New Armenian Chamber Music

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AwardAVANESOV: Quasi Harena Maris. Selected Works from “Feux Follets” /Movses Pogossian, Ji Eun Hwang, vln; Morgan O’Shaughnessy, vla; Niall Ferguson, cel; Artur Avanesov, pno / ZOHRABYAN: Novelette / Varty Manouelian, vln; Scott St. John, vla; Antonio Lysy, cel; Avanesov, pno / PETROSSIAN: A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire / Manouelian, vln; Charles Tyler, cel; Avanesov, pno / ARTASHES KARTALYAN: Tekeyan Triptych / UCLA VEM Ensemble; Danielle Segen, mezzo / ASHOT KARTALYAN: Suite for Saxophone & Percussion / Katisse Buckingham, a-sax; Dustin Donohue, perc / New Focus Recordings FCR244

This CD of modern chamber works by Armenian composers gets off to a very strong start with Artur Avanesov’s Quasi Harena, a work that uses the strings in a microtonal fashion that reminded me strongly of the pioneering works of Julián Carrillo, even though there are moments when a tonal bias is present because the piano part is not modified towards microtonal playing. In addition, the melodic contours of this piece have a much stronger Eastern European sound than Carrillo’s scores. In addition, the music has even more development in it than Carrillo’s, and eventually moves from the quiet, atmospheric opening to some very powerful rhythmic playing at a louder volume that develops the theme brilliantly. The old adage says that you never get a chance to make a first impression, and this piece clearly impressed me very much.

Next up is Ashot Zohranyan’s Novelette, which reforms the timbres of a conventional piano quartet in sometimes new and interesting ways. The music is written in a slow tempo, as was Quasi Harena Maris, but moves in different ways and patterns, with the piano not being beard until the 3:30 mark when the music suddenly becomes much more atonal in character. Eventually, the piano part becomes busier and more prominent, acting as a foil to the soft, between-pitch whines of the strings. Any further description would spoil the surprises in store for you, so I will refrain from doing so.

Michel Petrossian’s A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire is a querulous work, whimsical in the way he moves his materials around. The composer’s liner notes mention some cockamamie scheme whereby, in his mind, “the question of identity…seems a crucial one in our globalized and interconnected world.” No, sorry, Michel, it’s not much of a problem or terribly crucial. I am an American. You are an Armenian. Iranians are Iranian. Germans are German. Just because we can speak to one another and share interests does not confuse or erase our national identities, and that’s a good thing. We are a crazy-quilt of different races and nationalities, not a multi-national crayon where we are all mushed together. But back to the music: its playfulness and imagination in the handling of musical material. I especially liked the way Petrossian kept moving the stress beats around within each bar, which throws off the listener’s attempts to follow a regular rhythmic pattern. Another very imaginative piece.

By contrast, Artashes Kartalyan’s Tekeyan Triptych is a lyrical piece, in a minor key but essentially tonal, in part because it features a singer, mezzo-soprano Danielle Segen, and in part because the texts by Armenian poet Vahan Tekeyan deal with love. But tonal does not always equate with banality, and in this work Kartalyan manages to introduce some very interesting harmonic touches without damaging the essentially tonal sound of the music. It’s extremely clever and thus touches both the mind and the heart. It also helps that Segen has an excellent voice with both a good, clear sound and pretty good diction. In a certain way, this little cycle bears a kinship with Canteloube’s famous Songs of the Auvergne.

Then we come, as John Cleese used to say, to “something completely different,” the Middle Eastern-sounding Suite for Saxophone and Percussion by Ashot Kartalyan, son of the previous composer. This is sheerly enjoyable music, one might almost say an island of cheerfulness and relative simplicity in an otherwise musically complex album. I enjoyed it tremendously. After the belly-dance first movement, the percussionist switches from drums to marimba to perform a fugue with the saxophone, yet the lightness of rhythm is still prevalent. In the third movement, just a hint of jazz rhythm permeates the combination of saxophone, marimba and occasional drums. The fourth is a much more lyrical piece while the fifth and last movement is an upbeat finale with another allusion to belly-dancing. A wonderfully entertaining (and well written) piece!

The album concludes with Avanesov’s piano excerpts from “Feux Follets,” played by the composer. This music is considerably different from Quasi Harena Maris, being lyrical and reflective, almost in the manner of “ambient classical” except with rather more meat on its bones. Some of the pieces, such as “Quand l’aubespine fleurit,” have rapid, double-time figures for the right hand with the feel of Eastern harmony about them.

Thus this disc turns out to be full of interesting music, well written and exceptionally well-executed by all concerned. Very highly recommended!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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