Tigran Hamsyan solo
Kings Place Hall One. 6th April 2017. Second house. Review by AJ Dehany)
It’s a rare work of art that can transport you four thousand years back in time and show you the present. Imagine the volcanic landscape of the Ararat Valley opening out into the present Armenian Republic: the same rivers and mountains, the same birds and animals, the same people, transposed into a harder modernity.
Armenian pianist and composer Tigran Hamasyan’s new album An Ancient Observer (Nonesuch) is a softer journey than his pathfinding genre-defying heavy-vamping trio albums (culminating in the visceral Shadow Theatre of 2013), and a subtler realization of his themes and ideas than the jawdropping expansive choral and orchestral opus of 2015’s Luys I Luso that polyphonically reimagined Armenian sacred music from the fifth to twentieth centuries.
Hunched over the piano, head almost touching the keys in the manner of Glenn Gould but with deliberate rather than distracting vocalizations obeying the characteristic straight-tone vocal style of Armenian sacred music, Tigran’s second concert of the evening at King’s Place London on his current European tour found a rock star’s reception for the still-young prodigy who was acclaimed as a genius even before he won the Thelonious Monk prize in 2005 at the age of eighteen.
His synthesis of styles and forms is breathtaking, evident even in this concert of solo piano and with the scrupulously reduced compositional palette of the album, which is resequenced and played with greatly extended improvisations on the composed material. Live performance brings an enhanced drama that complements the album’s contemplativeness and adds a new excitement.
The palate-cleansing synth washes of New Baroque 2 and the spiritual overtures of Fides Tua (Latin for “your faith”) lead us into the oneiric textures of The Cave of Rebirth with its rolling chordal motifs and Arabesque falsetto leading lines. Markos and Markos is a superbly honed melody with a hummable folk-naif quality, bluesy drive, Chopin-esque ornamentation and Rachmaninovian chordal flurries. It opens the album on a gentle note, but in performance mid-concert leads to a denser conception.
Egyptian Poet is inspired by a book Tigran bought among a stack of thirty volumes for seven dollars from a guy by the side of the road in Yerevan. The semitonal slippages in the rolling arpeggios give way to long pedal points punctuated by beatboxed rhythms. Without words, it captures the surprisingly modern-feeling equivalence of the sublimation and exclamation of love and longing in the fascinating poetry of 2000BC Middle Kingdom Egypt, characterized by love poems, prophetic and spiritual texts.
Encore Lilac, an exquisite highlight from Hamasyan’s 2015 album Mockroot (Nonesuch) varies even more between performances. This yearning melodious work is based around two alternating themes opening with chordal apreggios reminiscent of the feel and mystery of Philip Glass’s Facades, alternating with and relieved by the trilling Chopin-esque delicacy of the lighter melodic second theme. The simplicity of the material allows great scope for improvisation while retaining the ‘ancestral’ sense that it shares with his best work.
The epic centrepiece of the concert is Nairian Odyssey which has the same structure but tripled in length from the reading on the album. It affords ample space for reflection – on four thousand years’ worth of disappointed love. The technical aspects of Tigran’s ambitious piano conceptions (and his beatboxing, which leaves ambivalent feelings) can distract us at such times from tender but forthright moments of melodic writing that encapsulate not just ‘ancient’ observations, but also profound human connections:
My heart is in harmony with thy heart
And I can not tear myself away from thy beauty…
Only thy sigh gives life to my heart,
Now that I have found thee,
Let Aten make you mine in eternity.“
(*) Text from a love poem, c. 2000 BC, quoted in Art and History of Egypt. 5000 Years of Civilisation by Alberto Carpiceci