The most rapturously poignant album of the year so far is Gems From Armenia, by the Aznavoorian Duo, streaming at Spotify. Sisters Ani and Marta Aznavoorian – cello and piano, respectively – draw on their heritage for a lyrical playlist of material that spans from the 19th century to the present. It underscores the disproportionately rich influence this tiny nation’s music continues to make around the globe.
They open with a steady, spare, pensive theme, Chinar Es by foundational Romantic-era composer and musicologist Komitas. As she often does throughout the album, Ani plays in the high midrange, with a stark vibrato that sometimes evokes a kamancheh spike fiddle. A second Komitas tune, Tsirani Tsar comes across as a more nocturnal variation, lowlit by Marta’s distantly starry piano. The third, Garoun A, is a gorgeous solo piano work, more mysteriously modern and practically furtive in places. The duo continue with a balletesque grace in the fourth, Al Ailux, both hypnotic and pulsingly rhythmic.
The fifth, Krunk is not a drinking song but an achingly beautiful love ballad and a launching pad for some of Ani’s most incisive, soaringly lyrical work here. The best-known in a long line of great Armenian composers, Aram Khachaturian is represented first by the emotive miniature Ivan Sings and then his lively, pointillistic tribute to his hometown of Yerevan.
Marta plays Arno Babajanian’s Elegy with restraint but also close attention to ornamentation that mimics the microtones of Armenian folk music. Ani returns for his Aria and Dance, a fondly reflective ballad and variations.
The duo make their way methodically from a stern, tightly clustering intensity through more sparsely lyrical passages in the first movement of Avet Terterian’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. They let the allusive chromatics and poignancy speak for itself, understatedly, in the second movement and romp with a triumphant, acerbic glitter through the conclusion.
The two bring out High Romantic passion in Serouj Kradjian‘s arrangement of the traditional ballad Sari Siroun Yar and follow with Alexander Arutiunian’s Impromptu, a dynamic mashup of a levantine dance and Rachmaninovian lustre.
Vache Sharafyan’s Petrified Dance, an elegy for Armenian soldiers, is the most subdued and vividly sepulchral work on the program. The sisters conclude with the world-premiere of Peter Boyer’s Mount Ararat, climbing from a portentous cello melody to a syncopated gallop up the slope, with stunning, chromatically bristling breaks to view the scenery. This unselfconsciously beautiful collection deserves a second volume. For that matter, the Aznavoorians could have a franchise here if they felt like it.