NEW YORK — On July 10, Delos released “Komitas: Divine Liturgy”, an early-20th masterpiece by the revered Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet (1869–1935), in the world-premiere recording of a mixed-voice arrangement by his 21st-century compatriot Vache Sharafyan. This new version features the critically acclaimed Latvian Radio Choir led by its artistic director, Sigvards Klava, with guest soloists bass Hovhannes Nersesyan and tenor Armen Badalyan.
The recording was made at St. John’s Church (Sv. Jana Baznica), Riga, Latvia, September 20–23, 2019.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of Komitas Vardapet’s music to the Armenian identity. “For Armenians, music is memory,” wrote Michael Church in The Guardian. “And whenever they gather to honor their dead—as Armenians all over the world do on Sunday, April 24, to commemorate the anniversary of the 1915 genocide in which 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey were either slaughtered or died on forced marches into exile — the songs they sing are by Komitas Vardapet, the composer who speaks for the soul of their nation.” Komitas, a priest and an eminent ethnomusicologist, was himself a victim of the Armenian Genocide. Though he survived, his psyche was shattered, and he spent most of his life’s last two decades in exile in a Paris asylum.
Komitas began working on the Divine Liturgy in 1892, and at least ten versions exist. The final version—the one presented on this recording — dates from 1914–15 and was completed just before his deportation from Constantinople, where he had settled in 1910, to a prison camp in Cankin. The Liturgy is thus one of his final works. Komitas’ output was modest: 80 choral works and songs, arrangements of the Armenian mass, and some dances for piano. And yet he singlehandedly laid the foundation for Armenia’s classical tradition, as his better-known compatriot Aram Khachaturian acknowledged. As a collector and arranger of the authentic folksongs of rural peasants, Komitas did for Armenia what Bartók did for Hungary, turning simple material into bewitchingly sophisticated polyphony. Komitas collected, transcribed, researched and compared more than 3,000 pieces of Armenian folk music, more than half of which were subsequently lost and only around 1,200 are now extant. His appetite for songs was voracious, and his transcriptions reflect a remarkable ear, seamlessly interweaving threads of music, movement, and complex social relationships.
The Divine Liturgy was originally composed for a male choir, and previous attempts over the years to transcribe it for mixed-choir performance were not enthusiastically received. But Tigran Mkrtchyan, the Armenian ambassador to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, believed a new concert version would bring more listeners to the masterwork, encouraging them to concentrate more on the music itself and the logic of its dramaturgy rather than on its ritual aspect.
Sharafyan’s arrangement follows the original male-choir version as closely as possible, with the female voices lending it extra color and brightness.