RIGA, Latvia — For Armenians, Komitas Vartabed, both as a man as well as a musician, remains a revered figure. His brilliant musicianship, coupled with his unimaginable suffering as a witness to the Armenian Genocide and his subsequent institutionalization, seem to encapsulate the story of the Armenians.

Much like Hungarian great Bela Bartok, Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomonian, was fascinated by ethnomusicology, finding and preserving his people’s folk songs.

At the same time, he wrote a liturgy which is performed regularly in the Armenian Church, by an all-male chorus. Its twinned power and delicacy seem to throw a direct line from the church to God.

Komitas began working on the Divine Liturgy in 1892, and at least ten versions exist. The final version has been recorded by the 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.

Post concert, from left, Armen Badalyan, conductor Sigvards Klava and Hovhannes Nersesyan

On July 10, the record label Delos released “Komitas: Divine Liturgy,” in the world-premiere recording of a mixed-voice arrangement by 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.

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The idea for the new mixed choir version came from Tigran Mkrtchyan, the Ambassador of Armenia in the Baltic states, who also organized the premiere performance and recording done by the Latvian Radio Choir.

In an interview, Sharafyan said, “Music is the universal spiritual language. It is really very important to open the music of Komitas for the entire world, as music of the classical composers is open for all of us. Real Musical composition has a prayer-like universality: being performed by the different performers, it gives opportunity to everyone to express themselves through the same music. And the music of Komitas has such value as well. As the prayer — people say the same Lord’s Prayer, though everyone expresses it’s own thoughts and wishes through the same words…”

The performance at St. John’s Church in Riga

He added, “The soloists of the piece are incredible, packing power and emotion in the work. Both Hovhannes Nersesyan and Armen Badalyan are Armenian National Opera soloists, meanwhile they both sing in the church as well. Hovhannes is even a deacon and for some years studied at the Armenian seminary in Jerusalem. Knowing both of them I would love to say that they are very spiritual, clear and open people, meanwhile also absolute professional and gifted singers. Somehow I feel they really chosen for this project.”

While the soloists and the choir are forces to be reckoned with, the church added to the production. Sharafyan said the church is Riga’s oldest and has “amazing acoustics.”

As stated earlier, one of the major changes in this production is that the choir voice is adjusted from all male to mixed. “My aim was not to change, but preserve Komitas’ ideas and just make them as best as possible for the mixed choir’s nature, sound, colors… I would say my aim was to translate from the male choir to the mixed choir,” Sharafyan said.

Mkrtchyan is happy with the fruit of his efforts. “Since I started working as ambassador the dissemination of Komitas’ music has been a part of my mission. Every year in the Baltic countries the Embassy of Armenia organizes at least two dozen cultural events, during the majority of which feature works by Komitas. But the scale and level of this project was indeed different. Usually an Embassy’s initiative relates to that country’s relations with Armenia, i.e. it is of regional nature and about that are discussed in the country where the project was implemented (in this case, Latvia) and in the country which introduced it (in this case, Armenia). Surely, this project was the biggest in the history of Latvian-Armenian cultural history, because it got the attention not only of Latvia and Armenia, but the wider world. This became a global project and a very successful one,” Mkrtchyan said.

Ambassador Mkrtchyan

Ambassador Mkrtchyan noted that the “Latvian choir has incredible international audience, is most of the time having international tours and can export Komitas very successfully as well. Also, I think that the lack of transliteration of the Divine Liturgy had been a constant problem for foreign choirs to perform Komitas. We solved this issue together with Vache Sharafyan, and I hope Komitas would have been pleased for it.

“Honoring Komitas is part of a wider approach adopted by me since my first day as Ambassador. Through cultural diplomacy we have been able to enhance Armenia’s image in the Baltic countries immensely. There are indeed some very strong pillars upon which our culture rests. One of them is St. Gregory of Narek, the 10th century priest and theologian whose works are like nothing else. His every line emanates of sanctity and unrivaled wisdom. Another very strong pillar is indeed Komitas and his work. Honoring and internationalizing the work of such figures is a must,” Mkrtchyan added.

