Violinist Movses Pogossian Pulls Together a Stunning, Uneasy Album of New Armenian Classical Music

by delarue

It’s astonishing how influential Armenian music has been, considering how small the country is, not to mention the pre-World War I holocaust there which resulted in the murder of as much as 85% of the population and most of its intelligentsia. While Armenian culture has thrived throughout the global diaspora, in the past hundred years the country managed to withstand a stifling Soviet occupation and emerged with wellspring of new music. Violinist Movses Pogossian‘s new album Modulation Necklace – streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates a series of intense, powerful, edgy works by 21st century composers from throughout the global Armenian community.

Artur Avanesov’s somber, stately, acidically crescendoing Quasi Harena Maris begins as a microtonal string quartet played by Pogossian and Ji Eun Hwang, violist Morgan O’Shaughnessey and cellist Niall Ferguson. The composer enters, on piano, with a brooding minimalism as the strings recede to wisps and washes. His fierce block chords shift between dark neoromanticism and unsettled close harmonies, the strings echoing the dichotomy between anthemic intensity and relentless, blustery unease. The sparse, clustering suspense on the way out is chilling. On one hand, there are echoes of the great Danish composer Per Norgard; on the other, this is like nothing you’ve ever heard. What a showstopper to open this album.

The quartet of Avanesov, violinist Varty Manouelian, violist Scott St. John and cellist Antonio Lysy play Ashot Zhrabyan’s Novelette. The ache of the string introduction is more visceral here, Avanesov pouncing in as they reach a horrified peak. Hazy atmospherics alternate with bracing swells, together and individually, the pianist punctuating the storm as it passes through and then returns with a marching vengeance. A stabbing, suspiciously petulant insistence peaks out, then the stern strings take over and end with an unexpectedly quiet triumph.

Avanesov, Manouelian and Tyler deliver Michel Petrossian‘s A Fiery Flame, a Flaming Fire with equal parts individual playfulness and a tight cohesiveness, yet one which remains unsettled until a starkly decisive conclusion. It’s an exploration of identity in an increasingly syncretic world. Have we lost a heritage, or are we creating a brand new, more universal one? The answer seems to be yes to both questions.

The UCLA VEM Ensemble: Hwang and O’Shaughnessey with violinist Aiko Richter, cellist Jason Pegis and mezzo-soprano Danielle Segen tackle Artashes Kartalyan’s Tekeyan Triptych, a setting of poems on longing and posterity by Vahan Tekeyan, a major 20th century figure. In the liner notes, Segen gets high marks from the ensemble for her Armenian pronunciation; the dynamically shifting music echoes late Debussy, with melodies that range from the baroque to Armenian traditional melodies, most anthemically in the second number.

Saxophonist Katisse Buckingham and percussionist Dustin Donahue’s take of Ashot Kartalyan‘s five-part Suite for Saxophone and Percussion shifts from kinetic high/low contrasts, to jaunty bits of vibraphone jazz, a hint of furtive suspense, a beautifully bittersweet ballad and a booming, dancing coda. Avanesov ends the album with seven miniatures from his Feux Follets collection, which range from warm neoromanticism, to lingering minimalism and biting Near Eastern modes. If this is typical of what’s coming out of the Armenian world now, we need to hear more of it!