“Truthfulness leaves few options…”
A conversation with the Rosamunde Quartett on Mansurian’s string quartets.
Tigran Mansurian’s approach to the string quartet must have been rather long and laboured. He destroyed several early attempts. But in the 1980s, when he was already over forty, he composed two quartets almost simultaneously. How would you account for that?
Anja Lechner: From our experience of him, Mansurian writes slowly and very carefully. He really takes his time to work on a piece for two or three years. I think someone who tears the music out of himself like that is in great awe of the quartet genre.
Andreas Reiner: The string quartet is a great responsibility for any composer, simply because the four-part setting is so extremely demanding. With Mansurian this respect is certainly compounded by the example of Shostakovich, who had completed his fifth symphony before setting off to write the first quartet.
In questions of form these two quartets show obvious correspondences. They are both cast in three movements, with two rather calm movements framing a livelier one. Could you speak of siblings, as they were written so close to each other in 1984/85?
Andreas Reiner: Definitely. The basic idea is to develop a musical style out of the principles of the Armenian language, and especially out of its stylized expression of grief. This was of great importance to Mansurian as both works are written in response to the deaths of close friends.
Helmut Nicolai: It’s all about painful loss. This can be seen very clearly in the last movement of the first quartet. You would think that you are listening to a song you’ve known for a long time. Here, the physical appearance of Mansurian’s friend, David Chandschian, is described in musical terms. He was very tall, and correspondingly the music builds up slowly, so that you really have to look upwards.
The record as a whole is dedicated to the memory of Mansurian’s late wife, Nora Aharonian. What is the connection between the two quartets from the eighties and the “Testament” that was written in 2004 for Manfred Eicher?
Anja Lechner: Manfred Eicher had asked Mansurian for a piece in a calm tempo for this record. When Mansurian composed the piece his wife was already very ill. This was the emotional situation in which the music was conceived.
Simon Fordham: Stylistically this piece is comparable with his other slow movements but maybe it is even more reduced and austere. There is nothing contrived about it, it’s all very direct: very emotional without becoming altogether overwrought.
Helmut Nicolai: Its conclusion, quintessence. Last words in their most original meaning.
The music seems to include meaningful gestures which are repeated at decisive places and thus gain an almost symbolic insistence. Do you try to interpret such aspects while rehearsing?
Anja Lechner: Mansurian himself is very careful about that. Whenever he uses images, they are very simple. This may be due to the fact that he can’t talk to us in his native language. I think he leaves any association to the performer or the listener. But he wouldn’t interpret it himself.
Andreas Reiner: Generally speaking, music should explain itself. The really interesting question is how the balance of forces can be achieved in a certain piece. Mansurian is one of those composers who know about forces and weights: What has to happen in which length, expression, volume, sound colour – so as to be surprising and fresh but still leaving the listener with the impression: that’s exactly the way it should be.
Helmut Nicolai: There is a further aspect with Mansurian: truthfulness. You really hear the truthfulness in his music, that’s what makes it so strong. You simply can’t get around this. You can play around with a talent of a genius, but truthfulness leaves few options.
Anja Lechner: If I may add something quite personal: Playing the first quartet I get the impression that the grief is eventually dissolved. The piece seems to open up. With the second quartet by contrast I feel that the music gets darker and darker. Only in the end there is a transformation into openness and light. And “Testament” is a condition. Neither major nor minor, neither cheerful nor sad, just a very introverted state. Of course, that’s not in any way an analytical observation.
Where does this quiet sadness in Mansurian’s music come from? Is it the sadness of the Armenian people?
Andreas Reiner: I feel that Mansurian’s works are quite typical for the music of the east. In my view they embody most of what I love so much about Eastern music.
What is the East, musically speaking?
Helmut Nicolai: The ties to the cultural sources and traditions have never been cut off. Think of all those composers who had to live far from their homeland but came back one day. They all dreamt of Russia and longed for their return and then they stayed in Russia even if it was very difficult.
Andreas Reiner: But besides that firm sense of rootedness, you obviously also have the phenomenon of rootlessness. Mourning the loss of cultural identity is part of Eastern culture. Expulsion, genocide hasn’t been the fate only of Armenians. Over the centuries there have been national tragedies wherever you look.
Anja Lechner: I think that the individual sadness in Mansurian’s music at least partially is due to the history of his people. He was born in Beirut where his parents lived in exile. Only several years later could they return to Yerevan. Today Mansurian’s family is spread all over the world. Quite an incredible fate – but it affects almost every Armenian.
In his introduction to this CD, Mansurian speaks about the way the intonation of Armenian language and Armenian song left their traces in the quartets. How can this be seen in detail? On which technical level does it affect the construction of the quartets?
