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Hayren: music of Tigran Mansurian and Komitas
Tigran MANSURIAN (b. 1939)
Havik (1998)
Duet for Viola and Percussion (1998)
KOMITAS (1869-1935) (adapted by MANSURIAN)

Garun a
Krunk (3 versions)
Chinar es
Hov arek
Hoy, Nazan
Tsirani tsar
Oror (2 versions)
Kim Kashkashian, viola
Robyn Schulkowsky, percussion
Tigran Mansurian, piano, voice
Recorded at Teldec Studio, Berlin, May 2000.
ECM NEW SERIES 1754 461831-2 [54.25]


I have never heard a record by the Armenian viola player Kim Kashkashian which was anything less than interesting and this proves to be no exception. Manfred Eicher's ECM label continues to stimulate, educate and more, this time with a foray into the historic and contemporary musics of Armenia, with thankfully not a Sabre Dance in sight! It pairs two pieces for viola and percussion by living Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian with some of his arrangements of the songs of the legendary folk-music collector and priest Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomonian but renamed after a 7th century hymn writer. Steve Lake's booklet note on Komitas is supremely interesting, touching on related subjects as diverse as Gurdjieff and the Armenian genocide by the Turks. Musicweb readers may be familiar with him as a formative influence on the great Armenian-Scottish composer Alan Hovhaness.

I have, perhaps not surprisingly, never been to Armenia but for various reasons it is a country that has held a place in my consciousness for many years, from a schoolboy's fascination with the far-off, exotic and remote, fed by obscure travelogues borrowed from the library, to the moment when, ten years after Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten first recorded it, "Armenia" screamed from the soundtrack of Michael Mannís Heat - "Are the volcanoes still active?". Later, visiting the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem, I learned about the genocide, and was subsequently greatly moved by the haunting liturgy of the Armenian Church. Now this superb disc reawakens that latent interest.

The two Mansurian pieces played by Kashkashian and expert percussionist and ECM stalwart Robyn Schulkowsky bookend the disc. The opening Havik is relatively short but packs great emotional punch into its five minutes and its melancholy lyricism is gripping. The closing Duet is much longer, more abstract and requires more intent listening if its inner depths are to be penetrated but it is well worth the effort. The Komitas settings are fascinating, not least for Mansurian's piano and almost whispered, quavering vocals, the latter apparently baring little resemblance to Komitas' own celebrated baritone. However, the effect is of emotions laid bare - whether the arrangements are reduced to a solo piano or expanded to encompass viola, percussion, piano and voice - some pieces are also repeated in different instrumentations. The overriding impression is one of deep but understated lamentation and it is all strangely very uplifting. I eagerly devoured not only the music but the whole superb package which includes as well as Steve Lake's essay, an equally fascinating one by the composer explaining the genesis of the disc, which included a pivotal concert in Bergen with Jan Garbarek, and the beautiful prose and poetry of Ossip Mandelstam, plus many atmospheric photographs of the performers and Komitas himself. I don't get to hear as many ECM discs as I would like but this reminds me very much of what drew me to the visionary label in the first place. I suppose it is inevitable comparisons will be drawn with the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, also an ECM favourite, but although the music shares some of the atmospheres and inflections it is much more intimate and smaller scale than Kancheli's large canvasses tend to be.

I am very glad to have made the acquaintance of the music of Mansurian and Komitas, particularly via such an inspired artist as Kim Kashkashian. Havik, Hoy, Nazan and Garun a, in particular, are pure poetry, in keeping with the meaning of the disc's title Hayren. I do urge you to give this a try - ECM aficionados will probably know more or less what to expect, as would keen Hovhaness listeners. If you like the more melodic Bartók, the more oriental Vaughan Williams or maybe the Celtic inspirations of Peter Crossley-Holland I reviewed recently, then this may also appeal. Much of the music is slow and quiet but still burns with a very intense flame.

Neil Horner


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