Contemporary Armenian Chamber Music


New Focus FCR 244

This welcome recording presents music by five contemporary Armenian composers: Artur Avanesov (1980- ), Ashot Zohrabyan (1945- ), Michel Petrossian (1973- ), Artashes Kartalyan (1961- ), and Ashot Kartalyan (1985- ). All of these are new names to this writer and, most likely, to the majority of listeners. That is what makes this disc such an exciting prospect. This post WW2 generation of composers are writing music from the perspective of their generations, one which is qualitatively different than that of previous generations but all owe a debt to the man who is arguably Armenia’s first truly modern composer, Tigran Mansurian (1939- ) whose brave integration of modern trends in western music distinguish him from previous generations of classical composers whose focus was either nationalistic (as Copland was to American music) or traditional religious music for the Armenian Orthodox Christian rites. Mansurian, in addition to embracing European modernism also returned to embrace the traditional religious compositions of Komitas. Spirituality is a frequent and revered aspect of Armenian classical music.

Tigran Mansurian in San Francisco at the Other Minds 20 concert in 2015

One must, of course, acknowledge the “elephant in the room” issue of the Armenian genocide of 1915 (only now in 2021 finally acknowledged by the United States) as a factor in some degree in the artistic output of this small nation. There are no obvious references as such in the compositions recorded here but the selection of texts which either inspire or are literally set to be sung are notably somber whether hat be the Latin title of the first work on the disc, Artur Avanesov’s “Quasi Harema Maris” taken from the Book of Job or the beautiful but lonely poetry of Vahan Tekayan set in Artashes Katalyan’s “Tekayan Triptych”. Horrors such as this affect generations after all.

Movses Pogossian performing the US premiere of Tigran Mansurian’s “Romance for Violin and Strings (2011) at the Other Minds Festival in 2015. The concert was in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

It was Maestro Movses Pogossian who kindly sent me a review copy of this album. He played a large role in the conceptualization and production of this album. He also plays violin on the first track. The Armenian born Pogossian, a world renowned violinist, is also the head of the Armenian Music Program at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. He is also the artistic director of the Dilijan Chamber Music Series and artistic director of the VEM Ensemble, a group of graduate musicians in residence at UCLA. His involvement is yet another reason to get this disc. It is clearly a project close to his heart and one upon which he has invested a great deal of artistic energy.

This album was recorded in May, 2019 and released in 2020 where it ran up against the pandemic shutdowns which affected performing musicians and temporarily stifled this reviewer as well. So here is my very appreciative review perhaps a year later than intended.

There are 18 tracks containing pieces by five Armenian composers, all of whom took part in this production.

The first track contains a piece for piano quintet in one movement (Movses Pogossian and Ji Eun Hwang, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; Niall Ferguson, cello; and the composer Artur Avanesov at the piano). “Quasi Harena Maris” (2016) takes its Latin name from the Biblical Book of Job. The title in English reads, “Like the Sand of the Sea”. It is a metaphor spoken by Job as he compares his grief to the sand of the sea sinking in its heaviness. The piece is described by the composer as a set of variations. Microtonal gestures evoke a choir interacting in a sort of call and response strategy with the piano. This is a powerful piece sometimes meditative, sometimes declamatory, but always evoking pain and sadness such as that described by the Biblical Job. While embracing modernism in his compositional methods Avanesov embraces spirituality as well.

The second track contains another single movement work, Novelette (2010) by Ashot Zohrabyan. It is scored for piano quartet (Varty Manouelian, violin; Scott St. John, viola; Antonio Lysy, cello; and Artur Avanesov once again at the piano. This work seems to have much in common with the first in that it embraces modernist techniques with spiritual references to suggest longing and separation. It is another powerful expression which engages the listener with clever invention while evoking a post apocalyptic sadness.