In addition to the change in the addition of female voices, the effort by Mkrtchyan and Sharafyan was to make it a true concert performance rather than a strict liturgy.

Mkrtchyan has been delighted with the reception. The reception has been phenomenal. Initially the Latvian and Armenian media reacted enthusiastically when the Album was released in July. After that the international media started to write very positive reviews about the performance and the Album, professional classical music reviewers were very positive about this CD. The reviews of the Independent, the Guardian, the BBC Music Magazine, Australian Limelight and others were indeed in many ways very much welcome events. The German release planned in October promises another burst of reviews in German language media in Europe.

Bringing Project to Fruition

The project took three years from idea to completion. Initially, in 2017, the Embassy of Armenia organized days of Gregory of Narek in Riga, the culmination of which was the Riga Doms Cathedral performance of Alfred Schnittke’s Choir Concerto. “At that time upon our suggestion the choir performed Lord Have Mercy, one of the most moving pieces of the Divine Liturgy of Komitas. One year later, in 2018, we organized the Latvian premiere of contemporary Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s Grammy-nominated Requiem. The Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Riga did an amazing job in even exciting the composer himself, who was present in Riga during the performance. Since that work is around 40 minutes, we requested the choir to have some more pieces from the Divine Liturgy of Komitas, altogether consisting of 10-12 minutes. Once again the choir managed it extremely well. At that point I thought that one of the biggest achievements that we can register would be a performance and ideally recording of the Divine Liturgy just during the 150th Anniversary of the Vardapet in 2019, which we carried out successfully,” Mkrtchyan noted.


Sharafyan added, “I have had a nice experience composing for mixed choir. I would love to mention the Hover State Chamber Choir and for male choirs, including for the Estonian National male choir that won a Grammy and is the biggest male choir in the world (I was commissioned by them and wrote Stabat Mater that is in choir’s permanent repertory since then), and I know and open every time more and more about the obvious differences of the voicing combinations, colors and natural sound acoustics of the male and mixed choirs.”

He stressed that during the “translation” from single sex to mixed sex, he strove to “ keep as much as possible the main Komitas sound character and to add more colors and the beauty of the female voices effect.”

For Armenians, the music of Komitas remains special, often bringing tears to the eyes of the listeners. When asked what the reaction of those in Latvia who had possible never heard of Komitas or heard his music, was, Sharafyan noted that they were equally moved.

“During the entire rehearsals/concert/recording processes I felt how the performers, amazing conductor Sigvards Klava, every singer loved the Komitas music and the same feeling I had during the concert. The entire audience (as I remember the seats were sold out a month before the concert) seemed entirely inside the absolute silent spiritual concentration, meditation,” Sharafyan recalled.

The recording was made before COVID-19 halted much of the artistic activity around the world. However, for Sharafyan, the CD itself is a victory. “The CD is already opening some new paths for Komitas’ music. For example I got an e-mail from a South African choir and their conductor. They loved the music so much that asked me for the score to perform. I can’t wait to hear their interpretation in the not-too-distant future,” he added.

He continued, “I am sure that after CD release many choirs will want to perform the Komitas Liturgy. And it seams very timely to me to release the mixed choir version score with Latin transliteration… I think this must be the next step for the opening Komitas music for the world.

Sharafyan is an Armenian-born composer. He was a former organist at Echmiadzin’s St. Gayane Church, and also taught music at the Armenian Seminary in Jerusalem from 1992 to 1996. In 2000 he was chosen and commissioned by cellist Yo-Yo Ma as an official composer from Armenia for his Silk Road Project; his compositions have been performed worldwide by Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. In 2007 the Moscow Philharmonic season debuted his Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists premiered his Surgite Gloriae Viola Concerto.

