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Tigran MANSURIAN (b. 1939)
Monodia

"...and then I was in time again..." (1995)a
Concerto for Violin and Strings (1981)b
Lachrymae (1999)c
Confessing with Faith (1998)d
Kim Kashkashian (viola)acd; Leonidas Kavakos (violin)b; Jan Garbarek (saxophone)c; The Hilliard Ensembled; Münchener Kammerorchesterab; Christoph Poppenab
Recorded: Himmelfahrtskirche, Sendling, München, November 2001 and Propstei St. Gerold, January 2002
ECM NEW SERIES 1850/1 (472 784-2) [46:58 + 34:04]

 

Tigran Mansurian is the most prominent Armenian composer, although he is still much lesser-known than, say, Khachaturian, Hovhaness or Arutunian. His substantial output, however, has secured his place among the most important composers of his generation. His music is deeply rooted in Armenia’s musical past and has been strongly influenced by the works of Komitas. It cannot be compared to the superficial folksiness of Khachaturian. Mansurian’s music goes much deeper into Armenia’s musical heritage and in no way attempts to mimic it for colour’s sake. Mansurian has so fully absorbed his ancestral musical past that he literally re-creates in his own way, preserving the powerfully expressive strength and apparent simplicity of Armenia’s ancient music. There is thus no question of mere imitation, rather a sincere and deeply-felt tribute to the richness of Armenia’s musical past. In an interview printed in the lavish insert notes, the composer stresses his indebtedness to Komitas whose spiritual and scholarly influence is an essential component of his music-making. So, the music heard here is quintessentially Armenian in spirit; but do not expect any folk-like, colourful romp à la Gayaneh.

The Concerto for Violin and Strings of 1981 is the third panel of a triptych of string concertos that the composer once described as a cycle "without any external signs of a cycle". The three works of the triptych are all concertos for strings and string orchestra: the first two panels, Cello Concerto No.2 and Concerto for Violin and Cello, were composed in 1978 and the last panel, Violin Concerto, in 1981. (Incidentally, a complete recording of the cycle is available on Orfeo C 415 971 A, with Lianna Issakadze, Ivan Monighetti and the Georgian Chamber Orchestra.). The triptych – or trilogy – may also be described as "The Way of the Cross", since the unifying motif running through the three pieces is the ubiquitous B-A-C-H germ cell or the so-called ‘Cross’ motif. The three concertos also share several characteristics. All three are predominantly slow, and are modestly scored for small string ensemble. The sparse, economical scoring emphasises the introvert, mystical nature of the music. In many instances, the Violin Concerto heard here is redolent of Pärt, although Mansurian’s music is generally warmer in tone than Pärt’s.

The Viola Concerto "...and then I was in time again..." is also scored for small string orchestra; and shares many features with its predecessors. The subtitle of the piece is taken from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which the composer acknowledges as "a sort of handbook [to me] over the last ten years". I do not know Faulkner’s novel, so am unable to say whether the music relates to it; to a certain extent, this does not really matter, for Mansurian’s music speaks for itself and may be (must be?) heard as an abstract piece of art. The composer’s inner conflicts are expressed in a restrained, timeless idiom which actually emphasises the universal character of the composer’s concerns. Even so, Mansurian never bears his heart upon his sleeve; he obviously wants to communicate and does so in often deceptively simple, but highly effective terms.

The short Lachrymae for soprano saxophone and viola overtly partakes of the same emotional world once again expressed with economy of means and restraint, nonetheless communicating as unspeakable sense of grief and bereavement. The piece was in fact composed for one of his friends who was then severely ill. It clearly belongs to the ancient lachrymae tradition represented by works by Dowland and Purcell, and also by Britten, but again in Mansurian’s unique manner.

In Confessing with Faith for viola and four voices (counter-tenor, two tenors and baritone), Mansurian gets still closer to old Armenian music and to Komitas, though without any attempt at superficial imitation. This is a substantial setting of seven verses from the prayer book of St. Nerses Shnorhali, an Armenian poet, musician and patriarch who lived from 1100 to 1173. The setting is mostly syllabic and monodic, at times flowering into brief contrapuntal episodes constantly embellished by the viola’s warm, human tone which adds another voice to the ‘monks’ choir’. The viola is an equal partner with the voices. In the very first bars its lengthy intonation prepares the way for the entry of the voices. It is then constantly present throughout the rest of the work, as a sixth, wordless voice. The viola also introduces the second part of the piece (I do not dare speak of ‘movement’ in as deeply religious work as this). The final part is more overtly hymn-like and homophonic in character. The viola has the last word in a beautifully moving epilogue mirroring the introduction of the first part.

I need not tell you that all the performances recorded in the composer’s presence have an unquestionable ring of authenticity. All are superbly played and recorded though some may find the recording too close. The set is beautifully produced with a lavish booklet well up to ECM’s best standards. I will only complain about the short playing time, and I regret that it was not possible to include some more of Mansurian’s deeply-felt music. This reservation apart, this is a magnificent release.

Anyone interested in Mansurian’s music may also look for another all-Mansurian disc released by Megadisc (MDC 7839 with several chamber works).

Hubert Culot



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