Friday, February 5, 2016

Richard Yardumian - Violin Concerto - Symphony No. 2 for Medium Voice & Orchestra, "Psalms" - Armenian Suite - Nancy Maultsby, mezzo - Alexandr Bulov, Violin - Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui - BIS 2002

Richard Yardumian (1917-1985) was an Armenian-American composer (his parents emigrated to the United States from Armenia ten years before Richard was born) who wrote music that is accessible and lyrical, incorporating Armenian folksong into a sweepingly gestured, Western symphonic style. All three works here are wonderful, from the Violin Concerto which is both contemplative and ecstatically big-boned to the gorgeous Symphony No. 2 "Psalms" which has always impressed me. There are many gloriously explosive movements that recall the masterpiece that is Vaughan William's "A Sea Symphony". So, imho this is really an all around knock-out.

Richard Yardumian was born on April 5th, 1917 in Philadelphia, and this remained his home town until his death in 1985. His musical education was unusual: he learned a considerable amount of classical repertoire by listening when his brother Elijah, who was studying at the Curtis Institute, was practicing the piano at home, and he heard the folksongs of Armenia sung by his parents. But he did not study music in earnest until he was 22, when he began lessons in harmony with William Happich, counterpoint with Alexander Matthews and piano with George Boyle. Although as a composer he was largely self-taught, his musical style was influenced by the exploration of ancient Armenian and regional American composers. By the mid-1940s, Yardumian's music had attracted the attention of such famous conductors as Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, who encouraged and supported the young composer's work. The association with Ormandy was particularly fruitful as it led to a close, long-term collaboration between Yardumian and the Philadelphia Orchestra. (In fact, all the works included on this disc were premiered by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.)

Though Yardumian’s music is identifiably of the twentieth century, it has suffered from being seen as somewhat old-fashioned; even though he developed "a method of composing with twelve tones" which differed from that of Schoenberg in being in general, tonally based. Perhaps the times were "out of step" with his religious preoccupations (not unlike Hovhaness, but to a lesser degree), a factor which, to today's listener, makes the music all the more interesting. Since he had few connections in the major American musical centers of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, his music is less well known, even in America, than it deserves. Despite the championship of Ormandy and the great pianist John Ogdon, Yardumian's music has yet to really catch on (other than a few cds his music is documented on vinyl, and there's not really that much on lp either).  

The three-movement Violin Concerto (1949, rev. 1960, third movement revised in 1985) is based on a number of intervallic and rhythmic points of interest. Loudly insistent sonorities supported by C sharp and G sharp in the lower registers, accompanied by fleeing semi-quavers with melodic leaps of thirds, punctuate the opening. Very soon a plaintive descending line is heard in the solo horn, followed by strong lines in the strings, and later in the winds. Another loud tutti entry paves the way for the soloist's very first entry, with chordal support from the woodwinds, strings and brass until the end of the movement. "Soliloquy" might have been a more appropriate description of the solo part; even the cadenza, which arrives rather early in the movement, is rather plaintive and expressive in form. The soloist's line is characterized by leaps of thirds, twisted in chromaticism, and contrasts with the largely chordal support which pervades the entire movement.

The second movement pursues a similar line of enquiry; a cadenza for the soloist makes an early entry with block vertical sonorities for support, and the demands again are more expressive than technical. More than midway through the movement, however, the orchestral texture becomes richer with the woodwinds, brass and strings playing out a web of unison lines and sonorities. Plaintive lines replace this short-lived texture, first in a further solo cadenza and then in orchestral solo lines from the trombones, trumpets, violins and violas. Like the first movement, this one ends quietly.

The motoric pursuit of a motif – rhythmically and intervallically – sets the third movement apart from the rest with its quick pace and increasing virtuosic demands – not only on the soloist, whose passages are curiously not marked "cadenza" in this movement, but also on the orchestral forces. The perception of C sharp and F sharp in the movements of this work as significant pitches of focus, the linearity of melodic configuration and the seemingly unrelated vertical sonorities are characteristic of the modality not only of a distant past but also of Yardumian's compositional strategy in the Violin Concerto.