Now we move from quintet through quartet and on to, of course, trio. This work, also in a single movement, is scored for piano trio (Varty Manouelian, violin; Charles Tyler, cello; and Artur Avanesov on piano. Michel Petrossian’s, “A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire” (2017), the title a contrasting of two different translations of the biblical event in which the Angel of God appears to Moses in a burning bush. The composer describes this piece as an investigation of identity (his own being variously of “Armenian by birth, Russian by education, and French by culture”). It is also an homage to Mr. Pogossian. More kinetic and varied than the previous two pieces, this tour de force nonetheless also knows pain.

Tracks 4-6 contain the “Tekeyan Triptych” by Artashes Kartalyan showcases the poetry of Vahan Tekeyan in an English translation by Vatsche Barsoumian. The UCLA VEM Ensemble (Danielle Segen, mezzo-soprano; Ji Eun Hwang and Aiko Richter, violins; Morgan O’Shaughnessey, viola; and Jason Pegis, cello). This is a beautifully lyric setting of some mighty somber poetry which is very much in keeping with the tone of this recording. The VEM Ensemble handles this lyricism with ease and professionalism.

We now move on to music for something other than strings and piano, namely the “Suite for Saxophone and Percussion” (2015) by Ashot Kartalyan. This five movement suite puts this writer in the mind of similar works by American composer Alan Hovhaness, the composer whose immersion in Armenian culture introduced many (this writer included) to the splendors of Armenian art music. This piece uses instrumental choices similar to Hovhaness and utilizes contrapuntal writing as well. but one cannot miss the jazz inflections doubtless gleaned from Kartalyan’s exposure to the work of his jazz musician father. This suite is also a more animated piece providing relief from the intense and somber music on the first half of the disc.

The final seven tracks are given to a selection from a series of works by the hard working pianist/composer who performed in the first three works on the disc. And it is here that we can solve the mystery of the title of the album as well. These brief works seem to be etudes, experimental compositional efforts which doubtless become material in some way for later works. The third piece presented here is titled “Modulation Necklace”. This selection comes from what the composers says are some seventy similar works under the title “Feux Follets” (frenzied flames in English). They are said to have no singe unifying aspect but it appears that these are an insight to some of the composer’s compositional methods. They provide a calm and curiously speculative little journey which leaves the listener wanting more.

This is a delightful disc made with serious scholarship and dedication which introduces audiences to the splendors of contemporary Armenian art music. One hopes that this well lead to more and larger works being recorded.

Unheard Hovhaness


KALAN 773

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is among the most prolific of American composers. He has written so much music that even now, over twenty years since he exited the earthly plane, there remains much music that has not been recorded and manuscripts that await editing and publication. This beautiful recording fills some of those gaps.

First I must say that Hovhaness holds a special place for me personally as his music has always felt like a personal discovery. In my early teens I was immediately hooked when I first heard a recording of his second symphony, better known as “Mysterious Mountain” (in the Chicago Symphony/Reiner recording). It would be years before I attempted to grapple with the structure of his music but I knew it spoke to me.. Another piece which caught my still forming musical ear was his Allegro on a Pakistan Lute Tune from pianist Robert Helps’ classic survey of American piano music on CRI recordings from 1966. And in 1976 Hovhaness’ “Achtamar” was included in radio station WFMT’s bicentennial survey of American Music curated by composer/educator Raymond Wilding-White.

I later heard a broadcast performance from Oberlin of his Visionary Landscapes for piano which also grabbed my attention. I would later hear this in the recording and at a live recital in 2011 performed by Sahan Arzruni in Berkeley, California in celebration of the composer’s centennial (curated by legendary Bay Area Armenian-American composer/producer/educator/broadcaster Charles Amirkhanian). I later purchased the two wonderful discs of piano music by equally legendary pianist/broadcaster/educator/new music advocate Marvin Rosen as well as a disc or two with the composer himself at the keyboard.

