Review of ‘Serenade with a Dandelion: Armenian Chamber Music Old and New’

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By Huntley Dent

Many listeners, including reviewers, will be daunted by the prospect of four CDs devoted to Armenian chamber music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the headnote [not reproduced here] is a bewildering thicket of names unknown outside Armenia. Good intentions count, and these performances are clearly a labor of love, the quality at times rising to an exceptional level of technique and musicality. But there needs to be an overriding reason for a general listener to explore this deluxe package, which I aim to provide. I’ve sporadically encountered a disc devoted to Armenian classical music — the last one was by the stunning violinist Sergey Khachatryan in 2015, a beautiful recital springing from a sad purpose, to commemorate the centennial of the tragic Armenian genocide committed by Turkey under the cloak of World War I.

The set under review serves a different aim, reaching out to the larger music world from a small country whose artists and musicians are fierce loyalists. The expatriate Armenian community in Los Angeles gave rise to a series of concerts featuring contemporary Armenian composers. The founder of the Dilijan Chamber Music Series was violinist Movses Pogossian, who had moved with his family to L.A. in 2004. For the next 15 seasons a rich array of composers and compositions emerged, including over 50 world premieres. Pogossian and his wife, Varty Manouelian, who is also a violinist, are superb musicians, as can be heard in the opening work on CD 1, a fascinating violin duo by Vache Sharafyan. As a way to dip your toe in the water, a stream or download of their scintillating performance will be a strong motivation for exploring further.

The Sharafyan pieces, titled Serenade with a Dandelion, is the collection’s title track; it was also on the first program of the Dilijan series. As you’d expect, the composers and performers gathered here are closely knit as friends, colleagues, and collaborators. That raises an issue for general listeners. What justifies these works beyond cultural ties to Armenia? There are strong elements of folk music at work, but in general the idioms being represented fall into the eclecticism that prevails internationally today. There is no worry about provincialism. One mystifying aspect, however, is the title Modulation Necklace that serves as the rubric for all four discs. It refers to “a string of different modal constructions” rooted in Armenian folk music. This collection is an extension of an initial release titled “Modulation Necklace” from 2020 on the New Focus label.

I’ve devoted considerable space to pricking the reader’s curiosity, but what counts, after all, is the music, which I will cover one CD at a time.

CD 1: We begin with five assorted chamber works, of which two are string quartets, one is part of a vocal cycle, and three are duos. I mentioned the remarkable quality of the first duo, Sharafyan’s Serenade with Dandelion. The two violins are in giddy constant motion on separate, sometimes intersecting courses, bright with trills and engaging thematic material. The idiom is contemporary but personal and captivating—it is hard to imagine a more inviting entry point for the collection. More challenging but equally arresting is Sharafyan’s String Quartet No. 2, built in linear fashion out of strongly contrasting sections. The mood ranges from serenely contemplative to agitated, and to hold the structure together there are nods to sonata form.

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The other piece with string quartet is a mysterious three-movement vocal work, Sillage, by Artur Akshelyan (b. 1984), whose often fragmentary setting of texts by poet Zareh Melkonian feels not too distantly related to Ligeti. In the second movement much of the text is whispered by mezzo-soprano Danielle Segen; her singing is quite lovely throughout. The quartet writing tends to be tonal and often melodic; the texts refer to a mystical entity, IT, which represents an almost Buddhist concept of the totality of existence.

We get twin duos for violin and saxophone that achieve an adroit blend of two very disparate instruments, but in contrasting ways. As the title suggests, Lachrymae by Tigran Mansurian (b. 1939) is an expression of mourning whose spare textures are parsed in minimal but deeply felt lines for violin and tenor saxophone. Chameleon, by Aregnaz Martirosyan (b. 1993), takes a totally divergent tack, exploiting the virtuosic side of the violin and alto sax in disjointed, frenetic action.

CD 2: This disc is devoted to Armenian art songs and is different from the other three discs. In miniature the program recapitulates the history of Armenian art songs from their beginning as arrangements of folk melodies gathered in the field to their present sophisticated state. As widely known as the field collecting by Bartók and Kodály is, the contribution made by Komitas Vardapet (1869–1935) to Armenian music is greater—Komitas is revered as the father of Armenian classical music (his career as a composer ended tragically when he was arrested during the 1915 genocide and witnessed its horrors, which led to a nervous breakdown and severe post-traumatic stress disorder).

The 18 songs from four composers that appear here are sung with deep commitment and admirable musicality by lyric soprano Shoushik Barsoumian. She and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert applied themselves to master the stylistic evolution that begins with the almost raw, open sound of Komitas’s folk arrangements, leading us through the steps represented by his musical heirs. Modal harmonies remain over the decades, as does Middle Eastern melisma, but there is more complexity in the songs by Romanos Melikian (1883–1935) and Kourken Alemshah (1907–1947). Woven into the perennial themes of love and longing is the atmosphere of mountain life as both hardship and transcendence.

