that it will become more part of the standard repertoire.”

Khachaturian is often criticised for the repetitiveness of his work. “I love repetition,” explains Elschenbroich. “I think if something is good, I can’t get enough of it. So, if a theme is good, just keep repeating it and repeating it. And repetition is such an interesting field, because nothing is ever really repeated.” He sees composers who are afraid of repetition as making a mistake. Repetition is an experience to lose yourself in.

“I mean, how repetitive is Bruckner?” he asks. “Or how repetitive is the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony? Or a Schubert development? But they’re so beautiful that they just need to be repeated and deserve to be repeated. That’s the question. And that I can’t prove. If one feels that Khachaturian’s music doesn’t deserve so many repetitions because it’s not good enough, as it were, then I can just put my hands up and say I think it is.”

He makes an architectural analogy. “I don’t know if one would be bored of the repetition of art in a Gothic cathedral. Or even the library that you have in your background [the Long Room of the Old Library in TCD]. You could say it’s so boring, it’s the same all the time. But that’s the beauty, it is the same, each of those cubes is the same, and they’re repeated, and that gives us the confirmation that this was the right design. It’s beautiful because it’s repeated. It would be very kitschy if every one of those cubes was completely different, or even a little bit different. It’s nice that they are the same. I feel that way about Khachaturian.”

He understands the strangeness of his position. “I don’t know if we’re allowed to refer to it as minimalism, because, of course, minimalism becomes a kind of anti-expressive, formalist kind of ethos. Which is not at all the case with Khachaturian. It’s very physical, very sanguinous music. It’s not Philip Glass, Steve Reich. Nothing to do with that at all. But, technically in its repetitiveness and the way in which it’s then just cut and elongated and cut and elongated… it’s like an Armenian minimalist.”

Eslchenbroich’s love of Khachaturian is part of a wider engagement with Russian music. “It started very young,” he says. “When I was 12 I got into Shostakovich and my father bought me all his symphonies and string quartets. I made posters of Shostakovich and put them on my wall. It was like other people do with a band.

“I had a lot of Russian friends, also Russian teachers. In Cologne, Zakhar Bron’s class had a lot of Russian students who were my circle of friends. Leonid Gorokhov was my teacher at the Menuhin School. I almost always seem to have played with Russian and Ukrainian pianists.”

He elaborates, saying “Something has drawn me to the musical culture, the Russian Soviet and post-Soviet era, and also earlier, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovksy. What in German we call a Wahlverwandschaft, an elective affinity. It’s a different kind of association than I would have with German music. I do feel that German music is in my roots, and Russian music is maybe in a previous life or in another universe.” He laughs at himself as he says this.

“There’s an equal degree of connection,” he continues, “but it seems something that isn’t really part of my roots, but something that I can empathise with, or something that I can imagine to have been, or be.”

Elschenbroich’s musical achievements include helping an orchestra in South America – the youthful Orquesta Filarmonica de Bolivia – to grow and develop. He’s taken up conducting and taken it seriously enough that, although he’ll turn 40 in 2025, he has spent the last three years taking a conducting degree at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin. The morning we spoke he had just had his final Italian exam.

It seems to have been musically deepening and life-enhancing experience. “You can get a long way with instinct and intuition and experience and talent,” he says. But, as a conductor, “you’re not just responsible for other people’s playing, you have the audacity to tell them how to play! If you’re telling other musicians how they have to play, you really have to have something to back it up with. You have to have some kind of proof. That’s a huge study. When you’ve graduated, that’s only the beginning. It’s an endless thing.”

And the conducting seems to have influenced his playing. “My recital parter, Alexei Grynyuk, with whom I play on my recordings and do almost all my recitals with, he has noticed that. I can’t say it myself. But he says that I listen better and I find my place within the bigger picture, especially within the vertical hierarchy. Better than before.”

He recalls something the great German conductor Kurt Masur told him when he was about 18. “He said, being a musician is the most wonderful job in the world if you’re successful and it’s awful if you’re not.”

So Elschenbroich understandably bewails the effects of social media, which can amplify the perception of both success and failure. “I’m lucky that I’m just pre the social media generation,” he says. “There was social media when I was young, but it wasn’t really a part of professional life. It was just a fun thing. Now when I see students or people in their early 20s, about 50 per cent of the job is to create social media success and presence. I think it’s very sad at that age to have to do that. To not have time to live with music and delve into music and let it develop. But to immediately have to put everything out there all the time.”

Leonard Elschenbroich plays Khachaturian’s Cello Concerto with the NSO under Elena Schwarz at the National Concert Hall on Friday, February 24th, in a concert that also includes Ligeti’s Concert Românesc and Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor