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Armenian Piano Music

New Album

Mikael Ayrapetyan - piano

Komitas, Spendiarian, Babadjanian, Abramian, Bagdasarian, Amirkhanian


Music in Armenia has a long and rich history, stretching back to the Middle Ages and beyond, with its origins in popular folk-songs. Towards the end of the nineteenth century these played a major rôle in the development of a national music identity and in the twentieth century Armenian composers began to establish an international reputation. The hypnotic simplicity of line and texture in the Six Dances by Komitas lay the foundations of a clearly defined national sound alongside the Tatar melodies which appear in Spendiarian’s Crimean Sketches. Russian lyrical romanticism as well as Western influences colour the next generation’s music, as do elements of impressionism and soulful jazz in the recent works of Robert Amirkhanian.

Armenian Piano Music Komitas • Spendiarian • Babadjanian • Abramian • Bagdasarian • Amirkhanian The rich cultural and musical history of Armenia can be traced back to the third millenium BCE, by which time the country already had its own language and distinctive style of monodic vocal music. Over centuries of growth, war and political domination (most notably as part of the Persian and Ottoman Empires), church and folk music provided an important means of asserting regional identity and pride. The country’s folk traditions were to play a major role in the development of a national identity within art music, towards the end of the nineteenth century. The closest major musical centres beyond Armenian borders were Constantinople to the west, and Tbilisi to the east—and these provided links with both European and Russian cultural developments. The first Armenian-language opera was written in the 1860s; and by the 1880s, a number of musicians began systematically collecting folksongs and dances. It is with one of these collector pioneers that this album begins: Soghomon Georgi Soghomonian, known as Komitas (1869–1935). Komitas was one of the first Armenian musicians to undergo classical Western musical training, in Berlin, in addition to music education in his own country. He was educated in a theological seminary in Vagharshapat, and ordained a priest in 1894. A gifted singer, he studied liturgical singing and early Armenian chant notation. He also developed a keen interest in folksong, and collected melodies which he would then harmonise for choral performance. He published both folksong collections and writings on Armenian church melodies, and his work laid the foundations for the development of a clearly defined national musical style. He moved to Constantinople in 1910, a city with a significant Armenian population, and continued to compose (predominantly vocal music), conduct and research. His Six Dances for piano solo were written in 1916, and are striking for their simplicity of line and texture, and the uncluttered nature of his harmonisations of traditional melodies. There is an almost hypnotic quality to these pieces, and a sense that the music is somehow endless—many of the Dances conclude with repeat marks, and the modes in which they are written seem infinitely repeatable and without a strong sense of closure. Accompaniment figurations are minimal, usually either drone-like or providing a secondary melody that compliments the first. Komitas makes creative use of key signatures in which natural signs are used to subvert the sense of being ‘in a key’ in the Western sense. The next composer featured on this album was a near contemporary of Komitas, and seems to have adapted certain characteristics of Western pianistic writing to suit the nature of his own national material. Aleksandr Afansii Spendiarian (known in Russian as Spendiarov, 1871–1928) was born in the Crimea, and he subsequently studied law in Russia before taking up musical training with Rimsky-Korsakov from 1896–1900. He pursued a successful career as a conductor and educationalist, and moved to Yerevan—the Armenian capital—in 1924. Whilst Komitas was primarily interested in vocal music, Spendiarian developed a national orchestral and operatic style. His four Crimean Sketches, Op. 9 (premièred 1903) are based on Tatar melodies from his homeland, and were dedicated to the Armenian- Russian painter Ivan Konstantinovich Ayazovsky, whose landscapes and seascapes exerted a marked influence on Spendiarian. Whilst these melodies were evidently constructed in a non-tonal idiom, Spendiarian harmonises them with familiar diatonic chords and arpeggiations. The striking dissonances that this occasionally creates, and the powerful rhythmic