That brief personal history serves to illustrate some of why this disc is so exciting to me. This new recording is a sumptuous production that came in a little cardboard CD box with a distinctive design and gold stamped lettering. Inside is a CD in a matching cardboard slipcase and a high gloss paper booklet in three languages (Turkish, Armenian, and English). These useful notes describe the nature and sources of these compositions which are recorded for the first time, some from manuscripts which remain unpublished.

Arzruni is himself of Armenian extraction (born in Istanbul in 1943) and has been active as a pianist for many years as soloist and as a chamber music partner in a wide range of music. Some will recall him as the straight man playing in some of Victor Borge’s humorous recitals. Arzruni is a multifaceted artist whose knowledge and affinity for Turkish and Armenian music along with his firm grounding in the traditional western classical repertoire make him one of the finest interpreters of Hovhaness’ music. The pianists discography is diverse and interesting encompassing classical repertoire as well as fascinating niches of contemporary music from Turkey, Armenia, and their diaspora.

Sahan Arzruni with composer Alan Hovhaness

There are 34 tracks which contain 10 compositions. Some of the tracks require a percussionist (Adam Rosenblatt). All tracks are vintage Hovhaness. Though he is an American composer, born in Massachusetts, Hovhaness, in the tradition of learning non-western musics that traces to composers like Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, McPhee, Georges Enescu, and other proto-world music scholars who incorporated non-western scales, tunings, and compositional methods in their work. Hovhaness studied variously Armenian traditional music as well as Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Javanese, and Balinese musics.

The first piece on this disc is the five movement “Invocations to Vahakn” (1945-6). Vahakn is, in Armenian mythology, a god who symbolizes martial victory. According to legend he saved the earth by slaying savage black dragons in pre-Christian Armenia. The first movement is for solo piano. The remaining four augment the piano with various percussion instruments including a thunder sheet, Chinese drums, a conch shell, Burmese gongs, and cymbals. This piece appears to have been recorded only once before in an excellent performance by the Abel/Steinberg/Winant Trio on New Albion records.

Next up is another five (originally seven) movement suite for piano (this time without percussion), “Yenovk” (1951). This work went through several revisions ultimately culminating in it being renamed, “Madras Sonata” (1960). These five movements reveal various aspects of his compositional style including his imitation of non-western instruments and the use of various western and non-western forms. The five movements in the world premiere of this version of the work are: Fantasy, Canzona, Jhala, Canzona, Ballata, and Fugue. Hovhaness was a master of counterpoint and fugue as can be heard here. This was dedicated to Yenovk Der Hagopian, a singer and friend of the composer who introduced him to Armenian traditional folk music.

Lalezar (1947) is for solo piano. The title is a Farsi word for “field of tulips” and, like many of Hovhaness’ works, it went through later transformations culminating in it becoming a song in the 1971 song cycle (The flute Player of the Armenian Mountains) written for the great Armenian bass singer, Ara Berberian.

The next three tracks contain the “Suite on Greek Tunes” (1949). It is dedicated to the Greek-American pianist William Masselos (1920-1992) whose performing repertoire included a great deal of American music. This appears to tbe the first recording of it. The three movements, wedding song, grapeyard song, and dance in seven tala. The last movement reflects Hovhaness’ interest in Hindustani music. Tala is a rhythmic form in that musical system.

Mystic Flute (1937) is a brief piece which is also based on tala. It was a frequent encore played by none other than Sergei Rachmaninoff. The 1962 revision, given the Opus number 22 has been recorded but this is the premiere recording of the 1937 version originally published in 1942.

Journey into Dawn (1954) was originally titled, “Piano Suite No. 2”. This second of four piano suites composed in 1954 is cast in five movements: Hymn, Fugue, Jhala, Aria, Alleluia. Again we hear the eclectic nature of the composer’s interests with elements here of sacred music, western art music, and Hindustani forms.

