The Komitas Legacy
Arno BABAJANIAN (1921-1983)
Piano Trio in F sharp minor (1952) [25:15]
Six Armenian Miniatures (arr. Varoujan Bartikian, 2016) [21:06]
Nina GRIGORYAN (b. 1976)
Aeternus (2018) [10:35]
Ardashes AGOSHIAN (b. 1977)
Piano Trio ‘Homage to Komitas’ (2017) [21:55]
rec. 2019, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon
All first recordings except Babajanian
TOCCATA NEXT TOCN0006 [78:53]
The trio of Arno Babajanian was perhaps the discovery of
my just completed survey of piano trios. The notes describe it as “a twentieth-century classic” which may be overstating matters in terms of general recognition, but it is on the mark as far as quality goes. I don’t believe that I’m indulging in hyperbole by suggesting that the middle movement Andante is one of the most beautiful in the entire piano trio repertoire. It was premiered by the composer with David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, which is some pedigree. The structure of the work is quite unusual – opening with an extended slow movement, passing to the aforementioned Andante before concluding with a folk-inspired fast movement. Trio Aeternus adopt quite different tempos in all three movements – slower in the first and third, faster in the second – compared to my preferred version, that by the Amici Ensemble on Atma Classique. While their performance is still enjoyable, I feel that it is not as successful as the Amicis.
Komitas is called “the father of Armenian music” and responsible for collecting thousands of Armenian folk songs. The Armenian cellist of Trio Aeternus, Varoujan Bartikian, has arranged six of them for this recording. I’m not sure that putting them second on the disc was a good idea, as the first, Shogher jan, coming after the Babajanian felt simplistic, almost trite. A much better impression was made by the others, impassioned and lyrical, and not as folksy as I’d expected. I still think that it would have been better to place these works at the start of the disc, and follow them with the Babajanian.
Certainly Nina Grigoryan’s work, dedicated to Trio Aeternus, would not have been disadvantaged by being placed after the Babajanian. Given that I’m not entirely convinced by the performance of the Babajanian, Aeternus becomes the standout work on the disc. Though she was born in what is now Kazakhstan, Grigoryan studied at the Komitas Conservatoire in Yerevan, Armenia, and won first prize for composition in the Aram Khachaturian Competition while in her teens. I can see why. The opening movement is impassioned and very impressive. The second movement - Allegro con brio - is based on a traditional Armenian dance, the kochari, and it sounds exactly as I would have expected Armenian folk dances to sound. The finale, an Andante like the first, has a faster middle section which brought to mind the theme from the TV show, Game of Thrones. In reviews of works by composers below the very best, I usually suggest that the material doesn’t support the length, but here I wished that the Grigoryan would have been longer, which says something of its quality.
The trio of Turkish-born Ardashes Agoshian is, by some distance, the hardest going of the four works, and while it is a homage to Komitas, it reminds me more of Shostakovich in the brittleness of its melodies and the anger that erupts on occasions, notably the huge clangourous chords on the piano in the fourth movement Desu Internus. While I’m not a fan of dissonant music, I didn’t have a problem, especially as those chords were played over a bittersweet melody in the strings, though my wife did pop her head around the door and say “I don’t like that”. The work, cast in six movements, begins and ends lyrically, the harsh and jagged sections occupy the middle. While it isn’t a work that I will listen to as often as the Grigoryan, it does have considerable merit.
Toccata’s Next series is relatively recent – this is the sixth release – and is not bound by the parent label’s policy of single composer releases. The label’s usual attention to detail in the recording and the booklet notes is certainly retained. I thought that it was curious that this recording should occur with the financial support of a Portuguese foundation, the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, until I read that the its founder, Calouste Gulbenkian was Armenian.
Any release that further spreads the word about the merits of the Babajanian Trio is welcome, and the three premieres all have their good points, especially the Grigoryan, to which I shall return frequently.