The Music of Farhat & Tafreshipour

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PERSIAN AUTUMN / FARHAT: Toccata. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. TAFRESHIPOUR: Yasna. Shabahang. Pendar for Piano. Celebration at Pasargadae / Mary Dullea, pno / Métier 29610

This unusual album features Irish pianist Mary Dullea playing the music of Iranian (Persian) composers Hormoz Farhat (the booklet says b. 1928, but Wikipedia says b. 1930) and Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour (b. 1974). The connection is that Farhat is a fellow at Trinity College in Dublin while Tafreshipour works primarily in Great Britain.

Judging from the opening selection, Farhat’s Toccata, the composer tends to combine melodies and rhythms from his native country with Western harmony and form. The result is indeed curious, combining simplistic and complex features. Farhat uses passing tones a great deal in this work, indeed often changing the rhythm and meter as the piece goes along. This creates an unusual tension between the melodic line and its development against the oft-shifting harmony and meter.

The same aesthetics are brought to bear in the two piano sonatas; perhaps Farhat has a different “voice” that he uses for non-piano works, but in his keyboard pieces he pursues a similar style. Yet the music is very interesting and, to judge from this recording (the only one I’ve heard of his music, obviously), Dullea plays it with passion and drive. Also interesting, the music seems to be constructed from the top line down rather than from the bass line up, meaning that the harmony and the lower notes are led by the melodic contours of these pieces. This is rather the opposite of a lot of Western music, particularly that of Bach and Brahms, where the bass line is developed into the harmony and the top line follows. (This is one reason why newcomers to these two composers sometimes have a difficulty in grasping their music, since the “melodies” are not conventionally melodic as in the case of Beethoven or Schubert.) The second movement of the first sonata is particularly sparse; though this sonata was written between 1955 and 1957, when Farhat was studying with Lukas Foss, it sounds like some of the “spacier” music of today. In the third movement, Farhat indulges in some interesting bitonality, having the left hand play in one key and the right hand in another, though they do come together for moments of harmonic consonance. Nonetheless, his music has a distinctly exotic sound. The last movement, with its stiffish rhythms, shows some of the influence of Stravinsky.

The second sonata dates form much later, in 2010 when the composer was 80 years old. The liner notes tell us that the music is “more expansive, melodious and less abrasive that the short movements of the First Sonata,” but what I hear is simply a better-integrated use of Asian harmonies and rhythms within a more legato, but not necessarily more melodious, framework. Farhat was still juxtaposing different meters and still building his music from the top down; it’s just that the result is a bit more flowing, that’s all. Which isn’t to say that it’s not an interesting work—it is—only that it’s not necessarily more melodious. Whereas the first sonata is in four relatively short movements, the second is in three, but the longer first movement (10:57) is only about 2 ½ minutes longer than the first two of the first sonata combined. Here, too, Farhat includes some right-hand trills here and there which were not part of his vocabulary in 1955-57. At times the development is very tightly constructed while at other times it ruminates a bit.

The second movement has a spaciness about it that is similar to the second movement of the first sonata but, again, the melodic flow is just a bit more legato. The third movement is a quirky, bitonal scherzo, turning into a fugue around the 3:05 mark.

Tafreshipour’s Yasna is a slow-moving piece using similar harmonies and melodic lines to Farhat’s music but, at least in this piece, is less quirky in its rhythms. Indeed, this is almost a “mood” piece, delicate and with space between the notes. In the notes, the composer states that the piece was inspired by his travels to the Iranian city of Yazd, where several Zoroastrians live; “Yasna” is the term given in the Avestan language to their central form of worship. It goes on far too long and says very little. Pendar is even slower, Shabahang a little quicker in tempo, but much of the same, although there is more going on in the latter piece. By and large, Tafreshipour is a one-mood composer, and it’s not a mood I respond to.

A split review, then, since I really liked Farhat’s music and Dullea’s playing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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