Armenia and Dante Alighieri joined hands, in the 1930s, through the Russian poet Ósip Mandelstam. Now they have been found again in the staves of Mansurian tiger (Beirut, 82 years old). The great Armenian composer premiered, last Sunday, July 4, his last composition at the end of the concert conducted by Riccardo Muti (Naples, 79 years old) at the Yerevan Opera. A cantata titled Purgatory ending with a baritone praying whisper He already capels the Dantesque paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, as a longing for a peace “that we are not enough to achieve, if it does not go, with all our ingenuity.” A whole declaration of intentions in a country where even the stones scream his name and the mountains call arms hoarse, as evoked by the verses of Mandelstam.
Armenia continues to await widespread international recognition (also from Spain) of the terrible genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in the context of the First World War. More than two million murdered and more than 50 million displaced (Mansurian’s own family had to take refuge in Libya). A tragedy that not only helped to coin the term “genocide” in 1944, but also served as a grim model for Hitler’s plans in Poland. But Armenia is also recovering from the painful wounds of a recent war against Azerbaijan for control of Nagorno Karabakh. A contest that he lost, last November, and that has left more victims in this small country, in less than two months, than during the coronavirus pandemic so far.
For that reason, it was emotional to hear from the new Minister of Education, Science, Culture and Sport of the Republic of Armenia, Vahram Dumanyan, talk about the spiritual need for music, “to be better, stronger and feel proud”. And compare the new composition of Mansurián with “a victory that we all need to hear, as it will lead us to an even greater victory.” He then read the concession from the president of the country, both to Riccardo Muti and to his wife, Cristina Mazzavillani Muti, as honorary president of the Ravenna Festival, of the Order of Friendship for their contribution to cultural cooperation between Armenia and Italy.
The concert was part of the Caminos de la Amistad program of the Ravenna Festival. Summer pilgrimages that Muti has carried out annually, since 1997, to cities wounded by war, terrorism, humanitarian problems or natural disasters, to build a brotherhood through music, which began, in Sarajevo, after the Bosnian War. EL PAÍS accompanied Muti, in the 2018 edition, which was held in Ukraine, and where John Malkovich acted as narrator, together with the Italian director, in a massive concert in the Santa Sofia square in Kiev. The last two editions have been held in Athens and in the Paestum Archaeological Park, due to the impossibility of traveling to Damascus. And this year the destination has been Yerevan.
Muti already directed, in 2001, this annual concert in the Armenian capital. Then the 1700 years of Christianity were commemorated in a country where biblical exegetes locate the Garden of Eden and where Mount Ararat is located, the place where Noah’s ark rested after the universal flood. “I still remember the silence and the intense emotion that we experienced at the Yerevan Palace of Art and Sports with Verdi,” Muti recalls in the playbill. On that occasion he led the La Scala Philharmonic, and now returns, 20 years later, with the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, which has joined forces with several string musicians from the National Philharmonic and the State Chamber Choir of Armenia. On this occasion, to the universal capacity of music to facilitate understanding between countries, the poetry of Dante has been added. In fact, the celebration of the seventh centenary of his death is the central focus in the programming of this edition of the Ravenna Festival.
Among the many events related to this Dantean anniversary, three new works, commissioned from current composers, stand out, related to the three parts of the Divine Comedy. On June 10, Kristjan Järvi directed the premiere of Six studies on Dante’s Inferno for countertenor, choir and orchestra, by the Italian Giovanni Sollima, at the Rocca Brancaleone. And on July 9th, the work dedicated to the Paradise, titled Oh eternal light!, by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. The cantata Purgatory, by Tigrán Mansurián, will be able to be heard again in Ravenna, on September 12, within the closing concert of the Dante celebrations. But its absolute premiere was reserved for the concert the day before yesterday at the Yerevan Opera.
Muti, who is about to celebrate his 80th birthday, has recognized his personal interest in Mansurián: “It is clear that putting music to Dante’s verses is a challenge (it was for Verdi in Praise the Virgin Mary, his Four sacred pieces), but this new composition shows that music can still be written that expresses the richness of such an elusive text ”. The Armenian composer himself has declared these days that he felt a great responsibility for this commission, whose composition he began three times and only managed to complete after a fourth draft. But he also recognized the feeling of dealing with a gigantic figure, like Dante, of whom we are all children in some way. “It was necessary to reduce the staff due to the complications related to the pandemic and I took the opportunity to rewrite the work with a solo baritone, mixed choir, string orchestra and percussion. I consider this version to be the one that best reflects my world of sound ”, added the composer.
Mansurián’s music has an unmistakable aroma, halfway between neoclassicism, minimalism and atonality. It is full of timbral nuances, lyrical contrasts and great rhythmic precision, although it is its connection with Armenian sacred music and the vocal traditions of Komitas Vardapet (the patriarch of national music) that give it an unmistakable expressiveness and concentration. The composer focuses on two fragments of the Purgatory: the invocation of the muses, of the first song, and the aforementioned paraphrase of the Our father, of the eleventh. Both are connected with a brief note from the solo baritone: “Dice Dante Alighieri.” But the composition, which lasts almost half an hour, stands out for its unity, despite spacing out its components. It is clear, at the beginning, with a rhapsodic and mysterious cello solo that imposes itself on the thickness of the string, or with the lead baritone in front of the meditative a cappella polyphonic texture of the chorus. In fact, it is the percussion (tam-tam, cymbals, bells, vibraphone and timpani) that is the element of cohesion in the passage from one texture to the next.
At the premiere, Muti made use of his ability to direct the music of Shostakovich, a composer who can also be heard in the distance on these Mansurian staves. Armenian baritone Gurgen Baveyan shone in his solos alongside the 30 members of the State Chamber Choir. And the first cello of the Italian orchestra, Ilario Fantone, was in charge of performing the solo parts, although Mansurián thought that part for his friend and colleague Giovanni Sollima. The performance delved into sonic nudity and impressionist colorism, which spiritually elevated this transformation into music of Dante’s verses. Precisely, in Colloquium on Dante, by Ósip Mandelstam, we read that same consideration of Dante’s songs as a musical score for orchestra. Even the Russian poet proposes specific instrumentations for some passages, such as a cello solo “dense and heavy, like stale and poisoned honey” for Count Ugolino’s narration, from the thirty-third canto of the Hell.
To complete this edition of Paths of Friendship, Muti designed a program that fit perfectly with Mansurian’s spirituality, albeit from Viennese classicism. Three rare religious works by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert that preceded the aforementioned premiere, after the official hymns of Armenia and Italy. It started with the Te Deum for Empress Maria Teresa, Hob. XXIIIc: 2, which Haydn composed between 1798 and 1800. Muti’s version gained a lot in development, with that operatic shift from luminous C major to dark C minor, which alludes to the passion of Christ with the sounds of the oratorio The creation. Despite the distancing imposed by the pandemic, the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra stood out more in the Kyrie in D minor, by Mozart, with the decisive leadership of Valentina Benfenati as concertino. An astonishing composition from 1781, in which he premiered Idomeneo, although the tonality and dramatic atmosphere bring it closer to Don Giovanni and to Requiem.
However, it was the third work, the Mass no. 2 in G major, D. 167, by Schubert, the highlight of the night. Muti was able to highlight the admirable unity of the work, halfway between the Viennese sacred tradition and the lied. In fact, he opted for the traditional version with soloists, chorus, string, trumpet and timpani. A composition, from 1815, in which an 18-year-old Schubert pays homage to Beethoven, with an allusion to the chorus of the prisoners of Fidelio in the I think. In this work we could also listen to the three vocal soloists of the concert, both the Armenians Nina Minasyan and the aforementioned Gurgen Baveyan, as well as the Italian tenor Giovanni Sala. But the best thing about the mass was the melancholic Lamb of God final, where the young composer shows his expressive mastery with dramatic introductions of the string, which the Armenian soprano raised up to two times. A lyrical-light powerful high note that debuted in Spain, in 2017, within the second cast of The golden rooster, by Rimsky-Kórsakov, at the Royal Theater.
It has been two intense days of music in Yerevan, a modern capital where the low incidence of the coronavirus makes masks something exclusive to tourists. And, especially, with temperatures above 40º in the central part of the day. In fact, Armenian musical life develops outside the usual restrictions in most countries of the world. It could be verified, in part, in the Muti concert, but even more so in the evening organized in his honor, within the festival Yerevan Perspectives, by the National Philharmonic of Armenia and its owner Eduard Topchjan, on Saturday, July 3. A program with works by Beethoven and Berlioz, in the Aram Jachaturián concert hall, where the orchestra and the audience maintained distances and behaviors prior to the pandemic.
However, the most interesting of that evening was the performance of the Russian pianist trained in Italy, Maya Oganyan, 15 years old, who offered a version full of musical personality and sonic exquisiteness of the Third Piano Concertoby Beethoven. A distinction that he maintained even in the selection of the tip. Far from finishing her performance with any virtuous piece to delight the public, the young woman opted for the Mozartian tribute entitled The messengerby Valentin Silvéstrov. An echo of the past, seen from the present and played by a pianist with an interesting future.