The concert given by Newfoundland native and cellist Heather Tuach and her Armenian-born pianist colleague Patil Harboyan was a success. The programme included Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian’s Impromptu which was extremely well received. The duo dreamed up the idea of devoting an entire CD to Armenian music for cello and piano and set about ferreting out whatever such music existed. This CD is the result. As will be explained later not all the music here was written specifically for cello and piano.
It is easy to see how the Arutiunian piece was such a hit with the audience at that Canadian concert. It is a very beautiful work and a far cry from the work for which he is best known, his trumpet concerto. When I say a ‘far cry’ I only mean it in terms of scale for the haunting folk-like themes and melodies are equally in evidence in both works; indeed, in all the works here.
Gomidas, as the booklet explains is a key figure in Armenian classical music. Gomidas Vartabed as he is sometimes known is a fascinating figure. Vartabed is Armenian for priest which is what Gomidas trained to be following the death of his parents both of whom he had lost by the age of eleven. Gomidas was the name of a renowned 7 th century musician and poet and he took that as his name on completion of his priestly studies at the age of 24 in 1893. His real name was Soghomon Soghomonyan at birth in Turkey. He was part of the huge Armenian minority that had lived there in harmony for centuries until the terrible events of 1915. This was when the Ottoman Empire carried out the first ‘ethnic cleansing’ genocide of the twentieth century. It virtually totally eliminated the Armenian population and resulted in the deaths of over 1½ million. It was only following the intervention of the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that Gomidas was released from an internment camp. He had been among the first arrested. Prior to his move to Constantinople he had toured the whole of Armenia collecting folk songs and dances in much the same way as did Bartók. Tragically almost all were destroyed following the events of 1915. He finally ended up in Paris where he died in 1935.
His short piece entitled Groung was originally a song and that is how the other nine of his works on the disc also began their lives. This charming little melody is an arrangement of an arrangement for violin and piano. Although it may be hard to imagine it being played on anything other than cello and piano once you’ve heard it in this version I have no doubt that it would work with almost any combination. I can imagine it working very successfully for flute and piano, for instance.
Another arrangement is Arno Babajanian’s Vocalise . It’s clearly heavily influenced by Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and was also written to be sung with a solitary vowel. It was transcribed by Geronty Talalyan (1926-2000) – brother to Genrikh (or Henrik) Talalyan. Geronty was a prominent cellist who was also responsible for making transcriptions of several other of Gomidas’ songs played here. There are three notes in his piece that continually remind you of Rachmaninov’s and it is just as beautiful in its own right.
The only work on the disc, apart from Arutiunian’s, that was specifically written for cello and piano is Haro Stepanian’s Sonata for Cello and Piano composed in 1943. This is an orgy of sumptuous melodies that make it totally irresistible. Right from its opening notes there is an achingly beautiful theme that emerges on the cello that is taken up by the piano. This mirrors its sad and deeply reflective nature. Stepanian was another avid collector of folk melodies amassing over 350. His music highlights their influence as it does his musical training in Russia. His music represents an effective synthesis of the Russian school of romantic writing and folk-inspired Armenian melody – a powerful combination. The most overtly folksy movement in the sonata is the final one. It opens with an obvious Armenian folk song that is highly attractive and that is developed throughout the movement. Each instrument takes it in turns to hold the tune with the cello mimicking the strumming of a folk instrument when the piano is in command.
Gomidas’s songs have been skilfully arranged, some of them firstly for piano or string quartet then re-arranged for the combination here. Once again they seem to be perfect vehicles for cello and piano. While several are less than joyful – even the second entitled Striding, Beaming in English – they are all so lovely that repeated hearings are the order of the day. Listening to these Armenian melodies it is all the more sad to reflect on the huge number in his collection that were destroyed during the genocide of 1915.
There is a commonality in the music throughout the disc. One could easily believe that all of it was by the same composer but this is not meant in any way as a disparaging comment. I have thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to the music of this fascinating country and am highly impressed by the wealth of truly gorgeous tunes that have come from there. If I was asked to single one out to give a flavour of what is on the disc then it would be Akh Maral Jan (Ah, dear Maral) which is a heartfelt paean to love.
The Tuach/Harboyan duo hoped that they could produce a disc that “would be accessible and appealing to a wide range of listeners”. This they have certainly done and their playing mirrors their commitment to the project for it shows in every note.