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.
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.
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.