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Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, November 2010

Music for strings mostly from the 80s by Iranian Behzad Ranjbaran (b. 1955). Now teaching at Juilliard, where he earned his doctorate, Ranjbaran made an impressive splash with his excellent Persian Trilogy, the three romantic, exotic tone poems dating from 1991, 1994, and 2000, (Delos 3336, M/A 2005).

War and peace is the topic of Awakening (2005), a 13-minute tone poem in three parts. War is expressed through grating halfstep harmonic dissonance; the slow central section is mystical and Middle Eastern-ish, while the finale begins as a boisterous fugue, ending in Bloch-ian triumph. A crowd-pleasing Moto Perpetuo (1998) for solo violin incongruously follows, with the award-winning Chen Xi flinging off what amounts to an entertaining 4-1/2 minute encore piece.

On a less fluffy note, two Elegies follow. The first, for cello and strings, is transcribed from the composer’s Cello Concerto (1998) and could have been written by Dvorak. The early second, for strings alone (1985), finds the composer not entirely in control of his materials, with basically romantic harmonies smudged and its tortured melodic gestures not entirely convincing. This piece sounds relatively student-ish.

The ensemble textures are interrupted by Six Caprices for Violin Duo (1986), virtuoso exercises probably most influenced by Bartok and filled with spirit and technical bravado. They could easily be of interest to students looking for contemporary recital material.

The program closes with a quartet from 1988. Written in a conservative, fairly intricate and virtuosic international contemporary music style, the ambitious three-movement piece is built on a five-note motive that is squeezed out for all it’s worth in the tightly composed first movement. The sullen II is an expansive arch form, while the finale’s dotted rhythms are said to emanate from Persian folk music (Beethoven’s Seventh is another possibility). After the busy development, the piece ends joyfully and tonally, and you can hear the budding bravos.

Mr Ranjbaran is a highly skilled musician with tastes seemingly leaning in a conservative, audience-pleasing direction, which doesn’t prevent him from tapping into more “advanced” territories sometimes. The sum total becomes a bit confusing or “unpredictable”, depending on your perspective. I think the Delos release makes a better introduction to this composer’s music, with this low-priced sampler functioning as a useful supplement. I look forward to more recent developments.

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, November 2010

Behzad Ranjbaran (b.1955) was born in Tehran, and came to the United States in 1974 to study at Indiana University. After receiving his doctorate from Juilliard in composition (he studied with Diamond, Schwantner, and Persichetti), he became a faculty member there. I confess his name was not familiar to me before this CD arrived in the mail, but perhaps it should have been. Among his recent accomplishments is a piano concerto that was premiered in 2008 by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Spano. Joshua Bell premiered his Violin Concerto in 2003. Furthermore, this is the second all-Ranjbaran CD to be released. Delos released his Persian Trilogy in 2003; the performers are JoAnn Falletta and the London Symphony Orchestra. That disc received a positive review in Fanfare (May/June 2005) from Paul Ingram. In his review of that disc, and of another containing Ranjbaran’s Cello Concerto (July/August 2005), Ingram invoked Hollywood, but (I think) without condescension, as he alluded to the composer’s writing with “19th-century confidence.”

Indeed, an appreciation for the more progressive ideas in 20th-century classical music is not a prerequisite for enjoying this disc. If you can groove to Bartók or early Lutosławski, you’ll be fine. And this CD is time well spent. Ranjbaran has something interesting and appealing to say, and he knows how to say it.

Ranjbaran began playing the violin as a child, and so it is not surprising that strings dominate this CD, and that he writes well for them. Also, I am guessing that he is a popular faculty member at Juilliard, because the booklet notes that he has written for this CD are engaging. He writes that Awakening, a work for string ensemble, “commemorates the triumph of peace over war and violence.” The three interconnected sections are almost self-explanatory in their treatment of “the agony and horror of war,” the contemplative “struggle within individuals,” and “optimism.” Ranjbaran even includes a bit of “eye music” in the score itself—an arch-like “Arc de Triomphe … to represent the triumph of peace over conflict.” This is reprinted in the booklet. The Moto Perpetuo is, again, self-explanatory, and features dynamic, harmonically intriguing writing for the solo violin and strings. One feels hints of the composer’s Persian heritage in this and other pieces, but also the influence of his studies with American mentors.

The Elegy for Cello and Strings is an arrangement from the composer’s aforementioned Cello Concerto. Ranjbaran writes that it was influenced by the melodic figures of Persian vocal music, and that is clearly heard in the cello’s song. The music moves forward with a grave, beautiful dignity, reaching an emotional but restrained climax. Nicely done. Ole Akahoshi’s tone could use a little more juice, but the performance is more than adequate. The Elegy for Strings would have profited from not having immediately followed the Elegy for Cello and Strings. It is a more harmonically anguished work, though, and more varied in mood. (Ranjbaran calls it “an emotional journey.”) The affinity with Bartók, especially the third movement of MUSPAC, is particularly strong here. Bartók also seems to have inspired the inventive and varied Six Caprices, in their blending of technical challenges with music possessing genuine melodic and textural interest.

The String Quartet, from 1988, is the most substantive work on this CD, and makes the most demands on the listener. In terms of both form and content, it has a subtlety that encourages attentive listening.

These are polished and sympathetic performances by a multinational team of performers—appropriate, given the composer’s background and apparent philosophy. The engineering is warm and does not call attention to itself.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2010

If you enjoy music from the Shostakovich, Britten, and Copland era, then Behzad Ranjbaran is going to be a major discovery. Not that he is an acolyte of any of them, for the Iranian-born composer is an individual voice working in the general context of Western classical music expressed in modern tonality. Born in 1955, his musical education was completed in the United States where he has built a career from prestigious commissions.  Initially a student of the violin, his music has shown an affinity with stringed instruments, the present disc devoted to a series of chamber music. Awakening is the disc’s most recent work from 2005, and embraces Ranjbaran’s reflections on war and peace. ending in the hope that one day peace will prevail. Written for a string ensemble, Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony comes to mind as a role model, Ranjbaran’s imaginative scoring gripping our interest from first to last. The Elegy for Strings has a sad and nostalgic English feel to it, while the Elegy for cello and strings could have come from the coldness of Scandinavia. A mad dash through a stunning Moto Perpertuo for violin and strings offers a show of virtuosity, and the highly complex interweaving of instruments in the Six Caprices is extremely difficult. The String Quartet is a relatively early work and finds the composer more interested in sounding modern. To make the disc even more desirable is the fabulous playing of the Sejong Soloists. On this showing it is among the world’s best ten string ensembles, and you can add to this the brilliance of the violinists, Chen Xi and Frank Huang in the Caprices. Superbly recorded.

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