Yardumian's individual style, a system of melody and harmony based on the chromatic inflection of the intervals of major and minor thirds, coupled with religious fervour and mysticism – characterizes almost all his music. This is most telling in his two symphonies. The Symphony No. 2, subtitled "Psalms", features a vocal soloist (mezzo-soprano, alto or baritone). The first version, written in 1947, was premiered in the 1950s under the title "Psalm 130" for Tenor and Orchestra. In the second version (1964) a substantial movement lasting more than twice as long as the first was added. Stylistically speaking, however, there are few perceptible differences in idiom between two movements. The symphony is, in effect, a richly orchestrated song cycle with arresting melodic lines. The first movement is characterized by a hushed orchestral entry based on a C sharp/B cluster before the vocal entry, which is characterized by chromatically inflected modality. Recitative-like gestures by the euphonium, and later the horns, distinguish this movement in which the vocal line is closely, but not identically, shadowed by the first violins. There is a deliberate attempt by Yardumian to define 'space' for the vocal soloist, and the orchestration is carefully maintained in order not to overshadow that balance.

The second movement is notable for a relatively more mellifluous vocal line, although the modality is unmistakable. The orchestra is given a more prominent role here, and holds for the most part a steady, stately rhythmic pulse. Orchestral textures and modal clashes of major and minor thirds in this movement recall a style not far removed from Vaughan Williams. The vocal cadenza towards the end of this movement is to be understood from Yardumian's perspective, which has little to do with virtuosic display. In fact, the directions in the score read: "Perhaps the best way to interpret this cadenza is that it be sung as a mother to an infant (as an ancient song)". As in the Violin Concerto, C sharp and F sharp as pitches of focus in the work affirm the modal quality, but the chromatic inflection of the modal line and the use of the third intervals are Yardumian's.

Yardumian's Armenian Suite is, in conception, an early work. The suite started out as a small piece for piano based on an Armenian lullaby. The composer orchestrated this, adding five other movements in 1937. In 1954 the suite attained its present seven movements after Eugene Ormandy had asked for a new conclusion to the work. This resulted in the splendid Finale, the seventh movement of the suite, which is much more extended than the other, generally quite brief movements. The various movements of the suite, some (wildly) festive, some meditative to the point of melancholy, combine Armenian influences (all the folk-songs included in the suite are genuinely Armenian) with seemingly Middle Eastern melodic elements as well as various Western musical influences. The results variously tear at the heartstrings and give rise to a sense of elation, not to mention providing lovely solos for almost all the section leaders. This is a piece that surely no one could resist for its range of emotions and its sheer beauty, all contained in a minimal space.

Enjoy everyone!


Stephen Peithman said...

Thank you so much for this!

Marcelo Lasta said...

Graaaaaaaaaacias otro discazo,golazo full,gracias Master Tzadik!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jim said...

Yardumian has sort of fallen out of sight these days - I didn't know BIS made this recording - Bravo! It's too bad his First Symphony has not made it to CD as equally impressive as his 2nd. Both Ormandy and Brusilow (former concertmaster for Ormandy) made Lp's of it. Thanks for this one.

Tzadik said...

Hi there Stephen, it's nice to hear from you. I'm happy you like the Yardumian, it's really buried treasure. One can only hope that the great Naxos or perhaps a label like Toccata will take up the composer's cause.


Tzadik said...

Buen fin de semana Doc T! Espero que estés bien. Este es un descubrimiento masivo, no? Se pone mejor con cada escucha, y es glorioso desde el inicio. Cualquier noticias de Argentina?

Su amigo de la tierra de la "supuestamente libre",


Tzadik said...

Jim, thank you for your comments. BIS really hit the bullseye with this recording. I don't have any LPs of Yardumian's music regrettably. I wish I could find someone who has them! I think his Symphony No. 1 might be up on youtube, but I will have to check. Enjoy the music friend.


Paul Pearman said...

Thank you for bringing another Armenian composer to our attention.

So much great music from Armenia. What is their secret?

Again thanks

Paul P.

cjvinthechair said...

Yes - great recording. Got a reasonable amount of his; 1st Symphony on now...must be from an LP on You Tube.
So, so many marvellously listenable American (yes, & Armenian !) composers. Love Schuman & Hovhaness from more 'mainstream' group, but also others like Asia, Argento, Manookian, Maslanka,Rouse, Van de Vate, Zwilich...& of course Yardumian.
Well done indeed for championing him here !

Toon van Dijk said...

Many thanks and regards from The Netherlands.
Veel dank en groeten uit Nederland.

Tzadik said...

Hi, Paul, you are very welcome! Hmm...their secret is, of course, ...I don't know lol. The musical history of Armenia is a rich one, with ancient Armenian music being an extremely early example of highly crafted music-making. Add to this the strong folk-song traditions, and the plight of the Armenian people over the centuries, with music playing an important role as a spiritual escape - and you get music that is highly emotional, original, often "exotic" to the western ear, and well simply wonderful :-)


Tzadik said...

Thx for writing Toon, you are welcome@