Armenian music spotlighted in style by the Aznavoorian Duo

Tue Jun 21, 2022 at 10:10 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

“Gems from Armenia.” Ani Aznavoorian, cellist; Marta Aznavoorian, pianist (Cedille). 

The talented Aznavoorian sisters—cellist Ani and Chicago-based pianist Marta—explore their Armenian heritage in the duo’s first recording, recently released by Cedille. 

Except for Aram Khachaturian—and possibly Arno Babajanian—most composer names on this recital will be unfamiliar even to aficionados. The majority of items on this 75-minute CD consist of arrangements for cello and piano, mostly miniatures running less than five minutes.

The program opens with a suite of five short pieces by the revered Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a priest who collected and annotated Armenian folksongs, in the manner of Bartok in Hungary. A ruminative melancholy tends to predominate in this music with the burnished timbre of Ani’s cello conveying inward contemplation. The more up-tempo “Al Ailux” offers welcome contrast, and pianist Marta brings a sensitive touch to the keyboard solo “Garoun A.” The final song, “Krunk” (The Crane) receives fine advocacy by both with Ani assaying a touching vein of pathetique expression.

Khachaturian is represented with two items, including Yerevan, his affectionate ode to Armenia’s capital. Arno Babajanian’s Elegy for solo piano is a tribute to Khachaturian, his teacher, and Marta gives this music strength as well as valedictory expression. Babajanian’s Aria is songful in feeling with the ensuing Dance providing a lighter item.

The largest work on the disc is Avet Terterian’s 20-minute Cello Sonata, written in 1956. The opening Andante offers a broadly romantic melody, with strong playing by the Aznavoorians bringing sweeping urgency to the music. More bleak rumination in the central Adagio, which is played with great feeling by Ani. The finale is a motoric Presto and the duo toss the rhythms back and forth deftly, leaning into a contrasting lyrical section before the fiery coda.

The Impromptu of Alexander Arutiunian—whose Trumpet Concerto enjoyed some popularity in decades past—is a lively folk melody with a lamenting middle section.

A trio of works by a younger generation of composers closes the disc with more bracing contemporary styles. Lebanese composer Serouj Kradjian offers an edgy arrangement of the song “Sari Siroun Yar.” Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance is a searching work—more haunting than Terpsichorean—cast in a compelling impressionistic idiom.

The program concludes with Mount Ararat by Peter Boyer, composed for the Aznavoorian Duo and heard here in its premiere recording. At nine-and-a-half minutes, this is the longest single movement on the disc. The work begins with a rhetorical flourish low in the cello and segues into an agitated section. The music is crafted with Boyer’s typical skill and the main lyrical melody is in the American composer’s most engaging vein, with the folksong “Krunk” echoed at the coda. One can easily see Mount Ararat —as well as the Terterian sonata—enjoying wide popularity in chamber recitals.

While brooding melancholy dominates this program, interest is maintained by the superb playing of the Aznavoorians, who are expressive, technically poised and well blended throughout. The recording, taped at the Logan Center, is up to Cedille’s usual standard. 

“Gems from Armenia” is highly recommended for those looking for offbeat ethno-musical byways as well as cello-piano duos in the hunt for new repertoire.

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