From The Colour of Pomegranates to the Armenian genocide: some notes on Tigran Mansurian

If you’ve ever seen Sergei Paradjanov’s remarkable and unforgettably odd film, you will probably recognise the striking tableau above as one from Sayat Nova, released in the West as The Colour of Pomegranates. However much I admire the movie for its bold originality and painterly beauty, I must confess that its radical, highly allusive style – narrative and visual – always leaves me somewhat mystified. (I recall that Tony Rayns’ review in the Monthly Film Bulletin proved hugely illuminating in its analysis of the film’s often rather arcane symbolism.) No matter: Sayat Nova – a metaphorical biography of the 18th-century Armenian poet from whom it takes its title – is widely and rightly regarded as a masterpiece. Restored three years ago, it is well worth checking out. But I mention it not to wax lyrical about Paradjanov, but for another reason. Because the first time I saw Paradjanov’s film was also the first time I heard any music by another great Armenian, Tigran Mansurian.

Like many composers of the former Soviet Union, Mansurian has apparently contributed music to quite a few film soundtracks, but it is undoubtedly his compositions for the concert hall that have secured his status as the greatest living Armenian composer. I myself discovered his work on disc through my interest in the saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who played in a duet with the estimable Armenian-American violist Kim Kashkashian (yes, you read it correctly, I didn’t write Kardashian) on a brief composition called Lachrymae, which featured alongside a couple of concertos and a lovely piece for viola and four voices – in this case the Hilliard Ensemble – on a double CD entitled Monodia. Both the duet – in which the soprano sax and viola spiral slowly and sympathetically around each other – and the sung piece proved to be mesmerisingly beautiful and in many ways characteristic of Mansurian’s music: forthright and heartfelt, generally imbued with a faintly mournful but restrained lyricism, bursting here and there into passages of quite fiery passion.

Mansurian pic
Tigran Mansurian (photo by Petra Goldmann)

The concertos – apparently a favourite format, as he’s written quite a few, especially for stringed instruments (there are no symphonies) – were rather more complex, but still primarily tonal and melodious. Often centred on relatively simple but memorably plaintive phrases, Mansurian’s music feels quite contemporary even as its emotional directness brings to mind a very personal brand of Romanticism. Though he has professed an enthusiasm for Webern, it’s probably easier to discern the influence of other favourites: Debussy, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, for example. Then, too, there is the Armenian tradition, both folkloric and religious, which makes itself felt in an attractively subtle use of Eastern-sounding harmonies. Not that his music ever sounds first and foremost Armenian; rather, the country’s rich musical heritage delicately and discreetly inflects Mansurian’s music, which is very distinctly his own.

But why write now about Mansurian, now 78? Well, partly to draw attention to the comparatively small number of very rewarding recordings of music by a composer who deserves to be better known and who seems to be still pretty productive: the CD Quasi Parlando included a marvellous Romance for violin and strong orchestra written in 2011 (see clip below) and the likewise fine title track for cello and string orchestra, written in 2012. But this blog also marks the release of another highly rewarding recent work.

As it happens, I’ve been enjoying quite a few new choral releases recently: the Arvo Pärt compilation The Deer’s Cry, James MacMillan’s Stabat Mater, and Bernat Vivancos’ Requiem, about which I recently wrote here. So I was keen to hear the new recording of Mansurian’s Requiem, dedicated to the memory of the victims of Turkey’s genocidal massacre of its Armenian population in 1915-17. I’d heard choral writing by Mansurian before – Ars Poetica (1996-2000) is a ‘concerto’ for an unaccompanied mixed choir – but Requiem, composed in 2011, feels a more substantial work.

In the notes to the CD, Mansurian writes about the challenge (among others) of reconciling the traditions of the Armenian church and those of Roman Catholicism, since he was setting music to the text of the Latin Requiem. Such questions, of course, need not concern atheists like myself, or indeed anybody primarily interested in the music itself. And on that front, at least, Requiem – beautifully performed by two soloists, Berlin’s RIAS Chamber Choir and the Munich Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Alexander Liebreich – is indeed impressive. It starts and ends quietly, but in-between the eight movements take in a range of moods: an agitated, anxious Dies Irae, a slow processional Lacrimosa, lovely solos from soaring soprano Anja Petersen and baritone Andrew Redmond in Domine Jesu Christe, a steadily growing spiritual intensity in the Sanctus. The interplay between voices and orchestra is richly diverse; the fluidity of the narrative ensures that the constantly shifting contrasts in mood, rhythm and dynamics never jar; the pleas for peace, pity, liberation and repose are couched in music of great clarity and radiance and – for all Mansurian’s meticulous subtlety – considerable emotional power. As with Mansurian’s other work, I’m sure I’ll be returning to it often.

You can listen to some brief excerpts from this new recording of Mansurian’s Requiem here – or here is  the Kyrie in its entirety. If you like what you hear, I recommend you explore further. His music is worth it. Sayat Nova, too, come to think of it. Oh, and by the way, the photograph on the cover of Requiem shows Armenian deportees making their way to Aleppo in Syria, of all places. Sadly, there will always be a need for requiems.

Requiem cover.jpg

Tigran Mansurian’s Requiem, like most of his music available on CD, is released by ECM, though if you’re very keen you may also be able to track down works on Orfeo, Megadisc and elsewhere. Sayat Nova (aka The Colour of Pomegranates) is available on DVD.

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