Armenian-Canadian contemporary composer Petros Shoujounian [born 1957] has written six string quartets. This quote, by the composer, is contained in the CD liner notes:
The 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, an internationally acknowledged tragedy in which more than one and a half million Armenians died, was commemorated in 2015. To mark this anniversary and draw our attention to this tragedy, I have written four string quartets, all based on Armenian liturgical chants.
The four string quartets mentioned are identified as being Nos. 3 to 6. This music is obviously of a spiritual nature and contains many endearing moments. The works are named from rivers in Armenia.
I shall consider the Third Quartet, which is in three movements.
- Debed opens with a wonderful mood. The first violin offers up sweeping, ascending and descending phrases –the other instruments enter, incrementally, to support a translucent nature. Overlapping melodic lines abound, and there is no obvious melody, just four different voices leading to an approach to sound that I don’t believe I have heard before. The cello is particularly poignant and the music doesn’t go anywhere – it just is. This feeling is sustained for the nine-minute duration of the movement. This is music that you cannot remember, in that it could not become familiar – it is pure musical atmosphere. The final notes are sparse, eventually resolving to a gentle chord.
- Arpa is a brief movement, somewhat similar to the first in that there is no melodic development, just a pure sound. It is also generally pitched lower. A passage of solo cello represents the first evidence of progression here, as it moves slowly to a conclusion.
III. Dzoraget: this is a much more rhythmic sound, with an opening fanfare. The texture then becomes one of a violin being supported by the other voices. A new passage has much lower dynamics, and leads to some wonderful cello textures. Now a solo violin expresses a whispering melody, accompanied by sparse tones from the ensemble. A return to the opening fanfare, interspersed with subtle moments creates a magical soundspace. Nearing the end, there is a rhythmic fragment before a sharp ending on a chord.
Now on to the Sixth Quartet, which contains five movements.
- Akhourian: A recurring motif introduces this movement, before a passage of pizzicato unfolds. This music seems to be more rhythmically focussed than that which has come before. I should also note that I haven’t really felt a sense of chant thus far. There are however, modal scales heard as the brief movement winds down.
- Aghstev has a particularly mournful and presumably Armenian sound, again using modal scales. A rich texture unfolds, expressing music that is definitely middle-eastern. The tenor of this movement is one of long, drone-like passages, and lamenting melodies, just so different from what has come before. It reminds me of Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace. The closing stages seem to lumber – gone is the earlier lyricism. This leads to a slow fade out.
III. Vedi: This brief movement is lighter in texture than most of the other movements. A violin flits across a pizzicato background, and a melody begins to develop. There is a degree of strength now as powerful melodies coexist with strong harmonised lines. The end is sharp.
- Getik opens in a positively brash manner, with powerful statements from all four voices, sometimes even sounding chaotic. The music moves forward with many interjections, maintaining the slightly chaotic nature. A false ending is sharp, and the instruments regroup and move towards the finish.
- Argishti opens with a measured, modal melodic line played over a drone accompaniment. This is likely very Armenian. The drone continues, allowing the cello to express briefly, before the violin returns. There is no harmony to be found here although the sound of the drone has diminished. Now two violins offer up alternate melodic passages, leading to the deepest music that I have heard so far. I wouldn’t call it beautiful, as the mode used is not natural to me, but the texture is superb as it brings the quartet to a close.
This music has a touch of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil about it, with its shifting moods, and sometimes stark orchestration.
The review CD Noravank: String Quartets Nos. 3-6, performed by the Molinari Quartet, on the ATMA Classique label is available from Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: Strange, sometimes beautiful, sometimes stark music.