Before Tigran Mansurian completed his Requiem, composed in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, he began at least three different requiems. He abandoned them because of two distinct problems.
One, he suggests, is the difficulty he faced in reconciling the differences between the way members of the Armenian Church read and pray religious texts as opposed to how the Roman Catholic Church might read and pray them. This difference, in essence, actually is how Eastern Christians pray as opposed to Western Christians.
The other difficulty he confronted, he says, had to do with the European musical and ecclesiastical tradition of the Requiem.
Mansurian has reconciled these differences brilliantly with his Requiem, recently released by ECM Records as part of its “New Series.” The piece was written from 2010 to 2011 and recorded January 2016 by the Münchener Kammerorchester and the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, which commissioned the work.
Born in 1939, Mansurian is considered one of Armenia’s finest composers and by some the finest. His corpus of work is comprehensive and includes stage and film works, choral, piano, chamber, and orchestral works.
Mansurian’s Requiem is a very special work, blending traditional Armenian music with eight standard Latin hymns. This allows the piece to stand proudly within the tradition of the European Requiem, while at the same time making it a completely new and unique work that recognizes the significance of the Armenian Genocide as a world event and the various religious backgrounds of the victims.
If you listen to Requiems by Mozart, Faure, Dvorak, Verdi, Berlioz, and Rutter you can immediately recognize how Mansurian’s work stands with them. Yet the differences also quickly become apparent. These Requiems rely on larger orchestras and choruses, and in general grander musical themes. They tend toward the regal, majestic, or romantic, while Mansurian’s work tends toward the contemplative and prayerful. While the hymns in John Rutter’s Requiem are contemporary, Mansurian uses traditional Armenian themes that give his work far greater musical complexity and spiritual dignity.
With Alexander Liebreich as conductor and Florian Helgath as chorus master, and featuring soprano Anja Petersen and baritone Andrew Redmond, the recording is a glorious tribute and remembrance of the more than one million Armenians who died in the genocide. Mansurian could not have found a better chorus and orchestra to perform this masterful work.
Working with two principal vocalists and a smaller chorus and orchestra also contributes to the dignity of this piece. The Münchener Kammerorchester consists of only four instruments played with precision and grace: Violin, viola, violoncello, and double bass.
Gone, therefore, are the brass and brass choirs, the percussion, the organ, or the harp one might find in one of the Requiems mentioned above. This prevents the work from becoming theatrical or operatic without losing dramatic and solemn elements.
The structure and the eight Latin hymns Mansurian use also are common to the European requiems: Requiem aeternam, Kyrie, Dies irae, Tuba mirum, Lacrimosa, Domine Jesu Christe, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. His use of them, however, is vastly different.
While the hymns retain their essence, here they become a perfect blend of Eastern and Western music and spirituality and yet also become distinctly Eastern and Armenian.
Mansurian is humble before the tradition of the Requiem, his subject, and Christian and Armenian spirituality; and Leibreich, Helgath, Petersen, Redmond, the chorus, and the string orchestra perfectly understand his intentions and perfectly interpret the humility and simplicity 0f this work.
So many moments stand out in this recording: The interplay between the voices of Petersen and Redmond as well as between each and the chorus in the Requiem aeternam; the cantoring of Petersen and Redmond in the Tuba mirum and the response of the chorus; the sounds of heavenly weeping in the Lacrimosa; the use at times of a singular cantor and separate male and female choirs that respond to one another, a hallmark of traditional Eastern liturgy; the distinct versions of the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.
Mansurian’s Requiem is a great addition to the tradition of the requiem, and it may even be one of the finest works in this tradition. This work, at the very least, stands with the finest contemporary choral and orchestral pieces composed, performed, and recorded.