“I love language for its own sake”, Tigran Mansurian recently confided in an interview. “Most of all the Armenian tongue, of course - its dialects, prose and poetry, whether modern or ancient. I'm interested in language from every angle, especially its phonetics.” What fascinates him about Armenian is its wealth of consonants, which, as he puts it, “clash with a force all their own”. Accordingly, when he first approached the lyric poetry of Yegishe Charents he was initially inspired by its sound and rhythm. He set the poems syllable by syllable and kept his choral writing mainly homophonic and straightforward. The modes on which he builds his melodic lines are characterised by augmented intervals, underscoring the sound of the language.
Ars Poetica is the largest choral work that this great Armenian composer has yet brought forth. This world premiere recording is the fourth of ECM New Series’ highly acclaimed Mansurian releases. Not only is it a tribute to the towering figure of twentieth-century Armenian poetry, it pays homage to the language and literature of the country itself. This may explain why Mansurian has entrusted Charents' poetry to a chamber chorus rather than a solo voice, as might seem natural in view of its intimate and highly personal inflection. Yet the generic term 'concerto' is just an approximation to its true essence: Ars Poetica unites the features of a song cycle with those of a choral cantata while avoiding elements of the traditional instrumental concerto.
Tcharents' poems, Mansurian feels, have entered the collective consciousness of the Armenian people. He has studied them closely since adolescence: “All in all, they form something akin to an epic. Each ‘portrait’ has the potential to rise above an individual statement and become a collective pronouncement.” This has something to do with the artistic quality of the poetry itself, which, regardless of all linguistic barriers, is to be seen as one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century. But it also has to do with the poet's symbolic significance to the spiritual life of Armenia. Born in 1897 in present-day Turkey, Tcharents joined the resistance to Turkish rule while still in his teens. In 1916 he began to study literature in Moscow and soon became an ardent Bolshevik. He fought in the Red Army against Russian and Armenian nationalists from 1918 to 1921. Later he became a diplomat, founded an influential group of poets, translated major works of world literature into Armenian and published poems and novels. One of his poems of the 1930s, The Message, became famous virtually overnight. But the régime felt that it harboured 'nationalist' strains: Tcharents was arrested and died in a Yerevan prison in 1937 under unexplained circumstances, probably as a result of a hunger strike. Only after Stalin's death in 1953 were his writings again allowed to be published.
For Ars Poetica Mansurian selected ten of Tcharents' poems dating between 1915 and 1936 and arranged them into four groups. Although each group is devoted to an overarching theme, all the poems deal subliminally with the relation between life and literature. This is quite obviously the case in poems such as Fear, where shades of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Poe and Heine crop up as nocturnal phantasms, or in Japanese Tankas with its correlation to the five-line, 31-syllable verse form of classical Japanese poetry. Parts I, II and III, each consisting of three pieces, follow an A-B-A formal design, with two fast movements flanking a slower piece or vice versa. Part IV, which is much longer than the others, makes use of a single poem to function as a pessimistic finale. Its last lines seem to say that no work of literature can hope to withstand the power of Death:
"That which I was, which belonged to me,
Will never come to life in any book,
In no written book around the world,
In no book, in no book… "
Ars Poetica was recorded in Saghmosavank Monastery, Armenia.
Tigran Mansurian was born in Beirut to Armenian parents in 1939. In 1947 he returned to Yerevan with his family. In 1960 he enrolled at the State Komitas Conservatory where he soon began teaching and eventually became its director in 1990. Soon he stepped down from this position to focus on his compositions. Today he is regarded as Armenia's leading composer, with a large oeuvre encompassing vocal pieces, chamber music and orchestral works. Among the musicians who have performed his music are Alexei Lubimov, Boris Berman, Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman.
In 2003 ECM published Hayren (ECM New Series 1754) with music by Komitas and Mansurian. It was followed in 2004 by the Grammy nominated double-album Monodia (ECM New Series 1850-51) featuring Kim Kashkashian, Jan Garbarek, Leonidas Kavakos, the Hilliard Ensemble and the Munich Chamber Orchestra conducted by Christoph Poppen. In autumn 2005 his First and Second String Quartets of the 1980s and his Testament of 2004 were issued in a recording by Munich's Rosamunde Quartet (ECM New Series 1905).
Founded in 2000, the Armenian Chamber Chorus has a repertoire ranging from Gabrieli to Vasks and from Bach to Schnittke. Under the direction of its principal conductor Robert Mlkeyan, this 35-voice chorus quickly emerged as a front-rank ensemble with a special focus on present-day Armenian music. In recent years it has given premières of works by Haladjian and Hairapetian as well as Tigran Mansurian's Ars Poetica. It has also introduced many important choral compositions by Britten, Schnittke and Vasks to Armenian audiences. In 2001 the Armenian Chamber Chorus gave its London début. A concert tour of St. Petersburg and Moscow is scheduled for 2006.
Robert Mlkeyan studied choral and orchestral conducting at St. Petersburg Conservatory and the Komitas Conservatory in Yerevan. While still a student he founded several choruses and specialised in première performances of works by young Armenian composers. In 1992 he was appointed artistic director and principal conductor of the Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus of Gyumri, the second-largest city in Armenia. He has appeared at many festivals and performed in major European concert halls.
CD-package includes an illustrated 24-page booklet with an introductory note by the composer and the song texts in English.