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CD Review

Richard Yardumian

Phoenix 112

Orchestral Works

  • Armenian Suite
  • Symphony #2 "Psalms" *
* Lili Chookasian, contralto
Utah Symphony Orchestra/Varujan Kojian
Phoenix PHCD112: 38:12
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Fine music, well done.

Richard Yardumian, born and died in Philadelphia (1917-85), is an unusual composer for several reasons. In many ways, he remained a local boy. The bulk of recorded performances of his work comes from Philadelphia musicians. With very few connections to New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles (where most attention is paid to composers), he hovered just slightly below the general consciousness of most new music aficionados, despite his appointment for many years as composer in residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Although his music could not have been written in any century before the twentieth, it suffered for several reasons external to the quality of the music itself. First and foremost was its old-fashioned sensibility. Yardumian composed tonally and often modally at a time when the extreme chromaticism of serial dodecaphony had the upper hand, at least polemically. Second, he himself created "a method of composing with twelve tones," different from Schoenberg's and, in general, tonally based. Series were derived by alternating major and minor thirds (similar to the octatonic scale, beloved by early Stravinsky). A basic series, for example, in Yardumian's system would be C-Eb-G-Bb-D-F/F# (these two tones are functionally equivalent in this system)-A-C#-E-Ab-B. I will not forget a scathing review of a recording of Yardumian's work from the Sixties, in which the reviewer went apoplectic over Yardumian's presumption in creating another method. He blew up particularly at the equivalence of F and F#, snapping out the obvious - that they are not the same pitch. In short, the man demonstrated a willful ignorance and an incapability of coming to grips with the artist on the artist's terms. Of course, a system means very little in any case. The music produced is the most significant thing about a composer, not how he went about producing it.

Third - and I believe fairly important - comes Yardumian's religious sensibility, perhaps even a naïvely religious sensibility. He more than once called Bach his favorite composer. His remarks on artistic coherence tended toward the cosmological, rather than toward the nuts and bolts of writing. Major works in his catalogue have an overtly religious inspiration: the two symphonies, Chorale-Prélude: Veni Creator Spiritus, The Story of Abraham (for me, his finest work), Missa "Veni Creator Spiritus", and the Cantus Animae et Cordis. I very strongly suspect, however, that even more abstract works like the violin concerto and the Passacaglia, Recitative, and Fugue for piano and orchestra have some religious "program" at their base. Allied to a post-Romantic and epic artistic voice, I think this kind of expression obviously went against the positivist and existentialist temper of the times. Despite the championship of Ormandy and John Ogdon, Yardumian's music has yet to catch on. This doesn't mean that it won't. In fact, I hope that it does catch on and that all it needs is greater exposure. I discovered him through an Ormandy recording from, I think, the Fifties and instantly stuck. That attraction has remained from then until now. I believe a composer of great power and originality waits for us all to catch up with him.

Yardumian often took many years to compose his works. Often, one finds more than one version of the same thing. The two pieces here are no exceptions and show his considerable reworkings. The Armenian Suite began as a piano morceau of one the movements. He finished most of the rest (including the original piano piece) as an orchestral suite during the Thirties. In the Fifties, Ormandy asked for yet another movement, finding Yardumian's then-finale insufficiently conclusive. Yardumian supplied a barn-burner. The work as it now stands is a gem. Probably because it's an early work, its influences sound out rather clearly: early Stravinsky, Soviet Prokofieff, Borodinish orientalia, and here and there a bit of Blochian meditation. Among all these other voices, one also hears something quite original - a melancholy, contemplative singing, tinged with Middle Eastern melismata.

Yardumian's idiom differs from other well-known composers who use Armenian folk materials. Khachaturian, for example, applies Armenian folk material as decorative color. I doubt it would differ much from any other Soviet composer's appropriation of such material. On the other hand, Hovhaness, a composer of aspirations more in tune with Yardumian's, employs Armenian material and history as basic elements of his art. Nevertheless, he seems in comparison to Yardumian so mystical as to be disconnected from life on earth. As he goes on, he reaches out to other Eastern mystical traditions. He winds up with as much connection to Hinduism and Zen as to Armenia. Very few of us, however, routinely visit Nirvana. Our lives are a bit messier and smaller than the great cosmic wheel. Yardumian's music may aspire to serenity, but it also struggles for it.

Of course, the idiom is far more than folk music arranged. It's fair to say that Yardumian gives back the spirit rather than the letter. We find also a fascination with Baroque counterpoint and modal melodies from Gregorian chant to Appalachian folk tunes. We can see all this clearly in the mature Symphony #2. Again, the work began life as something else - a setting for tenor and orchestra of Psalm 130 (by the way, Ormandy recorded this in the monophonic era of the early Fifties). Yardumian intended from the outset to make this part of a "symphony of psalms." When he finally mentioned his plan to Ormandy, the conductor, wanting to work with Lili Chookasian, persuaded him to write the whole thing instead for contralto, which Yardumian did. One can make the case for it as a symphony: a more-or-less sonata first movement and a giant Prélude-and-fugue second. However, it seems to me less a symphony than something like Bernstein's Jeremiah is, and I could probably nit-pick it past the point of caring. In general, it comes across as a "straightforward" setting of Psalms 24, 27, 95, 121, and of course 130. One also hears quotations of the chorale "Aus tiefer Not," perhaps a tip of the hat to Bach.

The symphony does not entirely escape the charge that it tends to fall into sections, although clearly Yardumian works with and varies a small set of basic themes. The performing coherence of it is the responsibility of the conductor. Furthermore, what marvelous sections! The remarkable opening from the orchestra reminds one of bells on the wind. There are mighty fugal passages, an incantatory euphonium solo - the shofar calling the faithful to worship - and a long-reaching march that concludes the work. However, the passage that impressed me the most was an unaccompanied vocal cadenza in the second movement. It risks much - most basic, the question whether the soloist will stay on pitch. Also, without the color of the orchestra, will the audience wink out, particularly since Yardumian writes a genuine symphonic-concerto cadenza, one which summarizes and recombines the basic themes, rather than a sensuous tune.

Yardumian had the great fortune of Ormandy as his chief conductor. Ormandy may have had his faults (and what conductor doesn't?), but he also had the one thing needful: the ability to tell the musical tale. He brought out the "narrative" thread of a work like few others of his day. In this regard, I believe he stands with Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Furtwängler, Barbirolli, Bernstein, and Szell. It's an art rare at any time and not much in evidence these days among the current crop of eminent conductors, perhaps because so few of them trained in opera. If you can find Ormandy's Yardumian recordings, snap them up. Kojian does very well indeed. The Armenian Suite crackles and sings. Kojian doesn't lose the coherence of the symphony, but mainly because he takes it at a brisker clip than Ormandy, at the expense of a certain grandeur. Chookasian surpasses her own performance on the première recording (Columbia MS6859). Her weakness is usually her diction, her usual strength that she is a genuine contralto with a tone that puts me in mind of Mount Rushmore. This isn't a mere mezzo with some low notes. On the new recording, she sings with a fabulous musical understanding of Yardumian's lines - how they get from here to there. Her performance of the cadenza grabs you from beginning to end.

The sound is better than I expected - fine, in fact. My one complaint is that we get only a shameful 38 minutes of music on the CD. This raises an unnecessary barrier to potential buyers. If I didn't already know Yardumian's music, I'd certainly think twice. Nevertheless, I urge those who enjoy big-breathing post-Romantic music to take a chance. Try checking Berkshire Record Outlet (http://www.broinc.com) for a break on price.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet