Tigran Mansurian: Ars Poetica (ECM New Series 1895)



Tigran Mansurian
Ars Poetica

Armenian Chamber Choir
Robert Mlkeyan conductor
Recorded June 6, 2003, Saghmosavank monastery, Armenia
Engineer: Garen Proyan
Produced by ECM

Ars Poetica is a choral “concerto” based on the poetry of Armenian writer Yegishe Charents (1897-1937). The language is rustic, bumpy, and delectable. The works of Charents, who suffered at the hands of the Stalinist regime and would die in a Yerevan prison for his politically “subversive” writings, were liberated with Stalin’s death in 1953. Likewise, his words seem to wrestle out of their national confines and onto the world stage through Tigran Mansurian’s faithful settings.

“Night” begins with breath; words are only implied, shaped by lips and lungs like rustling leaves. As the choir swells, a deeply affecting baritone solo intones: “But all was pale and dull around me, / No words were there, and there was no sun…” In this first of the Three Night Songs, we are ushered into a place where stillness is aflame. The Three Portraits of Women that follow turn our attention from the ethereal to the corporeal. Mansurian dresses these poems with darkness left over from the waning night. Lines such as “What Spirit was it that brushed / Your countenance in radiant strokes?” feel torn with pain, as if accepting the beauty of one’s love might lead to self-destruction in surrender. Archetypes of angels and maidens wander labyrinthine depths of their own making, impervious to the talons of words seeking purchase on their shoulders. Three Autumn Songs give us our first taste of sunlight trickling through the breaking clouds. Even so, melancholy is never far away, holding us in a lukewarm embrace as voices kneel before the awesome power of all that withers. And Silence Descends brings indefinite closure with a long untitled verse. Intermittent climaxes fall like sudden showers as a single soprano voice cuts through the din with a painful resignation. Language takes on yet another guise in the form of death, creeping along the streets and through back alleys, threatening to erase the text that is one’s existence from its sallow pages.

Mansurian’s compositional style is linguistically informed; not only because he is working with poetry that is already so very musical, but also because the Armenian language is such a vital part of Mansurian’s worldview and expressive deployment. Ars Poetica is a naked and vital work. It screams as its cries, whispering secrets and intimate thoughts as it careens through the cosmos with the quiet restraint of a meteor. Ultimately, it transcends language, bringing with it the promise of internal meanings through which orthography is wrung of its juices and fed to us drop by drop.

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