Laona (1956) was originally titled, “Genesee River” after the river which runs through Rochester, New York. Hovhaness was fond of the views of the river. He later changed the name of the piece in reference to the city in New York state where the Spiritualist Movement established a center in the mid-19th century. This is an impressionistic piece rather unlike Hovhaness’ other works in style but certainly of the same quality. This is its recording premiere.

The three movement “Lake of Van Sonata” (1946, rev 1959). The title refers to Lake Van, the largest body of water in Anatolia and was the center of the Armenian kingdom or Ararat. It was populated predominantly by Armenians from about 1000 B.C. until the Armenian genocide of 1915. In his liner notes Arzruni reports that he has abridged the first movement in collaboration with the composer. This sonata has been recorded at least twice before this release.

Vijag (1946) is a composition for two pianos. The title refers to the traditional Armenian fortune telling festival. Though the notes do not specify, it appears that Arzruni plays both parts. It is a world premiere recording.

The disc ends with a fairly large work, the eight movement “Hakhpat Sonata” (1948-51). It is scored for piano and percussion (apparently the only Hovhaness piano sonata that uses percussion). The percussion consists of a large Tam Tam and a kettle drum tuned to the note “G”.

This is the first recording of this piece whose title refers to a large monastic complex built in 976 CE. The monastery has been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as of 1996.

This is a major release, a gorgeously recorded and produced CD album which fills essential gaps in Alan Hovhaness’ recorded legacy. The liner notes by Mr. Arzruni reflect his depth of knowledge of the music and his thorough research. All collectors of American Music, Armenian Music and lovers of piano music in general will want to have this disc. It is a gem.

Political Classical: Frank Horvat’s “For Those Who Died Trying”


horvatdiedtrying

Atma ACD2 2788

Frank Horvat (1974- )is a Canadian composer and musician with a profound interest in social justice and human rights.  In this 35 movement string quartet he is concerned with memorializing the lives of 35 activists who died while furthering the cause of human rights.  This work is made even more compelling by including photos from a photo essay of the subjects taken by Luke Duggleby, a Thai-based photographer and journalist.

Without a doubt this is a shining example of what I have termed, “Political Classical”, a genre of protest music which seems to have emerged in the twentieth century.  This work takes its place now with Frederic Rzewski’s Pueblo Unido Variations, and works by composers like Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, and countless others who have chosen to use their expertise in the classical genre to write works analogous to the folk protest music which is perhaps better known to the listening public.

With songs one has the words which can directly or indirectly evoke the particular issue being addressed.  But, other than a dedication in the program notes, how does one imbue their music with the intended meaning for a given protest work.  Well, Mr. Horvat has chosen to utilize only the letters from these victims’ names to form the musical material for each portrait.  That is he uses the letters which correspond to musical notes.  Most famously this practice is known through the B, A, C, H (corresponding in German notation as B flat, A, C, B) theme which is the basis for Bach’s Art of Fugue.

By itself this can be a bland and meaningless exercise but Horvat manages to work within this carefully limited framework to create 35 very convincing portraits of these Human Rights Heroes.  The 35 movements are relatively brief and put this listener in the mind of composers who have  succeeded quite well with such a format such as Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison.  Both of these composers and the man in discussion here work in a basically tonal framework with a balanced and judicious use of dissonance.  What is curious is how he seems to succeed in evoking these people purely through sound.

In comes the Mivos Quartet whose job it is to make sense of the composer’s intentions and breath life into the notes on the page.  This New York based string quartet consists of Olivia de Prato, violin; Maya Bennardo, violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; and Tyler J. Borden, cello.  And let’s just say they are up to the task.  Each movement takes on its individual character but retains a larger connection to the work as a whole.  Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the nature of individuality as part of the larger concept of humanity and why each perspective is vital to our collective survival.

