Tigran Mansurian: String Quartets (ECM New Series 1905)


Tigran Mansurian
String Quartets

Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner violoncello
Recorded May 2004 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It was not until his 40s that Tigran Mansurian at last wrenched out the two string quartets presented on this captivating disc. Already known for his labored approach, the Armenian composer has given us in these works something deeply profound and lasting for the genre. Yet in listening to this music, one gets the sense that genre is farthest from his mind. Both quartets are solemn statements for late friends David Chandschian and Eduard Chagagortzian. “The basic idea is to develop a musical style out of the principles of the Armenian language,” says first violinist Andreas Reiner, “and especially out of its stylized expression of grief.” With this in mind, we find that Mansurian’s capillary approach is like an expression of social power, whereby the bane of politics and displacement is dissolved in the tincture of an unfettered melody, in its careful arrangement of musical lines through the discovery of some emotional truth. Each strand of these quartets bows like a spider’s web cast in the wind, tethered to something behind the clouds.

Although both quartets take a three-movement structure, with two somber skins surrounding an active middle, any articulations of shape and size are rendered in moonlight alone, for these quartets are decidedly nocturnal, emphasized by their watery reflections. The Allegretto of the String Quartet N° 1 (1983-1984), for instance, reflects the glow of a moon obscured rather than its direct glittering light. It is unerring in its consistency, in its residual presence. The Agitato unfolds with an unsettling grace, anchored down by an active yet firmly earthbound cello line. This erratic dance is strangely consolatory. A descent carries us into quieter recapitulations, during which the viola sings with singularity. Any rhythmic urgency therein is picked apart by siren calls blending into the Maestoto. Moments of confluence in tutti add graceful flourishes to the inscription, ending in solace.

Mansurian’s quartets describe a world in which both the surface and the interior of the self, and of the material objects with which that self engages, are one and the same, participating as they do in a wider mediation between flesh and spirit. It is a reciprocal relationship, a symbiosis of sound and its notation. And so, the opening Andante of the String Quartet N° 2 (1984) is, while an inversion of the often declamatory instatement of a new piece, appreciative of the shadow that lies within, so that by its end we are not filled with anticipation but rather with the acceptance of the awakening pizzicati and dynamic phrasings in the Larghetto. The final Andante also works its way in spindles, threads spun by candlelight in an evening where silence becomes audible as the humming of the plains, the trees, and the beating of one’s own heart.

The Rosamundes end this already full program with a more recent work. Testament (2004) bears dedication to producer Manfred Eicher, whose tireless efforts in spreading the wonders of such composers as Mansurian is duly felt here. This single Lento moves like an organ with its solemn vocal qualities, bringing us into communion with the promise of a misted evening star.

Many composers can make the individual voices of a string quartet sing, but how many can make them breathe? This music is respiration incarnate. It has been speaking to us since time began. We need only open our lungs to take it in.

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