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KOMITAS Vardapet (1869-1935)
Seven Folk Dances (1916) [23:13]
Seven Songs for Piano (1911) [7:09]
Twelve Children’s Pieces based on Folk Themes (1910) [7:38]
Msho-Shoror (1906) [7:57]
Seven Pieces for Violin and Piano (1899-1911) [21:30]
Mikael Ayrapetyan (piano)
Vladimir Sergeev (violin)
rec. Great Hall, Moscow State University of Culture and Arts, Russia, December 2013
GRAND PIANO GP720 [70:47]

These days the most widely known Armenian composers are probably Khatchaturyan and Babajanian but, if you want to hear music that really evokes the scenery, people and cultural heritage of Armenia, look for the works of Komitas – a composer generally regarded as the founder of the Armenian national school of music.

I first came across Komitas in a wonderful violin and piano recital, given by Levon Chilingirian and Clifford Benson on Radio 3, sometime in the 1980s. This included a short piece called “The Apricot Tree” which, fortunately, I managed to record and keep (a recording which I would definitely want to include on my personal desert island list). Subsequently I kept an eye open for recordings of any other music by this composer but I hardly managed to find anything. Even during a trip to Armenia I found only one CD with some of his compositions – performed by a late incarnation of the famous “Komitas Quartet”. This was a fairly ghastly recording (“electronically reprocessed for stereo effect”) of short pieces but the distinctive quality of the music was evident. Since then there have been very occasional performances of pieces on Radio 3’s “Through the night” programme but not much else. So, as you can imagine, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to hear a new disc devoted to this composer’s piano and chamber music.

Komitas Vardapet, as he was styled, was born Soghomon Soghomonian in KŁtahya, western Turkey. Orphaned at twelve he was taken under the wing of the local priest and enrolled in a church seminary in Vagharshapat, Armenia, where the quality of his singing voice greatly impressed the Catholicos (the leading Armenian bishop) Georg IV. He became a monk in 1890 and, after graduating from the seminary four years later, re-named himself Komitas – after a poet/composer of the seventh century. Shortly afterwards he achieved a doctorate of theology – with the degree of vardapet (celibate priest). This began the period during which Komitas was first to study at Friederich Wilhelms University in Berlin, then to travel widely around Europe and the Middle East collecting folk melodies, lecturing on and performing traditional music and composing/arranging – with a gift for turning simple material into sophisticated polyphony.

His secular performances of sacred Armenian music led to a rift with the church. He also created difficulties for himself, as a priest, by having a friendship with an Armenian singer, Margaret Babayan, with whom he took a holiday on the Isle of Wight! Possibly as a result, he eventually left Vagharshapat and settled in Constantinople in 1910. Subsequently, constant touring as a speaker, choral conductor, singer and instrumentalist (he had also become a talented flautist and pianist) built him a considerable reputation and he was widely admired, not just by the Armenian diaspora but by many in the West - particularly composers in France. After a Komitas concert in Paris, Debussy apparently kissed his hand and declared that he deserved to be recognised as a great composer on the basis of a single song.

Sadly, Komitas was caught up in the Ottoman government’s genocidal ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Armenians from Turkey in 1915. Although brutalised he was not to be killed then but the depression and post-traumatic stress he suffered as a result soon put an end to his work and he was subsequently institutionalised in Paris until his death in 1935. His efforts in collecting folk songs from Western Armenia saved much of the cultural heritage that the genocide would almost certainly otherwise have destroyed. Most of his manuscripts are thought to have found their way to Yerevan in the 1950s but the full extent of his composing output still remains uncertain. Of his known works - including eighty or so choral compositions and songs, some arrangements of the Armenian mass, the Badarak (Divine Liturgy) and various pieces for piano - only a fraction has actually been published. This has, however, not stopped several artists (including the pianist on the present CD) going back to the manuscripts.

