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Arno Babadjanian: Complete Original Works For Piano Solo

Babadjanian / Melikyan
Release Date: 02/25/2014 
Label:  Grand Piano   Catalog #: 674   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 55 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BABADJANIAN Polyphonic Sonata. Six Pictures. Melody and Humoresque. Elegy. Reflection. Prelude. Vagharshapat Dance. Impromptu, “Exprompt.” Capriccio. Poem Hayk Melikyan (pn) GRAND PIANO 674 (56:31)

Knowledge of Soviet-bloc composers and their music outside of a few big names, mostly in Russia, remains difficult to come by to this day. How many Romanian composers outside of Enescu Read more can you recall? How many Bulgarians, Yugoslavians, or Azerbaijani? The situation is made more difficult by the Stalinist policy that tried to force all non-Russian composers of the USSR to compose in an accessible, lightly folk-inflected language out of the late 19th century—what has been rightly disparaged as “picture postcard music.” Those that survived with musical integrity did so by an imaginative application of nationalistic folk elements with a more modern, complex musical vocabulary. It helped, too, if you outlived Stalin and his repressive artistic policies. The Georgian Otar Taktakishvili was one such who did so, whose recordings I’ve collected wherever I could find them over the years. Another, still less known, is the Armenian Arno Babadjanian (1921–1983).

Babadjanian moved from his native Yerevan to Moscow in 1938 to attend the Gnesin Music College. While there, he studied composition with Shebalin, and piano with Gnesina. Babadjanian continued his piano studies with Igumnov—top of the line, there—and polished his compositional technique with Litinsky at the Moscow House of Armenian culture. I’ve only known him previously from his Vagharshapat Dance (1947), which I pegged as an application of Rachmaninoff-like technique to Armenian-inflected light classical music. It works beautifully, but much of the rest of the album indicates a more imaginative musician, one considerably outside the Soviet mainstream.

The program starts with the Polyphonic Sonata , begun in 1942 while the composer was still a student, and finished in 1947, when it was awarded first prize at the International Youth Festival in Prague. Though it features some harmonic progressions and ornamentations that occur in Armenian folk music, the work is freely tonal (while not highly dissonant) throughout all three of its movements. The emphasis is on linear, imitative, and frequently fugal counterpoint. The slow movement, appropriately enough called “Fugue,” is a superbly organized monolith of a piece that shares the sound world of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues—but before the fact, since Shostakovich himself, by his admission, began thinking along those lines while judging the first International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig in 1950.

I suspect Babadjanian was very fortunate he came along when he did. A decade earlier, and a piece such as the Polyphonic Sonata would have certainly fallen afoul of Stalin’s Socialist Realism that stifled so much Soviet musical creativity in the 1930s. A few years beyond 1947, and he might have become a casualty of the Zhdanov purges that not only affected his admirers Khachaturian and Shostakovich, but also to a lesser extent all their students and friends “by taint of association.” Significantly, it is one of Babadjanian’s earlier works, the Impromptu, Exprompt (1936), the already mentioned Vagharshapat Dance and its companion Prelude (1947), and the Capriccio (1951) that are all the original solo piano music Babadjanian released until the 1960s, and they are without exception pleasant, colorfully Armenian folkloristic pieces that demonstrate more pianistic art than compositional perceptiveness. The Polyphonic Sonata gives the impression in this group of being a peek behind the curtain, during a brief moment of politically relaxed controls.

Poem , composed in 1966 for the Third Moscow Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, returns to the style of the Polyphonic Sonata , minus any folk associations. Sparing in texture, it is in effect a six-and-a-half minute sonata in two sections. Its first movement weaves a hypnotic pair of independent voices around a tonally unstable ostinato bass, often in fourths and sixths. The second movement is a toccata-like moto perpetuo that regularly succeeds in obliterating any sense of meter.

The liner notes credit Babadjanian’s Six Pictures , written a year before Poem , with being one of the first works to use 12-tone compositional technique, but it doesn’t sound any more like Schoenberg than Kara Karayev’s supposedly 12-tone Third Symphony of 1964—or more serialist than Babadjanian’s own Polyphonic Sonata . The figurations and rhythms at times reflect Armenian folk music, and the themes don’t follow any 12-tone row. Freely tonal is again the best way to describe music that at any given time can sound like mid-period Scriabin (Intermezzo), late Shostakovich (“Chorale”), or Prokofiev at his most demonically motoric (“Toccatina”), freed of all tonal moorings.

Of the later music, Melody and Humoresque (1973) is an odd pair: Armenian-styled Chopin, followed by something equally Armenian, but much more heavily ironic and dance-like. The Reflection of 1973 returns to the style of the Six Pictures and Poem only in an abstract vein, devoid of expressive content. Not so the Elegy of 1978 that was written upon the death of Aram Khachaturian, and dedicated to his memory. It is very much in the style of the older master, while being based on an 18th-century song by Sayat-Nova (whose life, incidentally, formed the meditative core of Sergei Parajanov’s brilliant film, The Color of Pomegranates ).

I’ve never previously heard Hayk Melikyan. He’s apparently been successful on the competitive circuit: second prize at the Preimo Valentino Bucchi competition in Rome (2000), the Samson François and André Boucourechliev prizes at the Orléans International Piano Competition (2008, 2012), etc. On the basis of this disc, he has power and agility to spare, with plenty of attention to inner voicings. He is never at a loss for style or direction in any of this music, which is pretty impressive when you consider that it really represents two very different styles. He is always flexible and persuasively colorful in the nationalistic material, careful to articulate every line and give it its proper weight in the rest. And any musician who can differentiate between the two voices in the latter, manic half of the Poem , that often sound like a single line chasing its own tail, deserves recognition for his insight and technique.

Grand Piano once again provides some of the best piano engineering in the business. In short, well worth your attention on all fronts.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Melody and Humoresque by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: Armenia 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 2 Minutes 33 Secs. 
Elegy, for piano by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Written: 1978 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 3 Minutes 47 Secs. 
Reflection, for piano by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Written: 1973 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 2 Minutes 23 Secs. 
Prélude by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 1 Minutes 40 Secs. 
Pieces (4) for Piano: Vagharshapati Dance by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1954; Armenia 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 1 Minutes 47 Secs. 
Capriccio, for piano by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 4 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Poem, for piano by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 6 Minutes 34 Secs. 
Polyphonic Sonata (Polifonischeskaya sonata), for piano by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Written: 1947 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 1 Minutes 7 Secs. 
Pictures (6) (Shest' Kartin), for piano by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Written: 1965 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 12 Minutes 36 Secs. 
Impromptu for piano in B minor ("Exprompt") by Arno Babadjanyan
Performer:  Hayk Melikyan (Piano)
Period: Modern 
Written: 1944 
Venue:  VEM Studio, Yerevan, Armenia 
Length: 2 Minutes 48 Secs. 

Sound Samples

Polyphonic Sonata: I. Prelude
Polyphonic Sonata: II. Fugue
Polyphonic Sonata: III. Toccata
6 Kartin (6 Pictures): No. 1. Improvisation
6 Kartin (6 Pictures): No. 2. Folk Song
6 Kartin (6 Pictures): No. 3. Toccatina
6 Kartin (6 Pictures): No. 4. Intermezzo
6 Kartin (6 Pictures): No. 5. Chorale
6 Kartin (6 Pictures): No. 6. Sassoun Dance
Melody and Humoresque: Melody
Melody and Humoresque: Humoresque
Vagharshapat Dance
Impromptu, "Exprompt"

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