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Shqipėria Nė Art (Albania in Art) – Albanian Piano Works
Marsida Koni (piano)
rec. 2018, TeleCineSound Recording Studio, Rome, Italy

At the end of 2018, while selecting new CDs to review, one particular cover caught my eye, and I felt compelled to listen to some online sound-snippets. The hauntingly beautiful opening track had an immediate appeal, so I added it to my selection without further delay, and when it arrived, I found myself utterly smitten. That CD was unpretentiously entitled ‘Albanian Piano Music’, and performed by Albanian-Italian pianist Marsida Koni.

Koni’s initial CD was well received, and this no doubt helped set the idea in motion to produce a follow-up. But, of course, it’s never a simple case of naming any subsequent recording ‘More Albanian Piano Music’, or ‘Albanian Piano Music Volume Two’. The title of this second CD is, in fact, Shqipėria Nė Art, meaning ‘Albania in Art’ – with ‘Albanian Piano Music’ as a subtitle below. The CD cover is still every bit as attractive, but now in a more specific way.

The first CD was recorded in the Concert Hall of the B. Maderna State Conservatory of Music in Cesena. The venue for the present one was the TeleCineSound Studio in Rome, where the in-house piano probably functions more as a general all-purpose instrument, rather than one used specifically for recording classical music. While the provision of a Model D Steinway Grand would definitely have enhanced the recorded sound, one of Koni’s foremost qualities seems to be able to bring out the best in any instrument, seamlessly compensating for any perceived deficits, whether during a recording session, or a live performance. In fact, somewhat paradoxically, a less than top-of-the-range instrument might actually be deemed more appropriate here. Indeed, I have it on good authority that the provision of top-class pianos in Albania hasn’t always been the norm, and the more so during the Hoxha regime, where even to find an instrument where all the notes were working, wasn’t always a given. But in the final analysis, while the piano sound isn’t cutting-edge, in the hands of a talented artist, it fails to detract from the CD’s overall appeal, and the listener’s enjoyment.

Other than this, Koni wisely sticks to the design and overall format of the first CD. There, for example, she opened with fellow-Albanian Thomas Simaku’s highly-evocative ‘Love your name’ – a piece of film music written for the 1985 Balkan Film Festival. The present CD begins with ‘Spring Lyric’ by Simon Gjoni, whose music also appeared previously. It shares its distinctive Mediterranean ambiance with Simaku’s piece, though is somewhat more extended, and not without some virtuosic elements.

The first CD featured music by Kozma Lara, and there is more here, in the shape of his Sonata No 1. The opening Allegro ma non troppo has a distinct neoclassical feel to start with, before elements of Ravel can be clearly discerned, in both the harmonies and piano-writing. Lara is, in fact, well-known for his impressionist tendencies. The plaintive Andante tranquillo is a lovely little mood picture, so delicately played here, while the Allegro assai, returns to the style of the opening movement, but with somewhat greater rhythmic complexity, and a slightly more astringent harmonic palette

Ramadan Sokoli, who didn’t appear on the first CD, is represented here by his Ballad No 4, and it is clear from the start that the harmonic direction has shifted towards the Middle East and Turkey, with much use made of our Harmonic Minor Scale, which, because of its layout of tones and semitones, is often employed in Western Music, to evoke more exotic locations. Sokoli was an ethnomusicologist, as well as a composer, and has been considered the founder of Albanian ethnomusicology.

Toni Harrapi’s music has featured before, and here we have an opportunity to hear a more-extended work, his Sonatina. Again, while there are some neoclassical elements present, there are also many expressively romantic moments and textures, too. Harapi writes most convincingly in whatever style he temporarily finds himself, and the result is a quite tantalising movement that I expect you’ll want to listen to more than once. In Koni’s assertive and totally idiomatic performance, Harapi could scarcely have found a more empathetic performer. The ensuing Andante is so simply put together, but exudes such heartfelt emotion, out of what is very little, in terms of thematic material, with much use made of thirds in the melody line. Even the final Rondo is initially simply fashioned – a catchy melody over an ‘Alberti’ Bass in the left hand, with some nice little rhythmic interjections, and a good share of repeated notes – which Koni despatches with great panache, despite worrying, perhaps, whether the piano action might let her down in the process. Harapi then cranks up the virtuoso element as the music rushes to its conclusion – a truly impressive work of some fifteen minutes that could sit very comfortably in any piano recital.

Aleksander Gashi’s music didn’t appear on the first CD, but here it is represented by two of his Preludios – the second and fourth respectively. The first heard is essentially pastoral in nature throughout, which, from the harmonies he uses, could as easily suggest an idyllic English setting, as something with any specific Albanian flavour. In the next Preludio, despite being just a little longer at 2:29, the musical language and piano-writing appear to have moved on considerably. It is bolder and, at times, more aggressive, and includes one little quite-animated passage that brings to mind a similar moment in Debussy’s Clair de lune.

Haig Zacharian also makes his first appearance here with his Theme and Variations. The theme itself is a wistful, pentatonic-like melody in the minor key, with more than just a nod in the direction of modality, especially at cadence points. Zacharian certainly goes to town in working out his variations, which look forward to similar examples by Rachmaninov, where the whole harmonic canvas is taken apart, and then reassembled to produce something quite different and almost unrecognizable from the source. This was, of course, something the Russian virtuoso achieved so simply in the much-famed eighteenth variation from his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, something Zacharian can achieve almost as effectively. While he uses a great variety of textures and piano-figurations, Koni’s well-studied and instinctive approach is to realise that, in this kind of work, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, always striving for the bigger picture, so to speak.