Brief internet research suggests that, apart from the quartet CD I managed to find in Armenia, there have actually been several recordings of works by Komitas – a couple of LPs and a handful of CDs (some already reviewed on MWI). The CDs include one from Nonesuch devoted to his songs and another, from ECM, devoted to instrumental arrangements. In addition there is a single CD made for the Kalan label in 2011 by the pianist Sahan Arzruni, claiming to present the “complete piano works”. In spite of this claim, however, a more comprehensive 2-CD set of Komitas piano works by the pianist Armen Babakhanian (whose label I am unable to identify) still seems to be available and its content overlaps the content of the Kalan CD – whilst including all the piano-only pieces on the present CD. I have not managed to hear anything from either of the other piano CDs but they would almost certainly not be able to improve on what we have here.

We start with Seven Folk Dances which were, according to the booklet, composed and performed in Paris in 1916. Despite this being after the composer’s horrific experience of the genocidal atrocity there is nothing to suggest this in the music - in which Komitas attempts to recreate the specific timbres of various ethnic Armenian instruments, with the left hand creating a resonant bass texture and the right hand creating instrumental effects around the tune. In the fourth piece (“Marali”) – which follows the third (“Unabi”) on the same track for some reason – the Armenian tambourine, the dap, is imitated. In the subsequent piece (“Shushuki”) we get a recreation of the tar, a plucked string instrument. Other pieces have evocations of reed pipes (the shvi) and a hand-held percussion instrument (the dhol). This is not virtuoso music but mood pieces – mostly slow. Without access to actual recordings of the relevant instruments I cannot say how accurately Komitas recreates them but I can say that the present performance and recording startlingly evoke some of the folk music I heard performed in Armenia. Undoubtedly this requires considerable performing skill.

Seven Songs for Piano date from 1911 when Komitas was delivering lectures in London. Each of these exquisite little pieces is based on a named melody and they are all very short – as the booklet aptly puts it: “tiny windows on the gently circling melodies and rhythmic drive of Armenian music”. (Incidentally, the booklet claims that these are “world premiere recordings” of the Seven Songs but, as noted above, the Babakhanian set also includes these and it seems to date from 2006.)

We then get Twelve Children’s Pieces from the previous year. As with the pedagogical works of Bartok, Komitas set out to make folk themes easily comprehensible to beginners – although I suspect no child could ever bring these highly characterised miniatures to life as well as is done here. Incidentally, pieces 2, 6 and 10 are each variations of the pieces that precede them. The seventh piece is based on the same song that appears as the first of the 1911 set.

The Msho-Shoror of 1906 derives from an ancient Armenian dance form. Although it appears to be the longest work on the disc it is, in fact, a sequence of dances – a suite much like the other sets.

The piano used here is not identified although, to me, it sounds quite different from the usual Steinways and Bӧsendorfers. When I first played the CD I was a little concerned that the piano was very slightly out of tune, with instances where beats were evident between harmonics. Gradually, though, I became aware that this was very much to the service of the music. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a specific piano and acoustic better suited to performance of this music and, unless finding this was achieved purely by luck (which I doubt) the search must have taken somebody - probably Mikael Ayrapetyan himself - considerable effort. Whoever it was the results do him much credit.

The last seven pieces were not intended as a set – but composed individually during the period 1899 to 1911 and arranged here for violin and piano by four Armenian composers (including two who were founder members of the Komitas Quartet, referred to above). These are all beautifully and atmospherically played here by Ayrapetyan and a Russian violinist who seems to have a considerable affinity for the Armenian style (although his performance of ‘The Apricot Tree’, which comes third, does not quite displace that of Chilingirian in my affections). Several of these pieces have been arranged for other combinations (review) but they work very well on violin and piano.

Booklet notes are excellent and in English and German. The only problem with this CD is that attempting to listen to all the piano music together is rather too much of a good thing. Interesting though the pieces are, ideally one needs rather greater instrumental variety and it would have been preferable to have the violin and piano pieces spread throughout the disc rather than collected at the end. Perhaps this can most easily be achieved if your CD player allows for random track sequence or programming. At any rate, it is not much of a problem and I can strongly recommend exploring this illuminating and beautifully recorded disc.

Bob Stevenson



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