Varty Manouelian violin
Boris Allakhverdyan clarinet
Michael Kaufman violoncello
Steven Vanhauwaert piano
Kim Kashkashian viola
Tatevik Mokatsian piano
Movses Pogossian violin
Teng Li viola
Karen Ouzounian violoncello
Recorded January-April 2019
Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center
of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Los Angeles
Recording engineer: Benjamin Maas
Cover photo: Jean-Christophe Béchet
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 6, 2020
Although “refined” has taken on elitist nuances over the years, Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian cuts to the root by following the true etymology of the word as a return to purity. In this all-chamber program, conceived as an 80th birthday gift by violinist Movses Pogossian and violist Kim Kashkashian, Mansurian’s combination of Armenian and European influences, sacred and secular alike, changes form as if viewed through a kaleidoscope turned in methodical wonder.
In the Agnus Dei of 2006, interpreted here by violinist Varty Manouelian, clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan, cellist Michael Kaufman, and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, one can almost feel his presence in the room. The simultaneous awareness of separation and overlap in the composing and the performing allows listeners to take the opening movement in many ways: as a mirror or opaque surface, liquid or solid, past or future. The clarinet is the glue that binds this scripture, the strings dialects, and the piano keys the pages they call home. The second movement indicates stirrings within, cradling dark exultation, while the third movement barely exceeds a whisper. As in the sonic architecture of Alexander Knaifel, the instruments humble themselves at the feet of the Spirit.
The Sonata da Chiesa (2015) bears a dedication to the priest and composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), whose quiet legacy has permeated a range of previous ECM recordings, not least of all Mansurian’s own. In the hands of Kashkashian and pianist Tatevik Mokatsian, the first movement suspends itself before writhing with historical awareness. Kashkashian’s sincerity and Mokatsian’s energetic approach to even the most delicate gestures draws two lines of flight that gradually become one in the second movement. Like hope and reality, they are distant until something sacred finds commonality in them.
The title piece (2006-2007) is scored for two violins (Pogossian and Manouelian), violas (Kashkashian and Teng Li), and cellos (Karen Ouzounian and Kaufman). Being a meditation on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13, the viola is of liturgical importance. Incredibly, the higher the tones, the darker the sky grows over its catharsis. Next are the String Trio (2008) and String Quartet No. 3 (1993). If Con anima was closer in mood to Shostakovich, the trio is closer in form, moving ever closer to the shaded drawl of its final movement, while the quartet assumes an inverted progression from subterranean fields to aboveground terrains. Finally, Die Tänzerin for violin and viola (2014) shines a light on Armenian folk dance, bringing Bartók to mind.
As convenient as the above comparisons may be, they do nothing to capture the atmosphere of this music. Mansurian, by self-characterization, creates a crossroads of speech and silence that cannot necessarily be articulated by either. Given the honesty and truth with which he fills his cup, not every question he poses demands an answer. Searching without finding becomes its own gift in a world hell-bent on exploiting destinations.