Before I wax too philosophical let me just say that, at least in terms of this recording, this is a document of classical string quartet which also serves as a memorial to the victims it references and, hopefully, as a sort of wake up call to those who, for whatever reason, are unaware of these atrocities.  Ultimately, I suppose, the goal is the amelioration of inhumane practices.  But until then we may find comfort in the beauty which this composer has brought to this work.  This would seem to be a stab at acknowledgement of sacrifice in the name of human rights seeking justice but, for now, we must settle for beauty even if it brings tears which are a mix of both sadness and joy.

Unheard Piano Trios, Chicago’s Lincoln Trio Finds Neglected Wonders


Cedille 90000 165

 

The Lincoln Trio is a Chicago based piano trio (founded in 2003) consisting of Desiree Rushtrat, violin; David Cunliffe, cello; and Marta Aznavoorian, piano. Their choice of repertoire is particularly wide ranging and includes basically the entire history of the piano trio including contemporary works.  

The present (already Grammy nominated for chamber music performance) offering, titled “Trios from the Homelands” gives us readings of piano trios by Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Arno Babajanian (1921-1983), and Frank Martin (1890-1974).  All are described as being outsiders whose work is little known outside of their native lands of, respectively, England, Armenia, and Switzerland.  

In many ways this recording is representative of the strengths of the Cedille imprint.  Attention to fine local musicians, a unique ear for truly interesting repertoire from a variety of time periods (largely 20th century), and high quality recording.  Whether or not these selections become incorporated into the common performing repertoire for piano trios is secondary to the fact that these selections are eminently listenable and entertaining.  They may very well find a place in many listeners’ playlists.

The first selection by Rebecca Clarke was premiered in 1922 (the oldest piece here) with none other than Dame Myra Hess at the keyboard.  Clarke’s music is hampered by gender prejudice but not by depth or talent.  This is a substantial work which is highly entertaining and contains material that continues to reveal wonders with repeated listenings.  There are three movements and the style is basically tonal, perhaps post romantic.  

Next is the trio by Arno Babajanian.  Most listeners (this reviewer included) have little exposure to Armenian classical composers outside of the Armenian derived works by the fine American composer Alan Hovhaness and perhaps some exposure to the truly wonderful work of Tigran Mansurian, the living ambassador and dean of Armenian composers.  On hearing this substantial Chamber work from 1952 listeners are alerted to the fact that there is much quality music that has seldom been heard outside of a country whose best known attribute at the present moment may rest largely on the 2015 centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide perpetrated at the hands of the Turks.  

The last piece is by the most familiar composer, Frank Martin.  Though not exactly a household name his oeuvre is the best documented in recordings even if his presence in the performing repertoire is still somewhat limited.  Martin is best known for some of his orchestral and choral music.  This “Trio sur des melodies populaires irlandaises” (1925) is described as a significant early example of the composer’s chamber music and the only work for piano trio.

As with the first two trios this is a substantial work whose three movements provide both technical challenges and very effective musical development.  This is not simply a pastiche of Irish tunes.  It is a very accomplished use of so called “popular” melodies to fashion major piece of chamber music.  

This disc is another fine entry into the Lincoln Trio’s recordings of lesser known repertoire that deserves at least a second hearing if not a promotion to more common live performances.  Their previous releases have included music by Joaquin Turina and a disc of music by women composers.  It would seem they are an ensemble that bears watching/listening.

BMOP Opening Concert Commemorates Armenian Genocide


BMOP20_logo

ADDENDUM:  Unfortunately the pianist Nareh Arghamanyan will not be able to perform.  BMOP informs me that they are substituting a piece by the wonder.ful Israeli composer Betty Olivero called Neharot Neharot (2006-7) for two string orchestras, accordion, percussion, tape and viola.  It will feature none other than violist extraordinaire Kim Kashkashian.  

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project begins it 20th season on Sunday October 18th with a concert in honor of the 1915 Armenian genocide with a celebration of that country’s artistic heritage.  Titled Resilient Voices 1915-2015, the concert will feature works by Komitas (1869-1935), Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Tigran Mansurian (1939- ).

