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GP718 - ARUTIUNIAN, A.: Piano Works (Complete) (Melikyan)
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Alexander Arutiunian
Complete Piano Works


“How many have passed this way?
How many more will come when I am gone
What did they get out of life and this world?
What did they leave behind?…”

Alexander Arutiunian

The Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian was born in Yerevan in 1920, and showed considerable musical prowess whilst still a young boy. He played for Alexander Spendiarian (1871–1928, one of the founders of the Armenian national school) when he was seven, and in the same year joined the children’s group of the Yerevan State Conservatory. Later, he studied piano and composition at the senior Conservatory, graduating in 1941; and he subsequently travelled to Moscow where he undertook further training. In Moscow, he was actively involved with the Armenian House of Culture, which offered concerts and tuition to its members, and where Arutiunian was able to perform his own music.

On returning to Yerevan, Arutiunian became the artistic director of the Armenian Philharmonic Society in 1954, a post he held until 1990. He also joined the staff of the Conservatory (which had been renamed the Komitas Conservatory in memory of Armenia’s first nationalist composer, Komitas Vardapet) in 1962, and was granted a professorship in 1977. A member of the so-called Armenian “Mighty Handful” (along with Arno Babadjanian, Edward Mirzoyan, Adam Khudoyan and Lazar Saryan), he was awarded numerous Soviet state prizes, including the Stalin Prize (1949), People’s Artist of Armenia (1962), People’s Artist of the USSR (1970) and Honoured Citizen of Yerevan (1987). His music has been performed by many distinguished musicians, from Yevgeny Mravinsky and Valery Gergiev, to Sergey Khachatryan, Ilya Grubert and Jack Liebeck. Arutiunian died on 28 March 2012.

Arutiunian’s compositional legacy is substantial, and spans many different genres: string quartets and other chamber music, symphonic works, cantatas, songs, concertos and operas. His piano works are firmly rooted in the folk traditions of Armenia, and draw on the models of his two most important predecessors, Komitas and Spendiarian. Since Arutiunian was himself an accomplished pianist, his writing is also profoundly idiomatic: he sought to explore new ways of composing and realising music for his instrument.

His earliest piano work, Armenian Dance (1935), was written during his years of study in Yerevan, when he was just fifteen. It quickly gained popularity and was given many repeat performances, both in concert and via radio broadcast. The seeds of Arutiunian’s mature style are already to be found here: a delicate, transparent texture, strong rhythmic drive, and a melodic construction reminiscent of the ashughner (Armenian poet musicians and minstrels). A year later came Pastoral (1936), a gentle depiction of his homeland. The lyrical melody is designed to imitate the shvi, an Armenian country flute.

The two remaining compositions here from the 1930s are the Theme and Variations and Three Preludes. The Theme and Variations (1937) use an original theme, the main motif of which is the three-note pattern F – B flat – A flat, characteristic of Armenian folk melody. Seven short variations follow in this, the composer’s first attempt at a larger-scale piano work. Fifty years later, Arutiunian was to revisit this energetic, highly rhythmic work and arrange it for string orchestra. The Preludes (1938), often performed by the composer in his own recitals, trace an exploration of piano textures and models. The first (Andante) seems to be a nod to Rachmaninov in its long-breathed melody and rich chordal writing. The second (Moderato assai) is more improvisational and waltz-like, drawing heavily on the modes and constructions of the ashugh; and the third (Maestoso. Allegro) is a virtuosic concert study, with single voices weaving in and out of the musical texture as the piece progresses.

The 1940s saw a new chapter in Arutiunian’s musical development. The Prelude- Poem (1943) was premiered in a concert celebrating the 70th birthday of his piano teacher Konstantin Igumnov (1873–1948), and is dedicated to him. It is a brilliant portrait of this great representative of the Russian piano school—or rather, of the various composers whose music he championed, from Rachmaninov and Taneyev to Arensky and Tchaikovsky—and contains both the lyricism and stormy passion of these composers’ works.

Arutiunian’s next piano composition, the Polyphonic Sonata (1946), is in a completely different style: a more dissonant harmonic language, full of intricate neo-classical textures based on Baroque models. The opening movement begins with a bold introduction in octaves and sevenths, before the two voices of an invention are heard, angular and imitative. The Chorale is by far the longest movement, a gradual unfolding of a slow-moving chordal texture which builds to a massive climax before finally subsiding. This movement, and the following Fugue in four parts, seem to owe a debt to the music of Dmitry Shostakovich, who was a great admirer of Arutiunian’s works.

The Humoresque (1947) is the shortest piano piece in the composer’s output, at just nineteen bars long. By this time, Arutiunian was studying in Moscow, where he was much impressed by the music of Khachaturian and Prokofiev. Indeed, he referred to this piece as a Prokofiev imitation, and the ironic twists and theatrical gestures of the older composer’s music can be glimpsed in this tiny miniature.

The 1950s were mainly spent working on larger-scale projects, including several concertos and a work for two pianos, Armenian Rhapsody, co-authored with fellow Armenian Arno Babadjanian (1921–1983). From the 1960s, Arutiunian turned back to the keyboard, his music still richly coloured with folk modes and models. The highly successful and popular Three Musical Pictures (1963) each bear descriptive titles relating to his homeland, and are dedicated to the Armenian pianist Ketty Malkhasyan (who had studied with Igumnov). The first, The Wind Blew in the Mountains, is almost toccata-like in its constantly shimmering rhythms, coloured with oriental-sounding scales. The gently lyrical Ararat Valley Evening spins out a long-breathed melody across changing metres, as if time is suspended for the sunset. Sassoun Dance, which completes the set, is an epic depiction of men dancing, the music whirling ever more joyously, and with ever greater virtuosity over an ostinato bass pattern which drives the piece forward.

The three-part Sonatina (1967), was written for children—a new kind of approach to this medium after the earlier works of Khachaturian (who spoke warmly of his colleague’s compositions). The music is based on classical designs and clear textures, though the harmonies are distinct to Arutiunian: first in a carefree Moderato, then a sad and rather restless Adagio, before the playful scampering of the closing Allegro moderato.

The Six Moods date from the following decade, completed in 1976 and dedicated to their first performer, Villy Sargsyan. These pieces are short and highly characterised, improvisatory in style and meditative in tone. They also make use of an almost Debussyan approach to tonality, extended chords and compound harmonies often taking the place of the Armenian-inflected scale passages of Arutiunian’s earlier works. Many of the Moods play with motifs of brief rising and falling patterns, which accounts for their lyricism and flowing accompanimental figurations as each of these motifs is developed. The fourth Mood is by far the darkest: here the repeated rising gesture takes on the quality of obsession as it circles endlessly within the texture. This is followed by the rather more symphonic fifth piece, before the concluding Allegro energico toccata, a piece frequently compared to Babadjanian’s Sassoun Dance (1965), which uses similar expressive means and rhythmic patterning.

The last works on this disc were written after a break of many years from piano composition. After a string of successful works and commissions in the 1960s and 1970s—including the Requiem of 1965, composed at the request of His Holiness Vazgen I, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholocos of All Armenians, and dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide—Arutiunian composed fewer works in the 1980s and 1990s. His final piano compositions were for young players, an Album for Children completed in 2004. Simply and beautifully crafted, they seem to provide a summing up of the various elements of his compositional style: an ironic little Joke, lyrical waltzes and songs, a rhythmical, leaping Cheerful Promenade and the closing jazzy Spring Mood. They seem a fitting legacy for future generations of Armenian musicians.

Hayk Melikyan, edited by Katy Hamilton

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