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GP665 - ABRAMIAN, E.: 24 Preludes (Ayrapetyan)
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Eduard Abramian (1923–1986)
24 Preludes


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 tetrachords that create in effect an endless scale.

Among those who worked principally in Armenia, without seeking to establish any world-wide reputation, the composer, pianist and teacher Eduard Aslanovich Abramian was one of the most significant and respected: a key figure in the modern development of Armenian music. Born in Tblisi on 22 May 1923, he was early singled out as one of a group of gifted children who, under the aegis of Tblisi State Conservatory, received tuition from the noted composer and pedagogue Sergey Barkhudarian, and then formed the core of a ten-year musical secondary school.

During World War II he was forced to put his studies aside, while he worked in an aircraft-construction factory. In 1950, after receiving a Tchaikovsky Prize, Abramian graduated from the State Conservatory with honours degrees in composition and piano.

In 1960 he moved to Yerevan, where he taught at the Conservatoire as professor of piano from 1961 to 1982. At the same time he became closely involved in the work of the Armenian Composers’ Union. Through this connexion he obtained advantageous housing conditions and an excellent work situation. He also participated in over 150 meetings between groups of Armenian composers and workers from remote districts of the republic. In this way he became familiar with the folk music of a wide range of his native country. Abramian died in Yerevan at the age of 63.

As a performer, Abramian was a brilliant pianist, appearing in solo recitals, with orchestras, and in chamber concerts. Though he composed principally for the piano, he wrote the music for about a dozen stage works, as well as the Dances for symphonic orchestra (1952), the symphonic poem To my Homeland (inspired by the poem of that title by Avetik Isaakian), and the cantata Ode to Friendship (1958) on poems by Gabriel El-Registan and Villi Arutunian. He also wrote many songs on the work of these and other poets, educational pieces for children, and a number of instrumental duos, including Dance and Song for balalaika and orchestra (1956). Nevertheless it is his output for piano on which his reputation mainly rests. His works for the instrument include two piano concertos (1950, 1953), and a large-scale sonata (1954). Probably his most important work for the instrument is the set of 24 Preludes, of which Nos. 1–6 were published in 1952 and the complete set of 24 twenty years later, in 1972.

Abramian’s Preludes make a fascinating comparison with their close contemporaries, the 24 Preludes of Eduard Bagdasarian, composed 1951–58. (Recorded on Grand Piano GP664). Like Bagdasarian’s Preludes, Abramian’s appear to encompass the 24 major and minor keys—but while Bagdasarian’s follow a highly-structured tonal scheme of two interlocking circles of fifths, major and relative minor, Abramian’s key scheme follows no such architectonic pattern but appears to be spontaneous, key following key principally to satisfy the need for dramatic contrast of mood and colour. In fact, as the cycle unfolds, we find that he makes use of slightly fewer than the full 24, with a couple of keys being repeated. (There are two preludes in E flat minor, for instance.) Both cycles remain within the realm of tonality, but in Abramian’s case that tonality is much expanded and enlarged through the addition of chromatic elements, sometimes like extra layers, that often generate harmonies of considerable complexity.

Abramian is often described as a ‘romantic’, but his romanticism does not consist in a nostalgic wish to return to the styles of the nineteenth century, more a desire to make those styles relevant to contemporary materials and purposes. A work like the Prelude No. 6 in C sharp minor may be redolent of Borodin and Rachmaninov, and at the same time Abramian, like Bagdasarian, makes use of the shapes and colours of Armenian musical folklore, but unlike him Abramian is fond of grand gestures that invest the folkloric material with the full force and intensity of twentieth-century concert music. It is significant, perhaps, that Abramian’s Preludes are generally conceived on a larger scale than Bagdasarian’s: while the latter was a brilliant miniaturist, Abramian’s Preludes seek to burst the boundaries of the small form. The sheer range of types of keyboard writing—not only between but within each Prelude—far surpasses Bagdasarian’s, and turns Abramian’s into a kind of continuous fantastic narrative. There is a wonderful heady flamboyance to much of his writing, whether it be a stirring melody carried on a rolling flood of figuration, percussive toccata-like writing, intricate oriental-style fioriture, or powerfully goal-directed counterpoint.

From such a richly-woven musical tapestry it is difficult to pick out highlights, but one might mention the haunting C major Prelude (No. 2) with its perfect balance between sustained melody and obstinately repeated motif; the elegiac, berceuse-like first E flat minor piece (No. 4), dedicated to the memory of the composer’s mother, with its eloquent inner voices; the meditative D minor Prelude (No. 5) dedicated to Abramian’s former teacher Sergey Barkhudarian; the skittish dance that is the F sharp minor (No. 11); the poetically wayward G minor (No. 18); and the witty, rhythmically resourceful, clangourous, jazz-influenced second E flat minor Prelude (No. 23). In this impressive cycle, we find less of an expression of nationalistic feeling than a grand outburst redolent of the time when Armenia and Russia were one.

Malcolm MacDonald

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