This contemplative requiem mass is stripped back to suit a choir and strings. It has an Armenian heart with a personal twist.
Time: 8 tracks/ 45 mins
Label: ECM Records
Mansurian is widely regarded to be Armenia’s greatest composer, who has written orchestral, piano and chamber music, as well as film scores (he scored the acclaimed The Colour of Pomegranates, which was recently restored from Soviet edits and is due out on Blu-ray this November).
This work was a struggle for him on two counts: it is dedicated to the victims of the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915-17, which affected his family “in the most direct way.” It has also had to be a melding of both musical traditions and theological ones.
Armenia is part of the Orthodox tradition, so there are tensions with using a Roman Catholic text – for example, while Catholics understand the soul to go immediately to an eternal destination, Armenians believe that there will be a period of waiting until Christ’s return. Furthermore, Mansurian says that Armenian ears hear a European (for example, Bach’s) Kyrie less like a prayer and “more like a demand to the Almighty.” This will plainly affect how a requiem mass is written.
Add the musical cultural differences and the problem becomes more acute. Mansurian has resolved the problems by first dramatically reducing the text (it now loses most of the “Dies Irae”) and then keeping a more Armenian tone to the music.
That said, it does not sound at all odd to Western ears. Far from it – scored for 35-strong choir and 20-piece string orchestra, it is a simpler form, with a four-part chorus as the norm and solo episodes (as in the “Tuba Mirum”). So a combination of Armenian modality and Mansurian’s more minimal approach create a more peaceful piece.
Although stabbing strings forcefully puncture the sombre beauty of this work in the “Dies Irae” (and that is naturally true to the text), generally the sound is quietly dignified. Slow lines echo around the church in which it was recorded like monastic chant.
So the majestic of Europe (away go the brass and organ) gives way to the contemplative of Asia and - with the usual impeccable ECM recording quality - by eschewing some of the grander orchestral modes that we are familiar with, and featuring more solo singing (here baritone Andrew Redmond and soprano Anje Petersen), Mansurian has created a thoughtful work with far more personal resonance.
It is a most impressive achievement.