Only two concerts were possible in this year’s abandoned ‘ARMENIA’ International Music Festival

ArmeniaArmenia ‘ARMENIA’ International Music Festival: Sport and Concert Complex after Karen Dmirchyan, Yerevan, Armenia, 24-26.9.2020. (CC)

‘ARMENIA’ International Music Festival’s Opening Concert

My recent extended interview with Alexey Shor (click here) was meant to sit with a report of a four day festival of his works held in Armenia (for information click here). Sadly, unrest between Armenia and Azerbaijan meant that violence erupted on Sunday morning (27 September), including loss of life, and as a result the balance of the festival was cancelled. The safety of all must prevail, of course, and the concerts which were actually held are reported on below.

Established in 2017 as an initiative of the conductor Sergey Smbatyan (Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra) and Konstantin Ishkhanov, the President of the European Foundation for Support of Culture, the ‘ARMENIA’ International Music Festival has grown to be a highly respected, and eagerly awaited, event. The mix of soloists both established and fresh is testament to its ability to attract the finest artists, including pianists Freddy Kempf and Denis Kozhukhin. Laudably, the festival aims to mix established soloists with new artistic voices. The focus this year was very firmly on the output Alexey Shor, whose approachable, melodic music would indeed have sat well with the music of Tchaikovsky (the concert on the 27th would have coupled Shor’s Childhood Memories for piano and orchestra with excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake; that on the 28th, Shor’s Cello Concerto, ‘Musical Pilgrimage’ and Clarinet Concerto with Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite). We also sadly missed out on a lunchtime recital by pianist Andrey Gugnin (8am for those of us in the UK) of the rarely-heard Józef Hofmann Charakterskizzen, Op.20, plus Shor’s three movement Piano Sonata and Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.7 in B flat, Op.83: a mouth-watering programme.

But enough of pining for what could have been. What we did hear was a celebration of artfully crafted melody, a celebration of virtuosity and of hope. It should also be noted that the figures shown of people watching the live stream was regularly well over 2000, quite an audience!

OPENING CONCERT: Stella Chen (violin); Denis Kozhukhin (piano); Armenian State Symphony Orchestra / Dmitry Yablonsky (conductor). Sport and Concert Complex after Karen Demirchyan, Yerevan, Armenia, 24.9.2020.

Chausson – Poème, Op.25 

Shor – Violin Concerto, ‘Phantasms’; Piano Concerto, ‘Travel Notebook’

This concert was to have begun with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Itamar Zorman as soloist. Unfortunately due to the current travel difficulties, Zorman was unable to come and instead we heard a fragrant, beautifully expressive performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poème, the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra setting up the atmosphere beautifully before the American violinist Stella Chen effortlessly melded virtuosity with the most soul-melting cantabile. Initially mournful, Chen demonstrated a technique that encompassed perfectly in tune stopping and a tremendously sweet-toned upper register. Supporting her was a very disciplined orchestra: the name of Dmitry Yablonsky will be familiar to many through his catalogue of Naxos recordings, of course; he certainly inspired the silkiest of contributions from the Armenian orchestra’s first violins. Dedicated to Ysaÿe, Chausson’s Poème was the perfect lead-in to Alexey Shor’s Violin Concerto, ‘Phantasms’.

Working with dreams and daydreams, ‘Phantasms’ is also known as Shor’s Second Violin Concerto. After a jolly introduction, the violins enter with a long melody, notable here for Stella Chen’s seamless legato. The easy, almost Schubertian, flow of the music is testament to the never-ending stream of music that Shor seems to have access to; the natural enfolding, too, belies the clear structural thought that underpins it. Hushed moments were magical (in both solo and orchestral contributions) in the opening ‘Dance of the Graces’. The central ‘Elegy’ finds Shor in his melodic element. One of Chen’s strengths is the beauty of her sound across all registers (her stopping, again, was highly expressive); her bow control, too, enabled the tender close of the movement to register fully. The final ‘Flight of a Falcon’ includes cadenza passages despatched effortlessly before a melody emerged that seemed (in the nicest way possible) endless. All credit to the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra for being so light on its feet; Yablonsky is a superb collaborator as well as symphonic conductor in his own right. Together, Chen and Yablonsky rejoiced in the gypsy feel of the concerto’s later passages. Stella Chen won the 2019 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, Belgium; on present evidence, it would appear a successful career awaits her.

