26 preludes for piano
World premiere recording
Described by Aram Khachaturian as “the greatest Soviet Armenian composer”, Haro Stepanian followed the pioneering efforts of composers such as Komitas in establishing a strong national voice for Armenian music. He composed three symphonies, operatic works, numerous songs, chamber pieces, and works for piano. Building on the models of Chopin, Rachmaninov and fellow Armenians such as Komitas and Tigranian, the 26 varied and sharply contrasting Preludes are exquisite folk-influenced miniatures suffused with sadness, poetic contemplation, the natural world and scenes of Armenian life.
HARO STEPANIAN (1897–1966) 26 PRELUDES 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 Armenianlanguage opera was written in the 1860s; and by the 1880s, a number of musicians began systematically collecting folksongs and dances.
Following the pioneering efforts of composers such as Komitas (1869–1935) and Aleksandr Spendiarian (Spendiarov) (1871–1928), Haro Stepanian (1897–1966) was born in the year of Brahms’s death in Yelizabetpol—now Ganja, in western Azerbaijan. Stepanian trained in Moscow, at the Gnessin Music College, from 1923–26, where his fellow pupils included Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978). He subsequently joined the composition class of Vladimir Shcherbachov at the State Conservatory in Leningrad (St Petersburg), where his Armenian heritage did not go unnoticed: Shcherbachov wrote that he was ‘a composer of undoubted talent with the features of Armenian colouring.’ Following graduation, Stepanian began teaching at the State Conservatory in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan; and by the late 1930s he was the chairman of the organizing committee of the Armenian Union of Composers. He became increasingly interested in the folk music of his own country, and undertook a number of expeditions to collect musical samples from around Armenia. ‘I fell in love with Armenian folk music,’ he explained, ‘as one loves one’s mother, one’s friend or one’s beloved. In it I heard the voice of the heart and soul of my native country, the echoes of historical storms, sorrows, joys and hopes, anger and dreams of my people. Throughout my life I looked upon it as if it were a living being.’ His work in this area was greatly admired, and Khachaturian (with whom he remained close friends) wrote to him in 1953, ‘I think you are the greatest Soviet Armenian composer, whose merits before the native art are really great.’ Stepanian was awarded the Stalin Prize, third class, in 1951 for his opera Heroine (premiered in Yerevan)—the fourth of five completed operas—and named People’s Artist of the Armenian SSR in 1960. He also composed three symphonies and numerous songs and chamber works. It is notable, however, that despite the large-scale compositions of the mid-1940s to early 1950s, Stepanian retained an interest in miniatures throughout his career. His teacher in Moscow, Mikhail Fabianovich Gnessin, remarked that as a student, Stepanian had a delicate musical taste and poetic stylistic aspirations. ‘Helping him to refine his fine and talented vocal and piano works was a real pleasure. In those years Haro Stepanian had no desire for larger constructions, consciously seeking possible perfection in the field of musical miniatures.’
The Preludes featured on this disc were written after the Second World War, issued in three opus numbers during Stepanian’s lifetime: Eight Preludes, Op. 47 (1947), Eight Preludes, Op. 48 (1948), Eight Preludes, Op. 63 (1956) and two final Preludes issued in 1964 and 1965 respectively. The style of these Preludes—‘musical diaries’ in a sense—is hugely varied across the groups, although many are underpinned by Armenian folk characteristics. In this sense they build on the models of Chopin, Liadov, Tchaikovsky and others, and sit within a line of Armenian piano miniatures, which also include the works of Komitas, Nikoghayos Tigranian (1856–1951) and Sarkis Barkhudarian (1887–1972). Several seem really to be songs without words: in particular, the very first in G minor, Op. 47, No.1, and the E minor and F minor Preludes of Op. 48, Nos. 1 and 5. Others are closely modelled on Armenian folk dances, often with compound or unusual rhythmic patterns. The A major Prelude, Op. 47, No. 2 is based on a recurring melody, the harmonies and accompanimental figuration jumping from bass to high treble in the keyboard around it—an approach also taken in the B minor Prelude, Op. 63, No. 6. The fifth number of Op. 47, in G major, is a more lilting kind of dance. The remaining numbers of this first collection, Op. 47, are similarly varied: the third is mournfully elegiac, and the fourth features an authentic folk melody, Alagyaz (the name of an Armenian mountain) in its central section. The F minor Prelude, the sixth of the opus, is restless and dramatic; the seventh brooding and chordal, before the chromatic flurries of the final number of the set. A similar variety of approaches and moods continues in the later opuses, with a strutting dance and gentle pastorale paired as the third and fourth Preludes of Op. 48—indeed, this fourth Prelude in A minor is reputedly based on a melody sung by an orphan girl in the yard of Stepanian’s house. Although most maintain a single mood throughout, several within this opus feature sharp contrasts: the second in C minor, with its whirring central section, and the contemplative folksong, Abrban, at the heart of the sixth in F sharp minor. A number even seek to imitate specific folk instruments, including the tār, a kind of lute, and the dhol, a double-headed drum. Traces of Rachmaninov’s influence are apparent in some of the more impassioned later pieces, such as the Prelude in F sharp minor, Op. 63, No. 3; these alternate with moments of folktinged lyricism such as Op. 63, No. 7, and the two styles even seem combined in the final number of this opus in G minor, Op. 63, No. 8. The two posthumously published Preludes are clear-textured and almost Debussyan in places. Stepanian remained indebted to late Romantic models to the end of his career—these are miniatures by turns full of sorrow, poetic contemplation, the natural world, and scenes of Armenian life. Stepanian’s musical legacy is considerable, since he was one of the most prominent Armenian composers whose style emerged during the era of Socialist Realism. He remained a highly-regarded figure in Armenian musical culture, and continued to inspire the works of composers in his home country throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. ‘The works of Haro Stepanian are some of the most original phenomena of Armenian music,’ observed Edward Mirzoyan (1921–2012). ‘The finest works of this romantic composer are true musical masterpieces.’