Here's an extremely fine disc of music by the Azerbaijani composer Fikret Amirov. This recording from the magnificent ASV label was my introduction into Amirov's magical and exotically scented sound world . This is a request from Aggelos, who is clearly as insane about this rarified branch of composition from the far reaches of the former Soviet Union as I am.
The appearance of works written in European symphonic genres is still a relatively
recent phenomenon in the music of Azerbaijan. The introduction of a single artistic doctrine by Stalin during the 1930s demanded a uniform culture for the entire Soviet Union. In music it was to be based on the genres and traditions of the Russian classics, but it was also to be "socialist in content and national in form". This doctrine was applied quite indiscriminately to all the republics of the former Soviet Union, even where no such traditions even existed. As a result, the development of music in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and the Central Asian republics, whose musical traditions were often more closely associated with the Islamic world, underwent a synthesis.
The traditional music of Azerbaijan was embodied in the art of the ashug, a folk singer who has mastered the classical melodies and who is highly skilled in the art of improvisation and declamation (something akin to the art of the Meistersinger in Germany). Seven principle modes form the basis of the ancient musical system; the rast, shur, segah (these are the most important) and the shushter, bayaty-shiraz, chargah, and khumayun. One of the highest achievements of the folk tradition in Azerbaijan from the eleventh to sixteenth centuries was the 'mugam'. This unique form was clearly imported from neighboring Persia and is closely associated with the Arabic 'maqam' and the Turkish 'maqom'.
The synthesis of the old traditional music and Western forms was the hallmark of Azerbaijani music in the twentieth century and Uzeir Gadzhibekov with his early operatic setting of "Leyli and Mejnun" (1908) is often considered to be its founder. In orchestral music the first generation of modern Azerbaijani composers (1920s and 1930s) included Abdul Muslim Magomayev and Asaf Zeynally. More influential, perhaps, were the composers of the next generation: Kara Karayev, Niyazi, Rauf Gadzhiyev and Fikret Airov who were all active during the 1940s to 1960s.
Fikret Amirov was born in 1922 in Gyandzha (Kirovabad), a major city in western Azerbaijan which was particularly renowned as a center for the art of the mugam. The son of Meshadi Djamil Amirov, the noted singer and performer on the tar (a stringed instrument with a long neck), the future composer was immersed in the folk traditions of his native country from childhood. He was educated at the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire and was a pupil of Boris Zeydman (who had in turn been a pupil of Maksimilian Shteynberg, the son-in-law of Rimsky-Korsakov). In later life he occupied important positions, including the directorship of the Azerbaijan Theater of Opera and Ballet, and Secretary of the Azerbaijani Union of Composers. His first notable success as a composer was the first two of his three symphonic mugams which both date from 1948 and for which he was awarded the Stalin Prize in that same year.
The traditional mugam can be described as a large vocal and instrumental cycle with contrasting parts of an improvisatory character. Typically, it contains a tensif (a song in stanza form) and a reng (a dance-like instrumental episode). In his Symphonic Mugams Amirov strives to recreate some of the specific features of the genre through the consistent use of the eastern modes, but he also took the Russian orchestral tradition as his model. The composition of Amirov's orchestra closely resembles that used by Rimsky-Korsakov in the 1880s and 1890s, and the influence of the Russian composer can often be felt (the treatment of the second 'tesnif' theme in Mugam No. 1). Like Rimsky-Korsakov in such works as the "Capriccio Espagnol", Amirov makes extensive use of virtuoso solos skillfully highlighted against a richly harmonized background; similarly, he effectively varies his orchestral textures, and is sensitive to the use of color and timbre. On the other hand, Amirov can create unusual effects which belong to other sound worlds: the use of parallel intervals and chords (a feature often to be found in the music of Khachaturian), and the distinctive and eerie combination of solo piccolo and clarinet (often the bass clarinet) which will be found in all the works on this disc. Each of the two symphonic mugams has its own specific character: the first is more rhapsodic, whilst the second is more compact and dynamic. The themes in both pieces are at times strikingly similar however (the theme at the very end of the Shur-Shakhnaz, Mugam No. 1, and the one which occurs eight bars after the entry of the piano in Mugam No. 2, or the main theme of of the second tesnif, Mugam No. 1, and the Mani theme, Mugam No. 2). In his treatment of these themes Amirov shows a masterly skill in variation form.
The "Azerbaijan Capriccio" dates from 1961-62 and it highlights a rather different facet of Amirov's style. There is little in the opening of this work to suggest a capriccio in the traditional sense. On the contrary, it is stark, menacing and urgent, driven forward by a commanding theme announced by the horns, trombones and tuba. The feeling of intense disquiet is maintained by restless syncopation in the brass and by the caviling of the woodwind. It is the violas (moderato cantabile) accompanied by two chords on the vibraphone which break the tension. The capriciousness and the almost surging passion of this of this new section, together with the dazzling interplay between the various sections of the orchestra, must surely have suggested to the composer the title of the work. The opening section makes a brief reappearance and the work ends on a note of high drama.
The "Symphonic Dances" date from 1963-64, and the work was dedicated to Khachaturian. The five movement form a dance suite which is remarkable for its color and vitality. The opening "Dance of Joy" has all the exuberance of a fair or carnival. The "Girl's Dance" begins with a languorous theme on solo flute over a rhythmic pizzicato on the cellos but the colors soon darken with the addition of the low woodwind and timpani. The "Dance Caprice" is characterized by its strange, angular rhythms and distinctive use of eastern modal scales. In "The Yalli Round Dance" there is a wonderful contrast between the slow melancholic theme for the cor anglais with its pizzicato accompaniment and the delightful middle section which is scored for the brass alone; here the composer seems to be imitating the style of early Stravinksy, or so this listener believes. The final dance is the exciting "Dance of the Djigits", a musical portrayal of the famous horsemen from the Caucasus mountains who are renowned for their skill and courage. Tremendous listening....
Enjoy the sounds of the mountains and villages..