Armenia gems CDR90000209

Gems From Armenia
Aznavoorian Duo
rec. 2021, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago
Reviewed as 24-bit lossless download
CEDILLE CDR90000209 [76]

This programme cleverly encompasses three different eras of Armenian history, which I will simplify (the country’s history is a complex one) by describing them as before, after and during the Soviet era. For those of you uncertain about Armenia’s geographic location, it is land-locked, with Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east and Iran to the south.

The “before” group is represented by five traditional Armenia folksong arrangements by Komitas (birth name Soghomon Soghomonian, also known as Gomidas), who is considered the father of Armenian nationalist music. One piece – Garoun A – is for solo piano, the others for the duo. They are predominantly plaintive in mood, the most impressive and dramatic being Krunk (The Crane), which the booklet notes suggest is “the personification of every Armenian refugee from the Ottoman Genocide of 1915–1922 longing for home”.

The Soviet era composers are represented by a famous name and three lesser-known ones. The two Khachaturian pieces are very different to the grand and spectacular works he is best known for. The first is an arrangement of a piano piece from his Album for Children, the second a homage to Yerevan, the newly reconstructed capital of Armenia; neither makes much of an impression. The booklet describes the work as “rousing”, which I don’t hear. Arno Babajanian was a student of Khachaturian, and is a very under-appreciated composer. His Piano Trio is really quite exceptional, and if you don’t know it, try the performance by Trio de L’Île (review). The two works here are not quite at that level, but still bear testament to his talent. The Elegy for piano was written on Khachaturian’s death – Babajanian performed it at the funeral – and it is soulful as you would expect. The notes give no information at all on Babajanian’s Aria and Dance, which is unfortunate. The Aria is hauntingly beautiful, and you can certainly imagine the cello as singer. Dance, short and sweet with something of a Piazzolla tango feel, brings us the first sustained faster tempos, and that is perhaps the main negative comment I can make about this recording. The first twenty-nine minutes are predominantly slow and, for the most part, sad. The history of Armenia, or at least that supplied on Wikipedia, makes for fairly grim reading, so the atmosphere of the music is understandable. However, listening to a recording is different to reading a history text, so perhaps at least one more lively piece might have been placed earlier on the disc.

The Terterian sonata is by far the most substantial and abstract work on the disc, but has a definite familial feel with the other works. The opening Andante (though much of the nine minutes is faster than that) swirls and smoulders, the following Adagio a soulful lament, and the closing Presto begins with rhythms that bring tarantellas to mind. I think it is the first work of his that I have heard, and it has impressed me sufficiently to listen to some of his other works, including his symphonies (review).

The booklet notes, with good reason, include Alexander Arutiunian in the Soviet-era composers (he was born before Babajanian and Terterian), but his 1948 Impromptu is placed after the first of the post-Soviet era group of works. Perhaps this is for reasons of balance; not wanting its fast folk dance to follow the helter-skelter rhythms of the Terterian finale. I had encountered his music before in a disc of orchestral works on Chandos, and was totally underwhelmed. This didn’t really change my opinion.

The post-Soviet group of three works includes two composers from outside Armenia. Serouj Kradjian is Lebanese, and his Sari Siroun Yar (Beautiful Mountain Girl) is an arrangement of an Armenian folksong. It may well be the best work on the disc. American Peter Boyer’s Mount Ararat was written for this recording, and is the longest individual movement on the disc (9:31). It is richly dramatic, and seems totally immersed in the Armenian soundworld. It too is a contender for best work here. Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance is the most modern-sounding of these three works, though by no means difficult.

Sisters Ani (cello) and Marti (piano) Aznavoorian are American-born, with Armenian heritage; their grandfather moved to the US during the First World War. This programme derives from an understandable wish to acknowledge the country of their ancestors, and comes after their 2017 recital in the capital, Yerevan, on their first visit to Armenia. As far as I can tell, this is their first recording as a duo; each has a number of recordings with other artists. I have found one previous review on MWI, which praised Ani’s performances of Lera Auerbach’s cello works to the skies (review). She plays a cello made by her father. I don’t have any other versions to compare with, but I sense that the Aznavoorian sisters would be more than a match.

Cedille’s production standards have always been very high in my experience of their recordings and this is no different. The sound is vivid, with absolutely no extraneous noises.

The predominantly slow, mournful nature of the music does mean that you may not necessarily listen to the whole disc at one time. While there may not be too much variety, there is plenty of quality in both the music and the performances.

David Barker

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (June 2022)

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Komitas Vartabed (1869–1935)
Chinar Es
Tsirani Tsar
Garoun A
Al Ailux
Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978)
Ivan Sings (arr. Antti Hakkarainen)
Arno Babajanian (1921–1983)
Aria & Dance
Avet Terterian (1929–1994)
Sonata for cello and piano
Serouj Kradjian (b. 1973)
Sari Siroun Yar (Traditional)
Alexander Arutiunian (1920–2012)
Vache Sharafyan (b. 1966)
Petrified Dance
Peter Boyer (b. 1970)
Mount Ararat