Those who follow closely the recordings produced by Manfred Eicher for his ECM New Series label are likely to be aware of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian. His music has been recorded by soloists such as violinist Leonidas Kavakos and violist Kim Kashkashian and by ensembles such as the Münchener Kammerorchester. Those examples may suggest that he is particularly in his comfort zone when writing for strings, and a new CD released at the end of last month will further warrant that claim.
This is another recording that features two string soloists, both of whom have a very impressive recording history in working with recent compositions. They are violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Anja Lechner; and they perform with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta conducted by Candida Thompson (who also serves as Concertmaster). The title of the album is Quasi parlando, which is also the title of one of the tracks, a short piece for cello and string orchestra, dedicated to Lechner and completed in 2012. That title refers to a particular approach to performance in which properties such as tempo, phrase articulation, and dynamic contour are guided more by the properties of speech than by conventional vocal or instrumental performing styles.
Lechner’s solo track is preceded by another short piece, this one, entitled simply “Romance,” written for Kopatchinskaja in 2011. If Mansurian’s rhetorical stance suggests a certain degree of ordinariness in his style, that suggestion is decidedly defeated by the intense expressiveness that both soloists put into interpreting his work. What is distinctive is how low-key so much of the substance is. The almost muted rhetoric of these two short solos can also be found in the two concertos that begin and end the recording, a much earlier (1978) double concerto for both violin and cello and the second violin concerto, composed in 2006 with the descriptive title “Four Serious Songs.” What this means is that any moment when the dynamic level actually rises to forte tends to be almost fiercely significant, and the interplay between both soloists and Thompson’s direction is always impressive in summoning that significance.
At a time when so many compositions for string instruments pursue a rhetoric of sonorities involving just about any way one can get a sound from any of the instrument’s parts, Mansurian’s work is particularly distinguished for relegating all attentiveness to the notes and the thematic lines they unfold. This is not to say that he is not aware of the power of diverse sonorities; but he tends to find his way to that power through means that are subtle, rather than overt. Thus, some of his most affecting moments may involve little more than bowing without vibrato.
This is a composer that definitely deserves the considerable attention that Eicher and the performers working with him have chosen to devote.