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CD Review

Tigran Mansurian

String Quartets

  • String Quartet #1
  • String Quartet #2
  • Testament
Rosamunde Quartett
ECM New Series 1905 (476305-2) DDD 49:26
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Without rhetorical flourishes, gimmickry, or even the expedient of striking internal contrasts, the two string quartets of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian nevertheless grip and communicate. Both were written in the 1980s in memory of friends who had passed away. With slow tempos predominating, they are sober, even solemn works, but hardly funereal, and never monotonous. In fact, in the serious way in which they work through their musical materials, there is something rather life-affirming about them. They are like small plants struggling to grow and shoot out tiny leaves in spite of the weakness of the sun's rays and the lack of nutrients in the soil. The accompanying booklet notes allude to the hard-won (i.e., not facile) simplicity of Mansurian's language. This is not to be confused with minimalism; to be sure, Mansurian limits himself, but there is nothing even remotely formulaic about the way in which his music unfolds over time. Especially in the First String Quartet and in the brief Testament (the work of a single day in 2004, and dedicated to ECM's producer and guardian spirit Manfred Eicher), melodies feel their way along as if they were an extension of human speech. Short and by themselves largely unremarkable phrases are passed from instrument to instrument. Even the intervals between successive notes tend to be small, as if the musicians were engaged in conversation and were not quite sure of the direction in which the conversation was going. The whole is very much more than the sum of its parts. Mansurian's music impresses us with its natural quality, its sincerity, and its seriousness, and paradoxically, by its very reluctance to impress.

Mansurian was born in 1939 and spent the first several years of his life in Beirut before his family returned to Yerevan. Starting in 1960, he taught at the state conservatory there, where he became the director in 1990. He no longer holds that position, however, preferring to write music instead. This is the third ECM disc to feature his music, after 2003's "Hayren" (ECM New Series 1754) and 2004's "Monodia" (ECM New Series 1850/51).

The Rosamunde Quartett was founded in 1991, and also has recorded several discs for ECM. Its members are violinists Andreas Reiner and Simon Fordham, violist Helmut Nicolai, and cellist Anja Lechner. The musicians worked closely with Mansurian in preparation for this recording, and it is difficult to see how the performances could be better. The commitment of the Rosamunde Quartett is never in doubt. The engineering allows sufficient air around the instruments, and is vivid without sensationalism. A long booklet note by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich adds the perfect finishing touch to this release.

Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle