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GP694 - JABERI, A.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3 / Ballades Nos. 1-3 (The Báb) (Jaberi)
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Afshin Jaberi
Piano Sonatas and Ballades


Afshin Jaberi (b.1973) is an Iranian pianist and composer, who was born in the Kingdom of Bahrain and brought up in Qatar. Although he demonstrated a facility for both performance and composition as a child, he did not receive any formal musical training until 1991, when he undertook studies first in Debrecen in Hungary, and later in Kazakhstan. His rapid progress and pianistic study, particularly of nineteenth-century piano works, led to a series of extended compositions for the instrument, beginning with his First Ballade in 1991. Afshin’s compositions are deeply influenced by the Bahá’i faith, and all of the pieces featured on this disc reflect his religious preoccupation. The Bahái’ faith is one of the world’s youngest religions, founded by Bahá’u’lláh in Afshin’s native Iran in the mid-nineteenth century, and its central tenets include the equal validity of all world religions; the presence of divine messengers throughout the course of human history; and the importance of unity across all people, for the betterment of humanity. His compositions are often narrative, and combine a western Romantic approach to harmony and form with eastern melodic influences. To date he has composed nine Ballades and four Sonatas for solo piano, and arranged all the Ballades for piano and orchestra.

Sonata No. 1, ‘The Seeker’ was inspired by the life of Thomas Breakwell (1872–1902), who in the last year of his life became the first Englishman to accept the Bahá’i faith. His spiritual purity and ardent devotion to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, caused him to be considered a luminary of the faith after his early death from tuberculosis. The three movements of the Sonata depict the three stages of Breakwell’s spiritual journey: his search for faith (Afshin also refers to this piece as ‘The Wayfarer’); his discovery of the Bahái Faith; and the honouring of his death by the religious leader Abdu’l-Bahá as he is received by heaven and transformed into a spiritual star. The pianistic gestures, particularly of the first movement, are highly reminiscent of Chopin and present a turbulent musical landscape before the tranquility of the second movement and its long-breathed cantabile melody. In the finale, as if articulating Abdu’l-Bahá’s prayers for Breakwell, the opening theme has a distinctly eastern flavour; and later this is combined with almost Scriabin-like harmonic outbursts and fragmentation. As the Sonata draws to a close, Afshin provides us with a musical analogue of Breakwell’s star shining in the heavens.

Sonata No. 2, ‘The Path to Peace’ is more broadly concerned with the horrors of war—in particular, war caused by prejudice and division of religious cultures. In the first movement, as the battle builds to its peak, rhythmical, often bass-led passages intensify into strings of dissonant chords and diminished sevenths. This moves without pause into a melancholy, lyrical second movement: from the violence of war, new hope appears, and with it the chance for reconciliation. Finally, the left-hand theme that opens the third movement gradually permeates the entire pianistic texture to allow for a musical reconciliation—though not without its drama and difficulties. This Sonata was dedicated to the memory of Mona Mahmudnizhad (1965–1983), a Bahá’i martyr who was hanged in Shiraz at the age of seventeen for her belief.

The notion of a divided world is also addressed by Afshin’s Sonata No. 3, ‘The Bedouin’. In this work, the Bedouin tribes stand as representative of those cultures whose heritage is endangered by their remoteness. It begins with a depiction of life in the desert, opening with a Bedouin melody. This gives way to a melancholic central movement, the loneliness and sadness of a life so removed from others, in which Romantic harmonies are combined with the Bedouin’s song. The closing movement of the Sonata presents hope to the lonely tribesmen in the form of a song to human unity—the theme of the rondo, surrounded by developed material in a range of idioms from Lisztian virtuosity to the blues.

The Báb (The Gate) draws together three Ballades completed between 1991 and 2000, with Afshin having composed the First Ballade whilst studying at the Franz Liszt Academy in Debrecen. These pieces also combine the influences of nineteenth-century western classical music with eastern melodies, as a means of relating aspects of the Bahá’i faith. Afshin’s three Ballades each focus on a particular episode or individual within the history of Bahái Faith. The first, The Herald, depicts The Báb declaring himself and his message to Mulla Husayn, his first follower, on 23 May 1844. (The Báb, Ali Muhammad, was a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.) The Báb spoke to Mulla Husayn of eighteen souls who would recognize his message—the ‘Letters of the Living’, each of whom were given a special mission. Mulla Husayn was instructed to travel to Tehran, where he found the son of a distinguished minister named Mirza Husayn Ali, later called Bahá’u’lláh, to whom he gave a scroll of The Báb’s writings. Bahá’u’lláh immediately accepted the message of The Báb. It was Bahá’u’lláh who founded the faith proper, and was considered to be a messenger of God.

The second Ballade, Eroica, makes reference to the heroism and sacrifice of earlier believers of the Bahá’i faith. Although many came to join the faith, thousands were persecuted, arrested, imprisoned and even killed for their beliefs. (The Báb himself was arrested and jailed.) In particular, Eroica depicts the martyrdom of Mulla Husayn and his fellow believer Quddus at the battle of Fort Tabarsi in 1849. This is the most extensive of the three Ballades, whose themes are alternated with dramatic episodes depicting both the drama of the battle and the martyrs’ calm acceptance of their fate.

Finally, The Martyrdom, the last Ballade of the cycle, depicts the execution of The Báb in Tabriz on 9 July 1850. He had been imprisoned for several years, and although mocked by non-believers, he refused to denounce his faith. The opening of the work depicts the inability of his persecutors to quench The Báb’s religious convictions, despite their brutal attacks on his followers. On the day of his execution, The Báb was conversing with his secretary, and although he insisted that he be allowed to finish the discussion, he was taken to be shot alongside a young believer, Anis. Almost ten thousand people gathered to witness the execution—Afshin sounds three pianissimo notes to signify the moment arriving, and the silence of the crowd. But when the smoke cleared from the 750 bullets fired at the two men, Anis remained unharmed and The Báb had vanished, later to be discovered conversing with his secretary, without any sign of being wounded. When he had finished speaking, he submitted to return to the place of execution, both he and Anis were killed, and shortly afterwards a storm broke over the city. The close of the Ballade is written in the manner of a funeral march, to mark the passing of the great Prophet. The Báb’s shrine stands on Mount Carmel, erected at the instruction of Bahá’u’lláh.

Katy Hamilton, adapted from notes by Afshin Jaberi

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