The original folk songs have an undeniable power and exoticism, but I think the general listener will get the most out of the six sophisticated songs by the contemporary composer Tigran Mansurian—he is a major figure among Armenian modernists—whose Canti Paralleli from 2012 manage to merge classic Armenian folk elements within a broad European setting. A cherished style at home now speaks to a wider world. Here Barsoumian adapts beautifully in her singing, showing the subtlety and refinement one expects from a French mélodie, for example, and revealing the lyrical beauty of her timbre.

CD 3: We return to the main track with a spectrum of chamber music for strings—a duo, three trios, two quartets, and a quintet with clarinet. The dates cover a wide span from the early 1960s (including Alan Hovhaness’s String Trio from 1962) to two new works from 2023 by Artur Avanesov. To keep this long review from unreasonably spilling over, I’ll limit my focus. Throughout this disc the historic influence of Komitas and the Armenian folk tradition weaves its way. A Tale for Two Violins is a musical adventure story based on the folk melodies that the composer, Kristapor Najarian (b. 1990), heard at home growing up. The old material gets vibrant new life in an imaginary narrative moving with evocative titles that the listener is invited to fill in with his own imagination (a sample: “Festivities,” “Rendezvous,” “Capture,” “Escape”).

Topics: Music

Probing to the deep origins of Armenian culture in the 8th century, Artur Avanesov applies a postmodern imagination to ancient musical and literary fragments in a very impressive mélange. Taking a leaf from Ligeti, he writes “works in progress” that grow continuously as miniatures that can be played in any order. His String Quartet is represented by the four movements completed between 2019 and 2023. Space limitations forbid me from describing the ancient roots, secular and religious, that are woven into this work except to say that the result is genuinely haunting.

The musical languages encountered in the seven pieces on this disc vary, but to a general listener the feeling of warmth and heartfelt expression that envelops everything is unmistakable (excluding Hovhaness’s five-minute String Trio, an oddball concoction of the kind he apparently could spin off any time that an indiscriminate idea struck his fancy).

CD 4: After admiring several pieces by Artur Avanesov on the precious discs, I wasn’t surprised that he receives an entire CD to himself. Feux follets for solo piano is a major instance of borrowing Ligeti’s process of accumulating large numbers of small works as they proliferate into collections that span years. In Avanesov’s case, he informs us that Feux follets now amounts to over 100 pieces, of which nine are excerpted here. (The title is poetically translated here as “Frenzied flames,” but when it appears as one of Liszt’s Transcendental Études, it depicts fleeting luminescence, whether called marsh gas or will-o-the-wisp.)

In fairness to Avanesov’s impressive talent, this CD deserves a long review of its own, which it isn’t going to get, unfortunately. Moscow-born and now 44, Avanesov rose as a pianist and composer through educational phases largely spent in Armenia; he has taught since 2005 at the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan and is now a professor at the American University of Armenia. The Feux follets pieces are immediately appealing because of their strong pull toward melody, atmosphere, and tonal-modal harmony. Some have an arresting simplicity that make you imagine you are hearing an Armenian Satie or Mompou.

Far more intricate and virtuosic is Tezeta (translated as “longing,” with overtones of regret for what will never return), a 10-minute fantasia based on each note of the pentatonic scale. The work’s cultural origin is unique, being taken from popular music forms in Ethiopia, which has unexpected ties with Armenia. (Avanesov is scholarly and explains his compositions in detailed, informative notes.) He is the pianist in both works, and is joined by violin and cello in Tre Sonate from 2022. It is very nearly a Baroque pastiche in three movements (fast-slow-fast) that revolve respectively around Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard style, Johann Sebastian Bach (with a brief quote from the St. John Passion), and early Classical sonata form. The mood is vivacious and sparkling in the two outer movements, aria-like in the middle. Armenia isn’t invoked, for the first time in the collection.

Movses Pogossian is the mover and shaker behind this recording project, which occupied a span from 2021 to 2023, but its musical reach extends from L.A. to Yerevan and beyond. I haven’t singled out many performers, for the happy reason that all are first-rate. The recorded sound is impeccable, and the lavishly illustrated booklet offers extensive annotations. Armenia’s history of struggle is due to its location between East and West, buffeted between mighty forces — Islam, Christianity, the Ottomans, and Russians — along with untold suffering in war and the unique horror of a genocide that killed somewhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million Armenians.

No wonder that an unbroken — and unbreakable — bond unites Armenia and the diaspora of its emigrants across the oceans. That the joy and beauty of the music gathered here can still be so abundantly felt is more than heartwarming. It has been a people’s salvation.

The above review is republished with permission from Fanfare Magazine (Copyright © 2024 by Fanfare Inc).

For more on the CD’s, see https://www.newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/serenade-with-a-dandelion-armenian-chamber-music-old-and-new/#tab-bios. For those in the Los Angeles area, there will be a March 4 free celebratory concert at UCLA at 7 p.m. RSVP is required. See https://schoolofmusic.ucla.edu/event/armenian-music-serenade-with-a-dandelion/

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