Various Artists, The Music of Armenia: Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 6

Celestial Harmonies
Released: 1996

Listen and Buy at Narek

Arizona-based Celestial Harmonies released a sweeping anthology of Armenian music back in 1996. I've already reviewed the two-disk Volume 5; here are brief reviews of the other disks in the series (save volume 4, which I don't own).

Volume 1, Sacred Choral MusicI don't know much about sacred choral music, save what I hear when my wife watches the Pope's Christmas Mass. But one does not need to know anything about this musical style to appreciate the sincere beauty of these recordings, which were made in the early 1990s at the Holy Echmiadzin Cathedral and the Geghard Monastery in Armenia. The term "choral" means, quite simply, voices (aka, no instruments). However, the final five tracks feature organ accompaniment. Even in those cases, however, the music's focus is on the many voices singing praise to God. The music is reminiscent of Gregorian Chants; however, as the liner notes to this release make very clear, there is a very specific difference between Armenian and Catholic chants: something called "modes." Since I'm no expert on these mode things, I'm going to ignore that and just take their word that this is unique, highly complex music that deserves a wider audience. Frankly, that stuff is interesting but unimportant in the long run. What really matters is the music itself and one's reaction to that music. My reaction to this music is one of tranquility. It's beautiful, peaceful, and spiritually uplifting (and this from an agnostic).

Volume 2, Sharakan / Medieval Music This disk is probably my favorite in the entire series. It features several varieties of liturgical chants and a whole host of folk and classical songs from Armenia's medieval period (which began in the 5th century and continued into the 13th and 14th centuries). Technically, most of these works are called "chants," but these seem much less sacred and austere than the music on volume one. There's instrumental accompaniment on nearly every song, and the instruments seem just as important as the vocals for the most part. Likewise, the subject matter here seems a bit more "earthy," even pagan-esque, with most songs referencing nature (like "Chinar es" or "You are a plane tree"). These nature references are probably metaphorical, but the referent could be God or it could be a lover. Of course, I don't speak Armenian, so I learned this stuff by studying the liner notes. Again, what counts is the music, and, in this case, the music is as good as any I've ever heard. I'll say that again: this music is as good as any I've ever heard. I'm thinking Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Billie Holliday, The Beatles, Hot Hot Heat, whatever: this stuff stands among all of it. It's immensely satisfying music, with beautiful melodies, delicate instrumentation, abrupt changes of tone, joy, peace, happiness, delight--everything that makes music so special. If you want to get one disk from this series, then I would strongly recommend that you get this one.

Volume 3, Duduk If you've been reading my other reviews, you'll know that I'm a duduk fanatic. This disk is performed by Gevorg Dabaghyan, whose Miniatures is reviewed on this site. This disk was released several years before Miniatures, but it shares much in common with that later disk. They are so similar, in fact, that I don't really think I need to examine this disk in too much detail. Read my other review, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what you'll find here. If I had to pick only one disk to buy, I'd probably choose Miniatures, but it would be a pretty close call. The music here is absolutely wonderful, and it includes Dabaghyan's rendition of "Hovern Enkan," the most famous Armenian song, and one used in many movie soundtracks (most notably, in the beginning of Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ).

Volume 6, Nagorno-Karabakh This, the last disk in the series, consists of folk and classical songs from the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that spent most of the 90s acting as a battle zone in the devastating war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There's a long and protracted history behind this war--stretching back as far as the 5th century--but the bottom line is simply that Armenian culture dominates this region, even though it was considered separate from Armenia proper during the Soviet era. The history, both old and new, is important in this case, as it's the reason this disk was included in the Music of Armenia set. The musicians here are all amateurs; some, in fact, were pulled from the front lines of the war to take part in the recordings. However, none of that amateurism shows up on these songs. These works are of a very high quality. Of course, because the disk tries to offer a full picture of a large area and its people's music, there's inevitably a wide variety of music heard here, from choral works to folk tunes to instrumentals to what sound like anthems of sorts. While the music doesn't quite reach the levels of some of the other disks, the added poignancy of this disk (that many of the performers are probably dead now) makes the work a special one.

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