The concert given by Newfoundland native and cellist Heather Tuach and her
Armenian-born pianist colleague Patil Harboyan was a success. The programme
included Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian’s Impromptu
was extremely well received. The duo dreamed up the idea of devoting an
entire CD to Armenian music for cello and piano and set about ferreting out
whatever such music existed. This CD is the result. As will be explained
later not all the music here was written specifically for cello and
It is easy to see how the Arutiunian piece was such a hit with the
audience at that Canadian concert. It is a very beautiful work and a far cry
from the work for which he is best known, his trumpet concerto. When I say a
‘far cry’ I only mean it in terms of scale for the haunting folk-like themes
and melodies are equally in evidence in both works; indeed, in all the works
Gomidas, as the booklet explains is a key figure in Armenian classical
music. Gomidas Vartabed as he is sometimes known is a fascinating figure.
Vartabed is Armenian for priest which is what Gomidas trained to be
following the death of his parents both of whom he had lost by the age of
eleven. Gomidas was the name of a renowned 7th
and poet and he took that as his name on completion of his priestly studies
at the age of 24 in 1893. His real name was Soghomon Soghomonyan at birth in
Turkey. He was part of the huge Armenian minority that had lived there in
harmony for centuries until the terrible events of 1915. This was when the
Ottoman Empire carried out the first ‘ethnic cleansing’ genocide of the
twentieth century. It virtually totally eliminated the Armenian population
and resulted in the deaths of over 1½ million. It was only following the
intervention of the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that Gomidas was
released from an internment camp. He had been among the first arrested.
Prior to his move to Constantinople he had toured the whole of Armenia
collecting folk songs and dances in much the same way as did Bartók.
Tragically almost all were destroyed following the events of 1915. He
finally ended up in Paris where he died in 1935.
His short piece entitled Groung
was originally a song and that is
how the other nine of his works on the disc also began their lives. This
charming little melody is an arrangement of an arrangement for violin and
piano. Although it may be hard to imagine it being played on anything other
than cello and piano once you’ve heard it in this version I have no doubt
that it would work with almost any combination. I can imagine it working
very successfully for flute and piano, for instance.
Another arrangement is Arno Babajanian’s Vocalise
. It’s clearly
heavily influenced by Rachmaninov’s Vocalise
and was also written
to be sung with a solitary vowel. It was transcribed by Geronty Talalyan
(1926-2000) – brother to Genrikh (or Henrik) Talalyan. Geronty was a
prominent cellist who was also responsible for making transcriptions of
several other of Gomidas’ songs played here. There are three notes in his
piece that continually remind you of Rachmaninov’s and it is just as
beautiful in its own right.
The only work on the disc, apart from Arutiunian’s, that was specifically
written for cello and piano is Haro Stepanian’s Sonata for Cello and
composed in 1943. This is an orgy of sumptuous melodies that make
it totally irresistible. Right from its opening notes there is an achingly
beautiful theme that emerges on the cello that is taken up by the piano.
This mirrors its sad and deeply reflective nature. Stepanian was another
avid collector of folk melodies amassing over 350. His music highlights
their influence as it does his musical training in Russia. His music
represents an effective synthesis of the Russian school of romantic writing
and folk-inspired Armenian melody — a powerful combination. The most overtly
folksy movement in the sonata is the final one. It opens with an obvious
Armenian folk song that is highly attractive and that is developed
throughout the movement. Each instrument takes it in turns to hold the tune
with the cello mimicking the strumming of a folk instrument when the piano
is in command.
Gomidas’s songs have been skilfully arranged, some of them firstly for
piano or string quartet then re-arranged for the combination here. Once
again they seem to be perfect vehicles for cello and piano. While several
are less than joyful — even the second entitled Striding, Beaming
in English — they are all so lovely that repeated hearings are the order of
the day. Listening to these Armenian melodies it is all the more sad to
reflect on the huge number in his collection that were destroyed during the
genocide of 1915.
There is a commonality in the music throughout the disc. One could easily
believe that all of it was by the same composer but this is not meant in any
way as a disparaging comment. I have thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to
the music of this fascinating country and am highly impressed by the wealth
of truly gorgeous tunes that have come from there. If I was asked to single
one out to give a flavour of what is on the disc then it would be Akh
(Ah, dear Maral) which is a heartfelt paean to love.
The Tuach/Harboyan duo hoped that they could produce a disc that “would be
accessible and appealing to a wide range of listeners”. This they have
certainly done and their playing mirrors their commitment to the project for
it shows in every note.