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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Piano Sonata [12:00]
Piano Rag Music [3:01]
Ragtime [4:28]
Tango [3:18]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Sonata No.1, Op.12 [15:06]
Arno BABAJANYAN (1921-1983)
Elegy [4:25]
Impromptu [3:10]
Dance of Vagharshapat [2:13]
Six Pictures [13:11]
Tigran MANSURYAN (b.1939)
Three Pieces (1970) [11:40]
Diana Gabrielyan (piano)
rec. Studio Odradek, Lawrence, Kansas, USA, 10-14 September 2013

This disc presents piano works from the post-Great War and post-Second World War periods. Two of them are Russian and two from Armenia whence the pianist Diana Gabrielyan hails.
In his Piano Sonata from 1924 Stravinsky was at pains to distance himself from the ‘classical’ concept of the sonata. He couldn’t help himself echoing the tell-tale sound of the great piano sonata composers he eschewed, namely Clementi, Haydn and Mozart. The work gives us a brilliantly inventive and thoroughly enjoyable take on the genre. Only a complete original like Stravinsky could achieve this, particularly in the third movement. Whatever his real intention the piece stands as a tribute to the sonata. It reminds us how influential its great practitioners became and that it is still favoured by so many composers today.
Stravinsky, like so many others in the early years of the twentieth century was fascinated by jazz. His Piano Rag Music and Ragtime - both dating from 1919 - have much in common with other works by those who enjoyed playing around with the syncopation so vital in jazz: Schulhoff, Copland, Milhaud and Shostakovich. His short pieces have a wonderfully witty and tongue-in-cheek take on the medium. Similarly Stravinsky’s Tango for Piano from 1940 draws on the essence of the excitingly louche dance that emerged from the slums of Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the 1890s. This is shone through the prism of his genius resulting in a little gem. It has been transcribed for two pianos as well as the interesting and unusual combination of 5 clarinets, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, guitar, 3 violins, viola, cello and double bass; now I’d love to hear that.
Shostakovich embraced the piano sonata from early in his career. This first one dates from 1926 when he was 20 and demonstrates his advanced thinking at such a young age. This is not at all what one might expect to hear from someone of that age. That said it is not surprising to read that it caused controversy among his teachers including a rift with his composition teacher Maximilian Steinberg. It led his piano teacher Leonid Nikolaev to comment that it was “a sonata for metronome, with piano accompaniment”. It still sounds modern today so it is hard to imagine how it struck the wider public at the time bearing in mind the riot that occurred at the premičre of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring thirteen years earlier. Comparisons have been made between Shostakovich’s sonata and the piano works of Alexander Mosolov whose Iron Foundry, with its ‘avant-garde’ approach, was such a groundbreaking work when first performed in 1926. Certainly there is evidence of influence from Prokofiev though it sounds even more modern than his sonatas.
The rest of the disc is of works by two of the best known Armenian composers. The Shostakovich is without doubt the meat in the sandwich between the Stravinsky and the first three pieces by Babajanyan. His pieces are ‘tame’ by comparison and from a totally different sound-world. Just as the beginning of Shostakovich’s sonata comes as a shock after Stravinsky’s embrace with the tango the opening of Babajanyan’s Elegy is so utterly different; the calm after the Shostakovich storm. It was written as a tribute to the memory of Aram Khachaturian, the best known of all Armenian composers, shortly after his death on 1 May 1978. Its gentle rhythms redolent of the classic sounds of Armenian folk tunes suffuse the work with melancholy. Written over forty years earlier, his Impromptu is another sad piece but the melodies in both are so pleasing that the sadness is overcome by their pleasant nature. Dance of Vagharshapat, so named after Armenia’s ancient capital, is again dominated by folk melodies. One could imagine it finding a worthy place as an encore.
While it is true that the preceding three works by Babajanyan are easy on the ear his excursions into serialism are represented here by his Six Pictures. They are suitably serious in nature though the second Armenian folk dance as its influence. The Toccatina, the third of the set, is exciting and wildly energetic and the concluding Dance of the Sasun People who fought hard against the Arabs in the ninth century is fascinating and demands considerable virtuosity with its pattern of repeated notes within an unrelenting framework.
Tigran Mansuryan is considered Armenia’s leading composer and his Three Pieces date from the 1970s. They betray nothing of their composer’s origins but are examples of the kind of music that was particularly favoured by Britain’s musical establishment at the time when tunes were very definitely out. Heaven knows what Shostakovich’s piano teacher would have made of these. They do nothing for me. While I can recognise the difficulty of achieving an acceptable performance I don’t know how one can tell if it’s been achieved. Everything is so apparently random, without form, or so it seems. Composers such as Schoenberg, Webern, Xenakis and Boulez also experimented with similar seemingly ‘formless’ music, Webern well before the 1970s. People like Mansuryan were not alone but I’m old-fashioned and prefer something I can hum even if it is complex. This, however, is not the sort I could manage to do that to.
Diana Gabrielyan is a name to watch out for as she plays extremely well. I particularly enjoyed her performances of the Stravinsky and Shostakovich. I also thoroughly approve of the stated aims of the new record label Odradek which sets out to be ‘a non-profit artist-controlled label’. This should give chances to young up-and-coming musicians who would otherwise find it difficult to break into a recording career.
Steve Arloff