Komitas_1902

Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomonian, is generally regarded as the foundational composer for Armenian classical music in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Like Bartok and Kodaly, he collected and transcribed folk music from his country.  He is considered an early founder of the practice of ethnomusicology collecting Armenian and Kurdish folk music.  He was ordained a priest in the Armenian rite church and took the name Komitas.  The impact of the genocide affected him deeply and he spent the last 20 years of his life in a psychiatric facility where he died in 1935.

Alan Hovhaness

Alan Hovhaness

American composer Alan Hovhaness also embraced a musicological approach to his composition by including Armenian folk songs and that of other musical cultures he had explored including Korean and South Asian. He also acknowledges a debt to Komitas (Hovhaness released a recording on his own Poseidon label of him performing Komitas’ complete piano music).

Hovhaness remains less well-represented than he deserves in the concert hall so this performance of Khrimian Hairig (1944, rev 1948) is a welcome one.  The piece is in three continuous movements titled, “Chalice of Holiness”, “Wings of Compassion” and “Triumph of Faith”.  It is scored for string orchestra with solo trumpet.  The solo here will be played by prominent new music trumpeter Terry Everson (whose talents are to be required in the next piece on the program).  Hairig was a prominent Armenian cleric and mystic of the 19th century.

This work is early in Hovhaness’ prolific output and is characteristic of his Armenian period utilizing Armenian folk melodies and writing on Armenian themes.  He would later gain wider fame when Leopold Stokowski premiered his 2nd Symphony “Mysterious Mountain” in 1955 on NBC television.  Hovhaness died in 2001 leaving over 400 compositions of which 67 are symphonies.

Arghamanyan_Nareh

Nareh Arghamanyan

The Armenian connection to the next piece is apparently the BMOP début of the young Armenian pianist, Nareh Arghamanyan (1989- ) in the First Piano Concerto Op. 35 (1933) of Dmitri Shostakovich.  This unusual piece is scored for piano, string orchestra and trumpet (I told you Everson would be back).  It is one of those neo-baroque experiments and quotes from well-known classical pieces.  It is quite challenge for a pianist and the début of this rising artist will doubtless be one of the highlights of the concert.

The title of the concert is Resilient Voices 1915-2015 and is given in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) but more so in celebration of the voices and the talents that have endured.  Controversy remains evidenced by the fact that Azerbaijan and Turkey continue to deny the genocide but the estimated death toll was 1.5 million and this is the event for which the term “genocide” was first used.

Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose

Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose

It is the genius of Gil Rose, conductor and artistic director whose creative vision in a couple of releases  I recently reviewed ( Anthony Davis and Irving Fine) that first alerted me to the work of this fine ensemble (a little late, I know).  But I discovered a great orchestra with some of the most innovative programming with attention to new and recent music.  I was graciously offered a seat at this concert but it will have to be one of my regrets.  This sounds like a fantastic program.

Tigran Mansurian

Tigran Mansurian

How very appropriate then to have the BMOP premiere of the Requiem (2009) by Tigran Mansurian (1930- ) by far Armenia’s best known living composer.  The Requiem was written in memory of the holocaust and is scored for large orchestra, chorus and soprano and baritone soloists (not announced when last I checked yesterday).  Gil Rose conducts the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum with the Boston University Marsh Chapel Choir.  This is indeed a species of political music and BMOP is to be applauded for this as a contribution to the recognition of human rights. through music.

Tigran Mansurian at the piano at Other Minds in San Francisco.

Tigran Mansurian at the piano at Other Minds in San Francisco.

Mansurian previously appeared at the Other Minds 20th Anniversary concert (also dedicated to the holocaust) in March of 2015 in San Francisco.  At that concert I captured a moment from the pre-concert discussion in which Mansurian agreed to sing a traditional Armenian song accompanying himself at the piano, a very personal moment from a composer whose art is deeply felt.

Please, BMOP, record this.  Thanks in advance!!!