He has composed more than 100 pieces, including operas, ballets, symphonic, choral vocal and chamber music. His music has been performed around the world by leading artists, groups, orchestras including also the Hilliard Ensemble, Dresden Symphony, Boston Modern Orchestra (led by Gil Rose), among others.

“On March 4, 2020, my Cello Concerto #2 as well as Armenian Odyssey suite for orchestra specially written for this even were performed at the Washington National Cathedral by the Post Classical Orchestra, cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, Zulal vocal trio, Jivan Gasparyan, conducted by Angel Gil Ordonez. It was for a concert dedicated to the 100 years anniversary of the Armenian-American diplomatic relations,” he added.

While Sharafyan and Mkrtchyan had not met before this project, they knew of each other. “I knew Tigran’s brother and father (both wonderful artists in Armenia and I had a great pleasure to collaborate with both in theater plays where I wrote the music), but I met Tigran for first due to Komitas Liturgy project. Now it seems to me that we have known each other for all our lives,” Sharafyan said.

He had only praise for Mkrtchyan’s initiative. “It’s really great fortune and privilege to have such an ambassador representing the best of the Armenian culture worldwide and making really great cultural politics. It seems that where is Tigran he is surrounded by wonderful artists, literature, singers, musicians and such artistic political approach enriches the world and creates relationship and strong humanistic bridges between Armenia and other countries.”

During the pandemic, Sharafyan said he has completed a “huge eight-movement Concerto for piano and choir titled New Seasons for orchestra and soloists, all to be premiered and recorded/filmed soon in Armenia and Europe. Another piece is in progress. I also did new music for online theater with participation of artists from different countries organized by the American producer John Blondel).”

While he is gearing up for new works, his ballet premiere, “Ancient Gods,” had been postponed because of the pandemic.

Mkrtchyan noted that he had heard Hovhannes Nersesyan in the Armenian Opera and Ballet Theatre several years ago, and thought that he was one of our best bass singers. Apart from that I knew that he has spiritual education, studied in Jerusalem Armenian Seminary and is working in the church as a deacon. So I was certain that he would fit ideally in this sort of a project. Regarding the tenor I consulted one of my best opera friends, Gevorg Hakobyan, who strongly advised me to hear Armen Gevorgyan, which I did and liked very much. By the way, he is originally from Echmiadzin, the religious center of Armenia. So, the contexts of these soloists were extremely important when we approached them. Before doing so, Sigvards Klava also heard their various performances and approved of the initial idea to include them.

Mkrtchyan said, “I would like to thank the supporters of this initiative of the Embassy of Armenia in Latvia. The biggest gratitude belongs to the Latvian Radio Choir and its conductor Sigvards Klava who wished to take up this challenge and carry our honorably and with such success. The Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports of Armenia reacted very positively to this project and supported its implementation. The Armenian Apostolic Church supported the initial stages of the implementation of this idea. Latvian-Armenian supporters- Mkhitar Mkhitaryan, Ovik Mkrtchyan as well as Aram Arutyunyan supported the implementation of the project. Also I should thank my friends in Armenia, the Balasanyan Family Foundation which had their role in realizing this idea.”

Through serendipity, the ambassador found the chorus. “In 2016 I was watching a BBC historical drama of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace,’ the soundtrack of which is composed by the great Martin Phipps. I noticed that the choir was just breathtaking. Then my wife, who is herself a Latvian, told me about the choir. So I started to study more of this choir and eventually we decided to have a joint program together honoring the Latvian translation of Gregory of Narek’s Book of Lamentations in 2017. That was the start of 4 years of intense cooperation with 3 unforgettable concerts and this historic recording of Komitas Album.”

And at the end, he added, “I think they were very moved, as they understood what they were singing and they understood every word of the Liturgy.”

To listen or purchase a copy of the CD, visit https://delosmusic.com/recording/komitas-divine-liturgy/

(Editor’s Note: The interviews were conducted before the Azerbaijani war on Armenia.)

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