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KOMITAS (1869-1935)
Divine Liturgy arr. Vache Sharafyan
Armen Badalyan (tenor), Hovhannes Badalyan (bass)
Latvian Radio Choir/Sigvards Klava
rec. 2019, St John’s Church (Sv.Jana Baznica), Riga, Latvia
Text and translation included
DELOS DE3590 [79.47]

Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomian, was Armenian and a hugely significant figure in the recording and transcribing of his native folk music, much of which would have perished without his work. He had a difficult life: his parents both died when he was a child but he was chosen for a place in a seminary where he showed his musical talent and went on to further training including in Berlin, as well as taking holy orders. He was given the title Vardapet, which in the Armenian Apostolic Church means a priest who has authority to teach. He was caught up in the Armenian genocide in 1915, and, although rescued, he suffered a breakdown and spent the rest of his life in asylums, doing no further creative work.

Komitas had completed this work, his masterpiece, shortly before his arrest. It is a setting of the Orthodox Liturgy, the equivalent of the Mass, in the form used by his church, for a male voice choir. For this recording the contemporary composer Vache Sharafyan has transcribed it for a mixed voice choir, in the hope that this would enhance its appeal. The transcription is not absolutely complete, as Sharafyan explained that he concentrated on the sections of musical rather than ritual importance. There are many short sections, rather than a few longer ones as in a Western rite mass.

As someone unfamiliar with the idiom, my impression is that it is closely linked to chant, with frequent melismas and the use of the Phrygian mode. The male voices clearly carry the burden of the work, with the women sounding more decorative than functional. There is some counterpoint, also a good deal of drone. It sounds very strange and is quite hypnotic to someone used to Western liturgical music.

The performance here is a collaboration between Armenians and Latvians, with various people contributing help and support. The dedication of all concerned is evident: this is a real labour of love The performance is assured and recorded in a suitable church acoustic. The booklet gives helpful background notes on Komitas, the work and the performers, and includes the complete text in Armenian (which has its own alphabet) and in transliteration in the Roman alphabet, also an English translation. It is a work which can hardly be judged by the conventional standards of music criticis. It is an invaluable document of its composer and his art.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Michael Wilkinson

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