Lec Kurti also makes his debut here with a short Romanza senza parole (Song without Words) that really does have more than just a passing similarity with one of Felix Mendelssohn’s originals. If anything, Kurti’s example has less of that often cloying emotion that occasionally can render Mendelssohn’s music just a bit too sugary-sweet. Nonetheless, a simple piece of sincere emotion, which Koni plays with all the intimacy of a performance for friends sat outside, enjoying some fine wine and antipasto.

The next composer to feature is a certain Tish Daija, who strangely doesn’t get a mention in the CD booklet. The booklet, in fact, provides only biographical information, but nothing about the composers’ individual works. The English translation from the original Albanian is sufficient, though if it’s to be really effective, needs a quick re-working by a sub-editor whose first language is English. Also, I found it slightly annoying that the order in which each composer is mentioned in the booklet, is different from their respective position on the CD.

However, I have taken the liberty of providing a few sentences about Tish Daija, as, somewhat ironically, his biography seems a tad more interesting than some of the others’. He composed the first Albanian ballet Halili dhe Hajria (Halili and Hajria), as well as the opera Pranvera (Spring). He was also a very good football player and part of Albanian Superliga club Flamurtari, before seriously dedicating himself to music.

The first of Daija’s Five Pieces for piano has a distinctly upbeat modern sound and rhythm to it, propelled forward by repeated chords in the left hand. The second piece is a charming little miniature, based on arpeggio passages passed between the hands, or used simultaneously. Piece three takes this idea further, by adding a sustained slow-moving part to the rippling arpeggios. There follows an abrupt change to the somewhat astringent style of Prokofiev, but undulating arpeggios soon return to round the piece off as it began. Piece Four takes to the minor key, for a plaintive melody, the whole of which seemed to suggest some far-off snow-clad scene. The final piece returns to the style of the first, and makes some further use of repeated chords, though this time in the top hand, and there is now a greater element of dissonance. The end is abrupt, yet effective, with its final right hand note-cluster finish.

Shpėtim Kushta is another first-time composer here, and in its own way his Vetė tragiedia kishte humbur udhėn – ‘The tragedy itself has lost its way’ – is probably the most poignant and emotive five minutes of the whole CD, and one that probably makes the deepest impression on me now, although this wasn’t always the case. Initially I found it dissonant, rhythmically random, and altogether shapeless, all things that I don’t necessarily relate to instinctively. But I was extremely fortunate in being able to run this track past someone who had actually experienced growing up in Albania during the troubled times of Hoxha’s dictatorship, and they enacted their own experiences at the time, as the CD track played out. Random short rhythms became bursts of automatic fire, explosions, the necessary stealth required just to get across the street without being picked off by a sniper, the fact that you could be sitting minding your own business enjoying a coffee in a little restaurant one minute, and dead the next – an innocent victim of some crossfire. Marsida Koni, her parents, family and friends, also would have lived through these harrowing times, so she, too, can bring her own life experiences to her performance, which then becomes intensely personal, depicting Kushta’s piece in a completely different light.

The last track features the final new composer, Endri Sina, with Perhaps – written in 1996, and about which neither the CD booklet, nor even a search on Google is especially revealing. A quiet, two-chord arpeggio-like figure forms the main thrust of the opening, which includes some occasionally quite discordant writing. At around four minutes in, an overtly romantic style ensues, before this, too, takes on a far more dissonant character. This leads into a rather bizarre section, almost like a four-part chorale, but where each chord contains an added dissonant note, usually at the interval of a second. The spirit of the opening is then recalled, before a series of hushed sixths leads to the close, rather like the sound of a bell disappearing into the distance.

At the risk of repeating what I said in my previous review, Marsida Koni is, for me, the supreme exponent. Such is her musicality that she is able to sound totally at home in whatever style the music demands, and with a finely-honed technique and musical insight to match.

With these two CDs, she has already made a very significant contribution to the cause of Albanian piano repertoire in particular and Albanian music in general. Effectively, then, she has also become a musical ambassador for her country of birth and, following the success of her first CD, received the ‘Member of Honour of Albanian Excellence’ in recognition of this.

Whether you’re a pianist or teacher looking for new, and varied repertoire, whether you’ve a specific interest in Albanian music and culture, or perhaps you just enjoy listening to something a little different, this new CD ‘Albania in Art’, is well worth considering. True, it won’t set the world alight, but that was never going to be its raison d’źtre anyway.

Philip R Buttall

Simon GJONI ((1923-1991)
Lirikė pranverore (Spring Lyric) [2:29]
Kozma LARA (1930-2019)
Sonata No 1 [11:02]
Ramadan SOKOLI (1926-1992)
Balladė Nr 4 (Ballad No 4) [3:41]
Tonin HARAPI (1928-1992)
Sonatina [14:53]
Aleksander GASHI  (b. 1958)
Preludio No 2 [1:49]
Preludio No 4 [2:29]
Haig ZACHARIAN  (b. 1952)
Temė me variacione pėr piano (Theme with variations for piano) [9:15]
Lec KURTI (1884-1948)
Romanza senza parole [2:02]
Tish DAIJA (1926-2003)
Pesė pjesė pėr piano (Five pieces for piano) [7:10]
Shpėtim KUSHTA  (b. 1946)
Vetė tragiedia kishte humbur udhėn (The tragedy itself has lost its way) [5:07]
Endri SINA  (b. 1967)
Perhaps [8:24]

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