We should also note that a superb recording of Shor’s ‘Seascapes’ exists on David Aaron Carpenter’s Warner twofer Motherland, on which he performs with the London Philharmonic under the baton of David Parry. ‘Seascapes’ is actually listed as Violin Concerto No.1 on Shor’s own website, but performed on viola it takes on an altogether more haunting aspect. The four movements (‘Abandoned Lighthouse’; ‘Lonely Sail’; ‘Gathering Storm’; ‘Summer Hail’) are shot through with lyricism; Carpenter is a simply superb violist. His rendition of ‘Gathering Storm’ feels like it has a core of steel running through it. In the interview I held with Shor, he spoke of his researches into orchestration, and they certainly pay off in the light touch he accords ‘Summer Hail’. On the same twofer, Carpenter plays Two Songs for my Children (also known as Two Songs for my Kids) and Well Tempered Chanson. The former piece includes the haunting ‘Lullaby for Mark’ and ‘Natalie’s Waltz,’ the latter a prime example of Shor’s ability to conjure reflective nostalgia with minimal means: it is the seeming simplicity of melody and the sure touch of the harmony that works so well. The Well Tempered Chanson is a suite of some 13 movements based on Russian folksongs. Born out of the idea of creating encores: ‘Murka Metamorphoses’ was the first of these to be created, for Carpenter, a piece that features a characteristic Russian acceleration as festivities move to a whirligig conclusion.

After a (brief) interval, it was pianist Denis Kozhukhin who took over the role of soloist, playing Shor’s Piano Concerto, ‘Travel Notebook,’ on a beautifully prepared Steinway with what looked like an iPad as his score. Cast in seven movements, the concerto begins with an extended ‘Wayfarer’s Prayer’ and reveals how Shor is constantly inspired and refreshed by sources around him. Kozhukhin is no stranger to the score: on 23 April 2018, he performed it with the Armenian State Symphony and their Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Sergey Smbatyan. A cadenza-like passage certainly invokes Rachmaninov; it is notable how Shor sets up maximal contrast thereafter with a charming, gently swinging passage echoed here by the Armenian orchestra’s characterful woodwinds. The rhythmically active ‘La Rambla’ was inspired by a visit to Barcelona. What is interesting is how Shor can invoke a string of different cities in this piece and yet his voice remains identifiably his own throughout; and how the juxtaposition of virtuosity with the simplest of statements of a melody can make for a huge effect.

Kozhukhin excelled in ‘Addio’ and showed how he was capable of extracting a remarkably sweet legato from his instrument, and of light playing of the utmost delicacy. No doubting the Parisian fragrances of ‘Luxembourg Garden’ (some ravishing counterpoint in the Armenian orchestra’s strings), and it was here that that sweetness of sound from Kozhukhin really paid off, in tandem with quasi-Impressionist roulades despatched with the utmost ease.

A visit to Ravenna inspired ‘Rubicon’, a movement that proved that Kozhukhin can be as convincing in a single line in octaves as he can be with the most demanding passagework. Shor’s ability to thin textures down to a thread in this movement as he plays with gentle counterpoint reveals the best of his gentle side; solo violin and oboe introduce ‘Sorrow’, by far the most tender, and hushed, movement, where harmonies turn inwards later (a sort of extended Chopinesque shadow). The place of inspiration here was Venice; it is the races at Ascot that fuels the final ‘Horseman’, a galloping finale of infectious rhythm.

A remarkably diverse and inspirational first concert, then. Interesting how, in retrospect, either the Chausson Poème or the initially intended piece, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, both complement Shor’s ‘Phantasms’ beautifully but in very different ways, one underlining the melodious aspect, the other the eternally youthful spirit of Shor’s work.

