AMN Reviews: Various Artists – Modulation Necklace: New Music from Armenia [New Focus Recordings FCR244]

During the years that Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, Armenian composers’ music was largely shaped by the models set out by the dominant Soviet musical culture. With the breakup of the USSR, Armenian composers were at liberty to open themselves up to new developments in contemporary Western art music as well as to recover aspects of their own national culture, musical and otherwise. Modulation Necklace, a collection of new and recent chamber work by four composers, showcases some of the multiple directions post-Soviet Armenian music has taken. The album was put together by violinist Movses Pogossian under the auspices of the UCLA Armenian Music Program.

Artur Avanesov (b. 1980) opens the album with Quasi Harena Maris (2016), a piano quintet that begins with subdued drifts of microtonal clusters for the strings and develops into a robustly emotional interplay for piano and strings. Avanesov also contributes the final pieces, a selection of seven piano miniatures from Feux follets (2010-2017), a seven-book collection of solo works for piano. Avanesov’s inspirations here are varied, encompassing medieval French song, Armenian folksong and painting, Baroque harpsichord music and more. The overall flavor is modal, as exemplified by Modulation Necklace, which in less than a minute and a half cycles through a series of modes pivoting on B.

Artashes Kartalyan (b. 1961) is a jazz pianist as well as a composer of symphonies, chamber works, and film soundtracks. His contribution is a three-song cycle for string quartet and mezzo-soprano, the text of which is by Armenian poet Vahan Tekeyan. The triptych, beautifully sung by Danielle Segen and expressively played by UCLA VEM Ensemble, conveys the complexities of different but related moods, yearning, loss, and acceptance most noticeably among them. Kartalyan’s son Ashot (b. 1985) is represented by a lively five-part suite for saxophone and percussion from 2015, performed by Katisse Buckingham and Dustin Donahue. The suite draws on Armenian modes and rhythms and is particularly engaging in its polyphonic middle movements, which pair the saxophone with marimba and vibes.

Ashot Zohrabyan (b. 1945) offers Novelette (2010) for piano, violin, viola and cello, a piece whose motif of a major tenth alludes to an earlier landmark work of Armenian art music. Novelette begins with quiet dissonances for the strings and moves to more dramatic territory, driven by an outspoken piano part, before reaching a denouement sotto voce. A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire, a 2017 work for violin, cello and piano by Michel Petrossian (b. 1973), is a quick-moving, shape-shifting work whose three voices are always on the verge of spinning away from each other, but without quite actually doing so.

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Daniel Barbiero