As far as Armenians are concerned, music is inextricably bound up with loss. Every year, they gather to pay respects to those who died in the Armenian genocide and to sing works by Komitas Vardapet, for many a symbol of nationalist pride. Though Komitas himself survived the massacres, he was also a victim of the persecution, and eventually suffered a mental breakdown. Outside Armenia, people now might struggle to recognise his name.
So it’s fitting that Sergey and Lusine Khachatryan have chosen him to headline this survey of 20th-century Armenian composers, marking the 100th anniversary of the genocide. Listening to the brother-and-sister duo, whose own great-grandfather survived the events of 1915, one marvels at Komitas’s emotional depth. In The Crane, perhaps his best-known work, we hear music of lacerating passion. And, throughout the Seven Folk Dances, crystalline piano pieces that seems to melt to the touch, Komitas reveals himself as the Armenian equivalent of Bartók: someone who could take the simplest folk material and turn it into sophisticated polyphony. It’s easy to agree with Debussy, who once declared on the basis of a single song that Komitas deserved to be recognised as a great composer.
The Khachatryans eagerly embrace Komitas’s voice, by turns white-hot and icy cold. But perhaps the main achievement of this disc is the way it profiles a melting-pot of influences through the works of just five composers. At various points we hear the stamp of the Second Viennese School – in the spiky Six Pictures for piano by Arno Babadjanian, and the troubled world of the Introduction and Perpetuum mobile by Edvard Mirzoyan, who died only three years ago. Occasionally, as in Eduard Bagdasaryan’s fire-bellied Rhapsody, the colours are startlingly akin to Debussy’s. At the core, though, is a fierce attachment to Armenian folk, a plangent, labyrinthine language that comes to the fore in Khachaturian’s Poem-song. It’s a language that certainly galvanises these musicians, who relish the piece’s haunting twists and turns.