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KOMITAS (1869-1935)
Divine Liturgy (arranged for mixed chorus by Vache Sharafyan)
Armen Badalyan (tenor)
Hovhannes Badalyan (bass)
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava
rec. 2019, St John’s Church (Sv.Jana Baznica), Riga, latvia
DELOS DE3590 [79.47]

For those who love to explore Church music, this CD will give immense pleasure. Here we have Armenian liturgical music, in the Orthodox tradition, arranged by an Armenian composer for mixed chorus, sung by a Latvian choir, with Armenian soloists, and recorded and released by a U.S. company. It is an adventurous project, and a very successful one.

Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomonian, was ordained as a vardapet (celibate priest) in the Armenian Orthodox Church, but subsequently studied music at the Frederick William University in Berlin, going on to describe himself as ‘using … Western training to build a national tradition’. Like many of his musical contemporaries, he was a considerable collector of folk music – more than 3000 pieces, of which about 1200 are extant. He also published the first collection of Kurdish folk songs. He took his choir to many European cities, and was praised by Debussy, settling in Constantinople in 1910. The Armenian Massacres began on 24th April 1915, and Komitas was arrested that day. His deportation to Anatolia – and the news of the genocide (between 600,000 and 1.5 million died) triggered mental breakdown. In 1916 he was committed to the H˘pital de la Paix in Constantinople, before spending the rest of his life in French asylums.

The Armenian Church has a strong musical tradition, which is unsurprising as it is one of the oldest of all national churches – Etchmiadzin, where Komitas lived from 1881 until 1895, first as orphan chorister in the seminary, has (probably) the oldest cathedral in the world, founded in 301, the Mother Church of the Armenian tradition.

Many Armenian Churches have pipe organs, but whether that is true for the mother church I have been unable to determine. Komitas’ Divine Liturgy was originally composed for a cappella male voices, but here has been arranged and abbreviated by Vache Sharafyan – not much has been excised, but the rearrangement for mixed voices adds possibilities for a variety of timbres. The Latvian Radio Choir, a professional body of around 25 singers, have exceptional skills. I cannot comment on the authenticity of their Armenian pronunciation, but there is a clarity to their expression. Hovhannes Nersesyan, who sings the parts allocated to the priest, is himself a priest of the Armenian Church, as well as a soloist for the Armenian National Theatre of Opera and Ballet. He has a fine, declamatory voice, appropriate for his role here, where much of the music has this character. Although the music is overwhelmingly slow, as befits such devotional material, it astonishingly beautiful throughout, with much subtle variation. Recordings of Gregorian chant have been justly popular, but too often for their mystical atmosphere, rather than for their interpretation of texts which the chant is meant to serve. As with the Latin texts, so too the texts here are inspired by deep faith.

Delos are to be congratulated for exquisite recording and immensely informative notes. Texts are given in Armenian script, which has 39 letters. A transliteration in Latin script is helpfully provided, as well as a full English translation.

Michael Wilkinson

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