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Tigran MANSURIAN (b. 1939)
Ars Poetica (1996-2000) - Concerto for mixed choir a cappella (Poems by Yeghishe Charents): Part I: Three Night Songs; Part II: Three Portraits of Women; Part III: Three Autumn Songs; Part IV: And Silence Descends
Armenian Chamber Choir/Robert Mlkeyan
rec. live, 6 June 2003, Saghmosavank Monastery, Armenia
ECM 1895 [46:45]


Tigran Mansurian is perhaps a name unfamiliar to many in Western Europe. He doesn’t get even a mention in Norman Lebrecht’s ‘Complete Companion to 20th Century Music’ which is a serious omission. I have to admit that I was introduced to his work not so very long ago by a student of the Conservatoire where I work, with the performance of some of his songs and chamber work in a lunchtime concert. The ECM booklet is typically enigmatic in terms of biographical information, but a quick web search will tell you that Mansurian was born in Beirut, his parents moving to Armenia in 1947. He has since become one of Armenia’s leading composers. His early work was serial in orientation, but his mature oeuvre has a more modal character, and such are the works on this disc.
 
Mansurian writes movingly on the subject of the poet Yeghishe Charents, who was born in 1897 and died in Yerevan (where Mansurian now lives) in 1937, a victim of Stalin’s persecutions. ‘The sound and the pliant rhythms of his poetry … form the roots and the point of departure of my music. The sound is the rough quality of Charents’ language, the consonants reminiscent of heaps of boulders, the seemingly torn poetic forms.’ Mansuarian has chosen poems relating to the relationship between life and poetry, the ‘ars poetica’ theme which is a recurring motif in Charents’ work. The poems are given only in English translation in the booklet, but the imagery is clear, and Mansurian’s settings sympathetic – most often expressive, but rhythmically pungent and energetic where required.
 
This is easily accessible music, quite often simply written in largely homophonic choral settings, allowing the poetry to speak as directly as possible without elaborate contrapuntal trickery or overly complicated word-painting. These pieces were written over an extended period of time, the composer only working on the project ‘when the music itself yearned to be composed.’ Such personal and honest expressions deserve recognition, and ECM is once again to be congratulated on their refreshingly adventurous programming.
 
The Armenian Chamber Choir is a superbly disciplined and well integrated ensemble – no unwelcome diva’s poking through the choral texture. Only in the final extended movement, And Silence Descends, does a soprano rise in a climactic, arching musical gesture above the rest of the choir. You wouldn’t know that this was a live recording, and there are no extraneous noises. Readers who cherish Michael Nyman’s 1989 ‘Out of the Ruins’ will understand a little of what I mean about the special choral sound which both recordings share. There is a resonance in the Armenian language which you just do not get in Western choirs, or even Russian ones for that matter – a certain glottal openness which gives the music a timeless, ageless quality.
 
At a little over 45 minutes you may think this is a little on the short side, but there is plenty going on here, and Mansurian’s work with this poetry deserves to stand alone. Lovers of beautifully composed choral music should treat themselves to this recording, and those seeking to discover a new name will not be disappointed.
 
Dominy Clements
 

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