About this Recording
GP664 - BAGDASARIAN, E.: Piano and Violin Music - 24 Preludes / Rhapsody / Nocturne (Ayrapetyan, V. Sergeev)
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Eduard Ivanovich Bagdasarian (1922–1987)
Piano and Violin Music

 

Music in Armenia has a long and honourable history, stretching back to the Middle Ages and beyond. In the secular sphere it has its origins in the Armenian highlands, where people traditionally sang popular folk songs and music was carried from community to community by travelling bards known as Ashugs or Ashoughs, who sang and played on traditional instruments. This was while Armenia lay under Muslim Ottoman rule. The eighteenth century Ashough Sayat Nova (?1712–1795), who was ordained as a Christian priest, is still revered as a great poet and writer of songs. This bardic tradition is often evoked in modern Armenian music. But there is a parallel tradition of sacred music, originally consisting of very ancient sacred chants, which only adopted polyphony through the efforts of Komitas Vardapet, the decisive figure in the reform and preservation of Armenian music both sacred and secular at the end of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century Armenian composers began to establish an international reputation, notably Aram Khachaturian, one of the most prominent contemporary composers from the 1930s to the 1960s, with his ballets, concertos and symphonies, and also Armenian-descended figures of the Diaspora, such as the prolific American composer Alan Hovhaness. They raised the awareness of the rich Armenian musico-cultural heritage, which is not based on the European tonal system but on a system of interlocking tetra chords that create in effect an endless scale.

Among those who worked principally in Armenia, without seeking to establish any worldwide reputation, Eduard Ivanovich Bagdasarian was one of the most significant and respected: a key figure in the modern development of Armenian music. A generation younger than Khachaturian, Bagdasarian was born in Yerevan and received his primary schooling in Tiflis. He then studied at Yerevan Conservatoire, taking piano with Giorgy Saradzhev, H.S. Kushniarov and V.G. Talian and composition with Grigory Egiazarian. His graduate work was a symphonic poem. In 1951 Bagdasarian went to Moscow, where he continued his composition studies at the House of Armenian Culture, under G.I. Litinsky and Nikolai Peiko. During 1953 he took part in an expedition to the Sisiansky district of Armenia to collect folk songs, many of which he used subsequently in his own compositions. He initially joined the composition faculty of the Romanos Melikian Music School and later became a member of the Conservatory. While he steadily built up a reputation as a composer of concert music, from the mid-1950s he became increasingly involved in film music and incidental music for the stage, and later for television as well, allowing himself to be drawn into more popular contemporary genres without compromising the standards of his musical upbringing. (He wrote the music for Arman Manarian’s Tjvjik, the first film ever shot in the Western Armenian language, and considered a classic.) In the 1960s he was head of instrumental and pop music for Armenian radio, and many of his songs became widely popular. His national prominence gave him a real standing as an ambassador for Armenian music, which he fulfilled many times as a delegate to the other Soviet republics, and abroad as far as Poland and Lebanon. He was also a frequent juror in many USSR competitions for both piano playing and composition.

Bagdasarian wrote in almost every genre—his ballet Chess (1960) and his Piano Concerto (1970) are cited as among his most popular works—but it is his piano music which has unique importance. Already in his student days he showed an aptitude for writing brilliantly-characterized piano preludes, and some of these very early works found their way into his major cycle of 24 Preludes. These were written in four sets of six in 1951, 1953 , 1954 , 1958 and first published in 1961. Bagdasarian’s preludes encompass all the major and minor keys, arranged in the classic configuration of a double circle of fifths. That is to say the odd-numbered preludes describe a circle of the twelve major keys—C major – G major – D major and so on, while the even-numbered are in the relative minor of the previous major key: thus A minor – E minor – B minor, et cetera. Within these broad ‘European’ diatonic tonal formations, however, Bagdasarian makes constant reference to Armenian modes, most of all in the involved and involuted patterns of figuration which give the Preludes their restrained ‘oriental’ character. This tendency is already apparent in Prelude No. 1 in C major. The Preludes also display a tremendous variety of approach, character and keyboard style: virtually every movement calls for comment, although there is only space here to single out a few. The tiny Prelude No. 2 is a dance-song, a genre that recurs at several points in the cycle, while No. 4 is a highly demanding toccata. Bagdasarian is an adept at expressive contrasts, as when he follows the epic-romantic Prelude No. 6 (a high point of the entire cycle, seeming to evoke the vast landscape of Armenia, and a work that could well be played on its own) with the playful, jazzy inflections of No. 7, with its deep bass drum sonorities in the central section. (Prelude No. 9, by archaic contrast, is a minuet.) He is also expert at taking a single characteristic figuration and developing it exhaustively through a kaleidoscope of imaginative contexts (the magical, free-floating outer sections of Prelude No. 11 are a palmary example, imaginatively set against a very solidly grounded march-like idea). Often, an opening idea will take us somewhere unexpected, as when Prelude No. 14’s stream of Ravel-like figuration issues in a dramatic and passionate centre section. Something similar happens in Prelude No. 20, where an innocent folk-like tune leads us to a central section of urgent rhetoric. After the tiny miniature toccata of Prelude No. 23, the cycle ends in Prelude No. 24 not with any grand statement but with perhaps its most haunting evocation of Armenian song.

Overall, the 24 Preludes show Bagdasarian to be a master of miniature forms. The Rhapsody for violin and piano (occasionally called Armenian Rhapsody), which also exists in a version for violin and orchestra, is a more ambitious piece. Dating from 1958, it spans a wide variety of moods, and falls into a number of distinct sections. After a mysterious introduction, the violin holds centre stage for a passage of impassioned lament. A cadenza-like effusion introduces an elegiac, melancholy theme of great expressive intensity, until a gradual increase in tempo with florid decoration of the violin line leads to the sudden outbreak of a wild dance music which dominates the latter part of the work. Previously-heard themes return in new, rhythmically active contexts. An ecstatic final climax dissolves mysteriously in a whole tone scale.

The Nocturne in A major for violin and piano was composed a year before the Rhapsody, and like that work demonstrates Bagdasarian’s skill at writing for the violin. Here we have an almost archetypally Romantic piece, based on a wide-spanned, singing melody. Less obviously ‘Armenian’ than the other works on this recording, it feeds into the great tradition of the Russian Adagio, and the reasons for its popularity lie patent on its exquisitely crafted surface.


Malcolm MacDonald


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