The disc opens with the Arutiunian Impromptu (1948) and one sees straightaway why it is so successful with audiences: After a brief introduction, a sparkling dance leads into an expressive central section, which builds to a powerful and dignified climax from which it falls away into further retrospection before the dance swirls back in to round everything off. It’s a perfect encore piece which, placed here at the other end of a recital, also acts as an appetizer for what’s to follow.
Tuach and Harboyan present one of the Gomidas arrangements ahead of the others (perhaps to so as to vary the textures), and the folk inflections of this first of them, Groung (the title is the only one of the 10 not translated in the track-listing), act as an effective foil for the neo-Baroque character of Arno Babjanian’s Vocalise, the cello singing a Romantic melody over Bachian piano writing.
The meat of the recital is Haro Stepanian’s Cello Sonata, his op. 35, composed in 1943. Stepanian is an obscure enough figure to deserve some elucidation here (all of it shamelessly stolen from the booklet essay, which is unsigned, but I see phrases there which also occur in the interview above, and so I name Harboyan and Tuach as prime suspects). He was born in Elizavetpol (as it was called during the Russian Empire; previously it was Ganja, as it is again now) in western Azerbaijan (where there was a large Armenian community) in 1897 and studied music first at the Gnessin Academy in Moscow and then at the Leningrad Conservatory, graduating in 1930, by which time he was already an established folksong collector. He was a professor at the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan from 1930 to 1934 and chairman of the Armenian Composers’ Union from 1937 to 1948. (Is that year significant? After all, it was when life went belly-up for a number of Soviet composers). His other compositions include five operas, three symphonies, four string quartets, sonatas for violin and cello, piano pieces and songs. The cello sonata is an appealing amalgam of Soviet koine and Armenian folk-style. The notes point out its debt to the Shostakovich Cello Sonata, written nine years previously, although it has none of the intensity of the earlier work. The opening Allegro risoluto starts out in clear Armenian mode, with a charming tinkling figure in the piano and the cello adding offbeat accents, but the second subject unfolds as a long Russian-Romantic melody, and throughout the movement, as throughout the work as a whole, Stepanian makes little attempt to integrate the two styles; he simply juxtaposes them, but so innocently and naturally that it works. I’m not sure that the first movement justifies its 10-plus minutes’ duration – there are passages where the knife might have been more effective than the pen – but the other movements compensate by lasting only as much again. The central Andante cantabile loses its way, but does so charmingly, and the finale, Allegretto giocoso, is a jolly folk-dance, with the cello generally singing away over an especially busy piano part.
The remaining nine Gomidas arrangements, most around the two- to three-minute mark, tend to cover the same sort of ground, with an atmospheric, generally understated piano part supporting an equally restrained cello line, but both capable of briefly exploding with passion in their central sections – imagine Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, but with the Jewish melisma replaced by an understated Armenian one. One in particular, Akh Maral Jan (Ah, Dear Maral), is very beautiful indeed, and the last of them, Shoger Jan (Dear Shoger), the closing item on the disc, is a suitably buoyant dance – which I recognize from the music of another Armenian composer, though I haven’t yet put my finger on where yet.
Tuach and Harboyan’s interview reveals the extent to which they had to choose between making the music their own and not overburdening the simpler pieces with “meaning” beyond that which they already carry, and to my ears they’ve got the balance just right, allowing each narrative to unfold naturally, but giving it a little lift here and there with an inflection, a change in the dynamics, a gentle touch of rubato – the kind of interpretative decisions that bring any performance alive. This is natural, unemphatic playing, trusting the music to speak for itself, and the recital as a whole is all the more effective for it; flying at the music like a dog at a postman (not you, Eddie!) would do it no service. The recorded sound is equally natural, putting the listener in a front-row-of-the-stalls position, close enough to notice detail but sufficiently far back to give the music perspective. The booklet essay tells you just what you need to know. In short, it’s a release which informs, charms, distracts, and moves you, without ever raising its voice. It should find lots of friends.
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