drive of the dances that open and close the group, adds to the sense of drama. This is flavoured with Chopinesque figuration, unusual time signatures, and the strains of the balalaika. Following a brief period as an independent republic at the end of the First World War, Armenia fell under Russian rule in 1920, and remained under Russian political control until 1991. It is not surprising, therefore, that Russian culture and musical models came to exert influence over composers and performers working in the country. Many trained in Russia and maintained strong connections with leading musicians there—perhaps most famously, Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978). Among Khachaturian’s protégés was Arno Babadjanian (1921–1983), an Armenian-born composer who studied in Moscow before returning to his home city of Yerevan to join the staff of the Conservatory there. The pieces featured here span five decades of Babadjanian’s career. The early Impromptu (1936) and Melody (1936, originally entitled Andante and subsequently reissued in 1973) seem to bear the fingerprints of Debussy and Chopin; the Melody in particular seems reminiscent of the Polish composer’s E minor Prelude, Op. 28 No. 4 with its chromatically descending chordal left hand. The Prelude and Vagharshapat Dance (both 1947) draw inspiration from the lyricism of Rachmaninov and early Scriabin on the one hand, and a lively, popular Armeninan dance—hailing from the town in which Komitas received his theological training—on the other. The Humoresque, a much later work, composed in 1973, is a quirky blend of jazz harmonies and folk melody. Finally the Elegy (1978) was written in memory of Khachaturian, and is an arrangement of Qani vour jan im (So long as I live), a song by the leading eighteenth-century ashugh (poet-musician) Sayat-Nova. Eduard Aslanovich Abramian (1923–1986) and Eduard Ivanonich Bagdasarian (1922–1987) were both close contemporaries of Babadjanian, and the three men all built their musical careers, as pianists and composers, in Yerevan in the 1950s and 1960s. Abramian, who was born in Georgia, was to become a prominent member of the Armenian Composers Union, and a prolific composer who wrote stage works, song and orchestral compositions as well as many works for his own instrument. The 24 Preludes were written in stages over the course of his career: Nos. 1 to 6 were composed in 1948, and the complete set of 24 was published in 1972. Perhaps as a result of this time lapse, Abramian’s Preludes are not organised by key, or in any kind of cyclic pattern—indeed, several keys are repeated, whilst others are omitted altogether. The group of four presented here include a lively, agitated dance in E minor (No. 3), a gently lyrical song in A major (No. 13), and two rather stormier movements in C sharp minor (No. 6) and G sharp minor (No. 19) which bear clear traces of Rachmaninov’s influence, particularly in the composer’s use of pianistic figurations and textures. Yet Abramian’s ‘source’ material—the melodies and harmonies of his country’s music—is still evident in the constant play of sharps and naturals in No. 3, and the delicate right-hand filigree of No. 6. Although bearing similar traits of lyrical romanticism to Abramian’s pieces, Bagdasarian’s 24 Preludes are mostly on a smaller scale, and follow the familiar pattern of major and minor keys as employed by Chopin. His Preludes were composed in four sets of six in 1951, 1953, 1954, 1958 and first published in 1961, and once again the model of Rachmaninov is detectable. As with much of this repertoire—including Abramian’s Preludes – melodies are repeated and reharmonised, supporting textures growing increasingly dense and virtuosic. The modal character of Armenian music is ever-present within the works’ tonal construction, even in the simple, graceful minuet of No. 9 in E major, as double sharps and naturals crunch between hands. The final pieces on this recording are by Yerevanborn composer Robert Babkenovich Amirkhanian (b. 1939), who has taught at the State Conservatory—known today as the Komitas State Conservatory in honour of Komitas’s enduring musical legacy—since 1970. He has also worked for Armenian Radio, acted as the Chairman of the Union of Composers and Musicologists of Armenia since 1991, and from 1999–2003 also acted as an Armenian parliamentary deputy. The three works presented here, In Front of a Portrait, Children’s Images and Spring Drops, were composed in 2009, and are reminiscent of the romantic approach of Bagdasarian and Abramian, whilst incorporating elements of jazz and French impressionism.

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