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Avet TERTERIAN (1929-1994)
Symphony No. 3, for duduks, zurnas and orchestra (1975) [28:34]
Symphony No. 4 (1976, rev 1984) [26:09]
KOMITAS (1869-1935)
Shoger Jan (Dear Shoger), for two duduks [1:29]
Noobar-Noobar, arranged for two duduks [2:25]
Tigran Aleksanyan, Vahe Hovanesian, duduks and zurna
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. 2019, The Lighthouse, Poole, UK
Reviewed in stereo and multi-channel surround

As I write these words I have just discovered that next Sunday actually marks the 25th anniversary of my first encounter with the music of Avet Terterian. The BBC Genome page for the Radio Times confirms that on Thursday November 10th 1994 the Radio Three evening concert featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Lazarev in the first UK performance of the Symphony No 7 by one ‘Alfred Terteryan’ (sic- was somebody confusing him with Schnittke?). I seem to recall the programme featured a brief introduction by Russophile extraordinaire David Fanning (he’s also listed as the presenter of an interval talk on ‘The Surprising History of the Soviet Symphony’) and if memory serves me correctly he implored listeners to listen out for a long viola solo consisting of two alternating notes, as an example of maximum musical expressivity achieved with minimum means. I mention this because I was unusually impressed by the piece, not least by the composer’s seemingly unique style, epitomised by the organic absorption of local Armenian tone colours and flavours. I remember thinking all those years ago that it seemed unlikely I would ever hear more by this composer. How wrong I was!

Traditional instruments feature in the Symphony No 7; unusual interlopers elsewhere in Terterian’s symphonic canon include male voices and mixed choir (No 2), the kamancheh, a lyre-like bowed instrument, as well as tape (No 5), nine phonograms (No 6), two sopranos and tape (No 8). On the present disc the exotic guests in the Symphony no 3 are the double-reeded duduk, which projects a cool, melancholy beauty, and its raucous rough-edged cousin the zurna. A harpsichord makes its enigmatic presence felt throughout the Symphony No 4.

It’s apt here to consider Mahler’s famous comment to Sibelius that the symphony ‘should embrace everything’ because Terterian’s symphonies (I am by now familiar with all eight of them) do just that: they encompass the extremes of local and universal, of very ancient and extremely modern, of complete stasis and frantic dynamism, of silence and din. The Symphony No 3 seems to be Terterian’s best-known and has been recorded more often than No 4; they were previously coupled on a pioneering 1997 ASV disc in gripping performances (and excellent sound) by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra under Loris Tjeknavorian (review). The new Chandos issue is most certainly competitive, not least because of its surround layer which projects Terterian’s idiosyncratic sound world in extraordinary detail, notably the virtually inaudible drone-like textured string and wind backcloths that creep up on one almost imperceptibly in its stereo counterpart. Karabits (like Tjeknavorian) has opted to record the original version of the Fourth Symphony (without the tape part incorporated in the revision), but his more compact account comes in at a relatively sprightly 26 minutes, some 8 minutes quicker than the veteran Armenian’s reading.

Both symphonies unfold episodically, each one comprising a series of musical vignettes and sound combinations which alternate and repeat sequentially, separated as they are by discrete gestures (silences, tolling bells, twinkling celesta notes, cracks of the whip). But despite this, and their similar durations, these pieces could not be more contrasting in terms of character. No 3 is characterised by loud, threatening percussion, and by the earthen tang of the folk instruments, which are by turn mocking and acidic (the zurnas) or cool and spiritual (the duduks). Periods of febrile, loud activity give way to moments of repose. Whooping brass and ticking clockwork mechanics engage with sustained, nervous drones in strings and winds, or the isolated, songful monody of a solo duduk. There is an exotic, Eastern flavour to the frenzied dance elements which dissolve into silence; but they might yield in turn to a passage which evokes the grandeur of what the composer characterised as “…the great vertical perspectives of the Caucasus”. Swirling winds and rumbling thunder sporadically sweep across this landscape. After a final, sad duduk solo, whining brass climb inexorably into the stratosphere. There is a rude and rustic howl of zurna, a harsh brass flourish which leaves the trail of a single note, and then nothing.

If the Symphony No 3 is predominantly ‘din’, its immediate successor is contrastingly suffused by stasis and near inaudibility. The gentle tolling bell at its outset recedes to reveal some distant lounge harpsichordist playing a nostalgic, mournful song in apparent perpetuity. The symphony takes on the trappings of a hand-held camera in a spartan, isolated dwelling; the film-maker tiptoes around the rooms, capturing solo string players whose spare lines come clearly into focus and disappear, or empty landscapes through a window or awning which echo with ominous, distant rumblings, or surreal figures playing fragments of swing which seem impossibly dislocated, and then, retracing his steps he happens again on the ghostly presence in front of the omnipresent harpsichord. Hovering above orchestral activity which is frequently subterranean, strange horn calls momentarily suggest the aforementioned Mahler. Terterian’s Symphony No 4 is glacial, bare and ‘other’, its stillness only sporadically interrupted by instrumental non-sequiturs. Superficially individual textures might recall the better-known symphonies of the late Georgian Giya Kancheli, but in substantive terms Terterian tells an entirely different tale. From anyone.

The Armenian composer makes his orchestra(s) do things that other composers simply wouldn’t dream of. Karabits is evidently a believer, and has fashioned luxuriant, rapt readings from his superb Bournemouth band. The very idea of this music being recorded in Poole, Dorset strikes one as a monumental contradiction of sound and place. If the stereo sound is warm and full (even in its conveyance of music which is often glacial, especially in the Symphony No 4) the surround layer elicits a host of unexpected detail.

The fine Armenian solo instrumentalists perform two duduk duets to separate the symphonies, a delectable folk-like melody by Komitas, and a melancholy traditional tune. They complete a magnificent disc, which neatly complements Karabits’ other rewarding recent forays into obscure repertoire from the recently independent but still troubled ex-Soviet states of Georgia (Karayev) and Ukraine (Lyatoshynsky and his own father Ivan Karabits).

Richard Hanlon

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