Flexaton / Musical saw in Khachaturian's piano concerto - Katharina Micada | Singende Säge

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The flexaton (Musical saw) part in
Khachaturian's piano concerto
The expression "flexaton(e)" means "to flex a tone".
It has a double meaning and is used for

- the instrument Musical saw (between circa 1920 and 1965)
- the instrument Flexatone (since ca 1923 (patents 1922 and 1924))
In compositions from that period it is necessary to figure out, which instrument is meant. A closer look at the score/libretto and a research about the surroundings is useful.
In general the Flexatone is noted with tremolo and is used for short effects, the Musical saw is noted without tremolo and is used for melodies.
In this Piano Concerto it is probable, that Khachaturian wanted to have the sound of a Musical saw (more below).
READ MORE about the Flexaton part in Shostakovich's opera "The nose"
Here you can listen to recordings of the flexaton part in the second movement with Musical saw and with Flexatone.
1. with Musical saw
2. with Flexatone
The following composers (and maybe more) used the term "flexaton" for the Musical saw and noted "flexaton" in the score:
- Arthur Honegger (Antigone, 1924/1927) > see recording of the opera with musical saw from 27'23.
- Erwin Schulhoff (Symphonie Nr. 1, 1925), there is no tremolo noted in the flexaton part and the sound of the Musical saw makes musically much more sense than the Flexatone, have a look at the flexaton part
- Ernst Krenek (Opera "Jonny spielt auf", 1927), who used the special sound of Harlem Jazzbands in the 1920ies, where musical saws were used as well as washboards and other domestic instruments. In this excerpt of a recording you can listen to the musical saw from 2'30, from 2'54 and from 3'48
- Dmitri Shostakovich (opera "The nose", 1929)
- Giacinto Scelsi (Quattro pezzi per orchestra, 1959) - he noted "Sega o Flessatono", which can't be meant alternatively because of the very diverging sound character of both instruments
- Hans Werner Henze (opera "Elegy for young lovers", 1961) , to whom I spoke personally, when I played the "flexaton"-part on the Musical saw in his opera "Elegy for young lovers" in Bilbao 2009. He told me, that there were always confusion with the double meaning of "flexaton". Secondary here is a report of the premiere (in German), where the musical saw is mentioned.

Arguments for the Musical saw and against the instrument Flexatone in Khachaturian's Piano concerto:
- Khachaturian wrote in the second edition of the score about the "Flessatone", that it should only be played, if it has a whistling, but not a ringing character.
- The Flexatone needs to be played with tremolo (sound production with two little mellets) and normally the tremolo is specially noted as for example in the flexaton part in Schönberg's Orchestervariationen Op.31. But there is no tremolo noted in the flexaton part of this Piano concerto.
- The Musical saw is a folk instrument, which is known in traditional Russian music. Khachaturian related much to (Armenian) traditional music, especially in this Piano concerto, probably he also knew Russian folk music, where the saw was common at that time.
- The Flexatone is no traditional instrument.

With regard to the musical context, it is probable, that Khachaturian wanted to have originally a musical saw in this concerto. In the second movement the flexaton voice goes unisono with the high violins and it's character is very lyrical. The sound of a Flexatone has always the chattering of the little mallets, which sounds like a doorbell and would disturb the lyrical character of this movement
(listen to 2).

There were recently at least four performances of this concerto with the Musical saw:

July 2012 in Round Top, Texas (USA):
Round Top Orchestra with James Dick on piano under the baton of Charles Olivieri-Munroe (Max Butler, Musical saw)

October 2013 in Berlin:
Rundfunksinfonieorchester Berlin with Nareh Arghamanyan on piano under the baton of Alain Altinoglu (CD recording a few days after the concert) > review of the CD with reference to the original intention of Khachaturian (Katharina Micada, Musical saw)

February 2014 in London:
London Philharmonic Orchestra with Marc-Andre Hamelin on piano under the baton of Osmo Vänskä (live broadcasting on bbc radio) > review of this concert in "The Guardian" "the piece is memorable for including a musical saw in the slow movement" (Katharina Micada, Musical saw). Recording of this performance

June 2015 in Dresden:
Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra with Jean-Yves Thibaudet on piano under the baton of Bertrand de Billy < review of this concert (in German) about the soloistic appearence of the musical saw (Katharina Micada, Musical saw)

Katharina Micada
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