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Albanian Piano Music
Marsida Koni (piano)
rec. 2017, Concert Hall of the B. Maderna State Conservatory of Music of Cesena, Italy

Albania is a small, mountainous country on the Balkan Peninsula, with a long Adriatic and Ionian coastline; information began filtering out to the rest of the world only relatively recently, once communism had lost its stranglehold in 1990. Today, almost thirty years on, it features regularly in travel brochures, seeking to establish itself as a holiday destination on a par with the newly emerging countries neighbouring it, all originally part of the former Yugoslavia. Even now, when more than 80,000 British nationals, for example, visit the country each year, still very little is known about its arts and, more specifically, its music.

While a few CDs featuring mainly individual composers’ piano music, and some songs, have been released since 2006, this new CD provides not only some further insight, but is also a highly-entertaining and absorbing mix of various genres. Furthermore, with its varied selection of folk-lore suites, dances, and other miniatures, it offers an invaluable chronological view of the subject.

Indeed, there are two generations of Albanian composers represented on the CD: Simon Gjoni, Ēesk Zadeja and Tonin Harapi belong to the first generation of professional composers from the country, all born in the 1920s, some studying abroad in Moscow but returning to the capital and artistic hub, Tiranė, to lead the cultural life while the country suffered from comparative international isolation in the 1950s and 60s. But with the second generation of composers like Pėllumb Vorpsi, Thomas Simaki, Vasil Tole, and others, Albanian music gained impetus, even though it still tended to remain traditionally orientated, with a classical-romantic vein at its heart, profoundly allied to the country’s folk music. Given Albania’s total isolation, its music – and the arts in general – have not kept pace with contemporary developments in other western countries. In compiling the present selection, Albanian pianist Marsida Koni, who now has a musical career in Italy, has chosen to include those pieces that marked her own musical journey from childhood on.

The opening piece – Thomas Simaku’s Love your name – is a perfect example of the highly attractive, melancholic romanticism that characterises some of the music on the CD. Albania and Italy naturally share the Adriatic culture, and this is apparent in this first piece, as well as in the dual-titling of many of the other tracks. By contrast, the theme which Pėllumb Vorpsi uses as the basis for a set of variations is clearly folk-inspired, as its title implies. The ensuing variations are Lisztian in conception, contrasting bravura with solemnity, and harmonic inventiveness with modal elements, leading to some nine minutes of totally engaging piano music.

The seven pieces by Kozma Lara that follow are varied miniatures that recall the often similarly folk-inspired writing of Norwegian composer Grieg in his Lyric Pieces. Each has its own particular charm and character, and again makes for enjoyable listening.

The Toccata that follows – the first of four pieces by Feim Ibrahim – inhabits another world, moulded in quite a different musical language. Notwithstanding all the expected rhythmic and harmonic complexity, it retains a strong lyrical sense, despite some discordant moments along the way – it would make an effective concert piece in the genre. Piccola Danza combines folk dance-elements with lyrical moments, while Ninna, nanna makes effective use of the latter.

The two offerings from Ēesk Zadeja are both more harmonically acerbic, and combine a folk element that seems to point more to the music of Turkey and the Middle East with some effective, virtuoso pianism. The Toccata additionally makes some good use of repeated notes, and revisits the bravura world of Liszt. Simon Gjoni’s sole contribution, Hortensia, is, by comparison, cast almost as a delicate, short, tango-like dance, which would stylistically appear to be inspired more by the hydrangea plant, than by the eponymous Roman orator. Vasil Tole’s Rondo moves forward again, harmonically, and, at some ten minutes or so, is the longest single track on the CD. It does somewhat suffer from this fact, as the structure appears loose and meandering, but, as the sleeve-note informs us, the composer is ‘renowned for his advocacy of the concept of musical reconstructuring’… so perhaps it is just a question of ‘when is a Rondo not a Rondo?’ Two short pieces by Limos Dizdari follow, marking a return to a simpler harmonic style, the first in melancholic mood, the second, described as Danza, certainly showing more life, but, apart from some interesting rhythms, couldn’t really be described as a dance, as such, entertaining though it is.

Tonin Harapi is afforded the last slot on the CD. Considered a ‘People’s Artist’ of the first generation of Albanian composers, his compositions comprise all genres, while remaining extremely expressive, with an obsessive adherence to the traditional structure of the various forms he opted to work with. Each of the seven varied pieces here attests to this; all are less than two minutes in length, with the final piece, Canzone, rounding off the CD in the melancholy mood encountered at the start.

Marsida Koni appears to be the ideal exponent for this music, equally at home in the nostalgic and romantic numbers, never reducing anything to mere sentimental schmaltz, and with a technique able to despatch those passages of Lisztian virtuosity with great aplomb. The piano is well-recorded, and the sleeve-notes most comprehensive, in terms of composers’ biographies and brief information on their musical output, when necessary. Virtually nothing is said about the individual tracks, but the music speaks for itself.

I knew very little about Albanian Piano Music until I heard this most enjoyable and enlightening CD, which is also so refreshing in that, like the country itself, it is emerging from a time warp, where pure melody is still considered acceptable. This CD has certainly made me want to get to know more about the country, its people, its highly-individual spoken- language – and, most of all, its music.

Philip R Buttall

Thomas SIMAKU (b. 1958)
Duaje emrin tendė (Love your name) [3:18]
Pėllumb VORPSI (b. 1957)
Variacione mbi njė temė popullore – Balladė
(Variazioni su un tema popolare – ballade) [9:21]
Kozma LARA (b. 1930)
Dhuratė pėr mėsuesen (Un pensiero per la Maestra) [1:23]
Valle (Danza) [1:10]
Ballada No 4 ‘Pastorale’ [3:21]
Kėngė (Canzone) [1:55]
Prelud (Preludio) [2:39]
Marsh (Marcia) [1:28]
Vals (Valse) [1:54]
Feim IBRAHIM (1935-1997)
Tocatė (Toccata) [3:51]
Valle (Danza) [1:57]
Valle e vogėl (Piccola danza) [1:16]
Nina nana (Ninna nanna) [1:30]
Ēesk ZADEJA (1927-1997)
Humoreska (Humoresque) [1:56]
Tokata (Toccata) [3:10]
Simon GJONI ((1923-1991)
Luleborė (Hortensia) [1:42]
Vasil S. TOLE (b. 1963)
Rondo (Rondo) [10:15]
Limos DIZDARI (b. 1942)
Peisazh ne ’36 (Paesaggio nel’36) [3:02]
Valle (Danza) [2:34]
Tonin HARAPI (1928-1992)
Ja gėzimi kthen pėrsėri (La gioia ritorno ancora) [0:47]
Moll’ e kuge top sheqere (Mela rossa zuccherata) [1:07]
Njė dhembje e vogėl (Un piccolo dolore) [1:03]
Valle (Danza) [1:25]
Romancė (Romanza) [1:25]
Bisedė (Conservazione) [1:58]
Gjeta njė bilbil (Ho trovato un usignolo) [1.13]
Valle (Danza) [0:52]
Kėngė (Canzone) [1:32]



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