SECOND CONCERT: Freddy Kempf (piano); Zia Hyunsu Shin (violin); Armenian State Symphony Orchestra / Sergey Smbatyan (conductor). Sport and Concert Complex after Karen Demirchyan, Yerevan, Armenia, 26.9.2020.

Shor – Piano Concerto No. 2, ‘From My Bookshelf’; The Four Seasons of Manhattan for Violin and Orchestra

Pablo de Sarasate – Carmen-Fantasy

… and so to the second concert, held two days later at the same venue. Pianist Freddy Kempf will need no introduction: his discography is justifiably lauded. The world premiere performance of Shor’s Second Piano Concerto, ‘From My Bookshelf’, was given by Nareh Arghamanyan with the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra under Felix Korobov and is available on YouTube. Kempf and Smbatyan’s performance was tighter and more disciplined, by some way. This is another multi-movement work: eight in total this time, extending to a duration of over 35 minutes. During the course of that time, we meet many beloved characters from fiction, the first of which is Cinderella. Kempf played from memory and delivered a performance of supreme alignment with Shor’s thoughts. Interesting to see how Kempf was so still as he played, as if channelling all his impressions through his fingers; no extraneous physical movements needed whatsoever. Ensemble between Kempf and Smbatyan in the Spanish-inflected ‘Don Quixote’ was notably tight, and when Shor’s writing gets ever more involved, at times seeming to invoke a Spanish guitar, Kempf relished every challenge.

Nice to hear wit again in ‘Tom Sawyer’, Kempf relaying the music with a deliciously light touch (as he did in the fifth movement, ‘Queen of Hearts’), but it was in ‘Quasimodo’ that Kempf’s expressivity really surfaced, especially when Shor once more takes the music down to minimal resources, here mere two-voice counterpoint. There is more than a hint of scherzo about ‘d’Artagnan’, brilliantly and spikily realised by Kempf.

All of the characters, with the possible exception of the perhaps lesser known ‘King Matt the First’, are beloved of Western audiences. ‘King Matt the First’ tells the story of a child Prince who becomes King at an early age due to the death of his father, and of his subsequent adventures. Much of Shor’s music can exude a childlike innocence and carefree demeanour that hides the maturity and skill beneath (think Schumann Kinderszenen in this regard). This was a remarkably suave performance of this movement, leading to a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that seems initially to lead us in the direction of Prokofiev’s take on Shakespeare’s great story before ‘correcting’ itself and placing us in decidedly Shor territory.

What it turned out was to be the final piece in the Festival by Shor was The Four Seasons of Manhattan; the very final piece was a terrific performance of Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen-Fantasy, infectious and the perfect close. South Korean violinist Zia Hyunsu Shin boasts the ability to produce harmonics of the utmost purity and a G string that, while not as throaty as some, remains intensely powerful (I believe she plays on a Guadagnini). Shor’s Seasons are bathed in his sense of delight in the act of composition. ‘Summer’ radiates that sense that all is right with the world that the best summers give us all. Zia Hyunsu Shin has an innate musicality that fitted the piece perfectly, so much so I prefer her take to Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s. As the music moves through ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’, Shor strips the music down to its essentials, including a simply lovely duet for solo violin with viola. Shor’s ‘Winter’ certainly feels desolate, with Shin’s high register almost vocal in its power. Balancing this was the outdoor freshness of Shor’s ‘Spring’, Shin soaring over the orchestra.

Our thoughts remain with all those involved in the conflict over the disputed Caucasus Mountains territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which seems to be ongoing at the time of writing. Music remains unique in its power to bond and to heal; one hopes that the soothing strains of Alexey Shor’s music will be heard again soon. In the meantime, we have the upcoming Naxos release of Shor’s Images from the Great Siege and Verdiana to look forward to … not to mention the InClassica Malta International Festival, due in April-May 2021.

Colin Clarke

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