Helmut Nicolai: If you look at the score, you’ll see asymmetric accentuations in the fast movements which he marks with short horizontal lines. Rhythmically they are not at all rigid but irregular in a very complex way. Of course this is derived from Armenian folk music. You find similar accents in Greek and Hungarian folk music.
Anja Lechner: For me the Armenian character is particularly evident in the moods. Certain parts in Mansurian often have a similar tone as the songs of Komitas. There is a reason why Mansurian calls Komitas his spiritual father.
Simon Fordham: There are no literal quotes in fact but it all is very songlike.
Andreas Reiner: During the rehearsals we repeatedly asked Mansurian about certain passages. Some of them that we imagined to be very motoric and full of drive, he considered more a matter of accentuation and rhetoric. It can be much calmer and slower.
One shouldn’t surrender to the physical impact of the music, but rather lift it up to a more articulate level…
Andreas Reiner: Exactly. Rhythmic and motoric drive is obviously very close to our musical understanding. In Armenian music this seems to be quite different.
On the other hand Mansurian, by choosing the quartet genre and furthermore by his very conscientious treatment of the musical motifs, demonstrates an inner connection with a tradition originating in composers like Beethoven and Brahms.
Anja Lechner: You find this kind of concentration in most of Mansurian’s works, in the cello concerti, in the violin concerto. It is not really a question of the string quartet genre. This is probably one of the reasons why Mansurian takes so long to complete a piece. Everything is well thought-out and constructed, every note needs its precise position.
And still it all seems relaxed somehow.
Andreas Reiner: In this respect his music has something of Haydn. There is actually no subject, mostly it’s just a motive but Mansurian builds a whole piece out of its ingredients. Regardless of the tragic character it never gets dense or heavy. There is always light, there is a certain distance and a wonderful naturalness.
Simon Fordham: Incidentally Mansurian has a strong aversion to any kind of sentimental rubato. He likes everything very clear and simple. Not too big contrasts. He doesn’t like to be interpreted in the traditional sense.
Helmut Nicolai: He never looks for isolated effects, or for momentary emotion. It’s all about the whole context.
Anja Lechner: And he has an enormous trust in the musicians. He gives a little advice but then he says, this is yours now, make something out of it. You don’t find that so often of course. Most composers cling to their works, they keep saying, now you should change something here and there.
The two quartets are some twenty years old now. Has there been any kind of performing tradition?
Anja Lechner: Mansurian didn’t hear the quartets for many years. They were premiered in the eighties in Armenia but since then played very rarely. Only recently the Chilingirian Quartet performed them again together with the third quartet, which was written for them. I got to know Mansurian a few years ago and subsequently began to listen to his music – the few works that were available on CD then. I tracked down a score for the quartets and immediately showed it to my colleagues. Right from the graphic impression we could see, that we would like the pieces: Very simple, with very few playing instructions, you can understand the music immediately. When we played the quartets to Mansurian in the first rehearsal he was very quiet at first. Then he said: “Sorry, I haven’t heard that music for a long time, I don’t even remember everything.” I think he is really pleased that these two quartets are being played again now, that they are being noticed.
Interview: Anselm Cybinski
Tigran Mansurian was born in 1939 in Beirut to Armenian parents. They returned to Yerevan in 1947. Widely regarded as Armenia’s leading composer, Mansurian taught at the Komitas-State Conservatory from 1960, and was its director from 1990, a position he soon relinquished to concentrate exclusively on writing music. His oeuvre includes vocal, chamber and orchestral works. In 2003 ECM released “Hayren” (ECM New Series 1754) with music of Komitas and Mansurian played by Kim Kashkashian, Robyn Schulkowsky and Mansurian himself on the piano, followed in 2004 by “Monodia“ (ECM New Series 1850/51), a double album of Mansurian’s music featuring Kashkashian, Jan Garbarek, Leonidas Kavakos, the Hilliard Ensemble and the Munich Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Christoph Poppen.
Founded in 1991 in Munich, the Rosamunde Quartett gave their acclaimed debut one year later at the Berliner Festwochen. Alongside the standard quartet repertoire, the musicians put an emphasis on contemporary music. The Rosamunde Quartett are regular guests at major international festivals and concert venues. Their ECM discography includes a recording with music of Shostakovich, Webern and Burian as well as Haydn’s “The Seven Words” and Valentin Silvestrov’s “leggiero, pesante” for which the Rosamunde Quartett were nominated for a Grammy award in chamber music performance. A further critical and popular success is the continuing collaboration with Argentinian bandoneon-virtuoso and composer Dino Saluzzi which, in 1998, led to the recording of “Kultrum”.
Further recordings with music by Tigran Mansurian on ECM New Series are in preparation.
CD package includes 32-page German-English booklet with liner notes by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, an introduction by Tigran Mansurian, and photos by Roberto Masotti. A French-English edition of the CD is also available.