Reviews

GMCD 7300

GMCD 7300 – Rapsodi – Albanian Piano Music, Vol. 2

Kirsten Johnson – Piano

To the CD in our Shop


Tempo, Cambridge University Press October 2006

It was three years ago that Kirsten Johnson’s first exemplary CD of Albanian piano was issued by Guild. All of that music was completely new to me (and probably to all but a few other listeners), as is the music on this second volume, but some of the same composers’ names re-appear. The older generation of Ibrahimi and Harapi, Kozma Lara and Sokoli are represented, as is the newer name of Papadhimitri (b. 1948). Amongst the elder composers – that is, those born just after the end of the 1914-1918 war – we can hear how profound was French influence before the Iron Curtain came down on Albanian music.  Ibrahimi’s Waltz and Harapi’s Sonatina particularly show a French neo-classical influence combined with late 19th-century bravura style (apparent in much of this Albanian music) that is wholly engaging. According to Ms Johnson’s excellent notes, Ibrahimi was often taken to task by the League of Artists and Writers for his use of pulsating rhythms, fragmentation of melodies and unconventional harmonic resolutions that went way beyond the bounds of Hoxha-approved social realism. By decree, all the composers had to make use of folk elements in their work: when Ibrahimi met Kirsten Johnson in 1995 in Tirana he told her that he had to ‘shield his true intentions as a composer’ by using such elements. The results make for interesting listening.The equivocal but charming Satie-like Waltz by Tish Daija (composer of the first Albanian string quartet in 1953) somehow seems to have eluded the censors. The music in Johnson’s programme is not all serious: Alberto Paparisto’s Scherzo’ and Dance is full of surprises, even humorous.  Like many of these composers Kozma Lara (b.1931) studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in the 1950s and has composed huge quantities of piano music including five piano concertos, four rhapsodies for piano and orchestra, sonatas, heroic ballades and much more. I found much of his music rather overblown for my taste and too rhetorical, and felt much the same for the Albanian Rhapsody No.2 by Sokoli (b. 1920). The music works best when it is unaffected, simple but with dynamic contrasts of rhythm and melody; the finest aspects of the folk music. But then, if we all had to work within the confines of institutional censorship as these composers did, we too might have cast aesthetic preferences aside in order to survive. This is an enjoyable CD and beautifully played by Ms Johnson.
Raymond Head

MusicWeb Tuesday June 13 06

I can honestly say that if I had not been sent this CD to review then I would have purchased it. Immensely enjoyable, fascinating, enterprising …
First, I am sorry to say that I somehow missed Volume 1 of Kirsten Johnson’s enterprising series of Albanian Piano Music not least because this volume is so enjoyable and fascinating. I can only suggest that anyone with a particular interest look it out, especially in the light of what I will say about volume two.Whilst listening to and reading the very revealing and personal booklet notes, I remembered an incident in 1981 when my wife and I whilst on a boat sailing the ‘Steno Kerkira’ between Corfu and Albania in a strong wind, apparently sailed too close to the Albanian border line. We were shot at from some distance; it must be said that it was something of a shock. Since then I’ve always regarded Albania as a complete puzzle.

I was also then pondering another question which has continued to bug me, that is ‘what is the effect of political suppression on artists’. Now you may say instantly, citing Shostakovich, that it is a very bad thing that artists should constantly feel in danger of their lives, afraid to express themselves with any originality in case a government or institutional spokesman comes down castigating their work and humiliating them in public. But does this fear make the music any better to worse?

Whilst listening to this music, quite a bit of it short and arguably trivial, I could not help but wonder what might these composers have achieved if they had escaped from the tyranny of the power of the detestable Enver Hoxha (1944-1985) and his wife at an earlier date or lived elsewhere. Then I wondered what masterpieces still might await discovery. But then I thought again. Perhaps this music does indeed represent the best of these composers; perhaps the tyrannous leadership enabled them to write in a manner which suited their sensibilities and abilities. Perhaps in doing so they have added some music to the world, based as it often is on Albanian national styles, which would otherwise not have been composed. I know myself how a restriction on the composing commission can often stimulate a better and more original composition than might have been written if a ‘carte blanche’ had been allowed. Indeed, perhaps this freedom might have added yet more twelve-tone composers to the multitude if the regime in Albania had been liberal. After all, it seems that the composer and performers did not lack a solid training – sometimes in Western Europe – and certainly did not lack opportunity and, if they toed the line, financial support. Indeed the composers could be awarded titles, so ‘Artiste I popullit’ was given to Ibrahimi and Daija and the title ‘Artist I merituar’ (artist of merit) was given to Harapi and Lara.

Enough philosophizing for now. What about the music presented here?

As indicated, many of the pieces are short, some less than two minutes. However there are some more substantial ones especially those by Lara and Harapi and several pieces are inspired by the folk music of Albania.

To a certain extent you may feel, especially in the movements inspired by dances that it is almost echt Bartók. But listen further and a more delicate, less percussive, sound-world hides behind the rhythms.

Some of the intimate nationalistically-inspired pieces have a real charm and at times made me want to book the next plane to Tirana. One in particular was Papadhimitri’s ‘Little Shepherdess’ with its simple melody over a modal drone bass. What a pity that it is the only piece representing this composer. Papadhimitri clearly has a way of making a simple idea so effective.

The drawing room is not far away in the various waltzes and dances. One often feels that a street musician is lurking somewhere behind these melodies as in Harapi’s ‘Evening Song’. A strong element of popular music lies behind several of these.

Kirsten Johnson managed to interview some of the composers in the mid-1990s. The results of these interviews are mentioned in her essay. It seems that Tish Daija was the teacher of several of these composers and Cesk Zadeja used to play one publishing house off against another until he got his way. Ibrahimi often wrote outside the accepted style using unconventional rhythms and harmonies which were not in line with social realism. There are certainly folk elements in his music but he had to keep some ‘interesting’ pieces secret. When longer pieces are attempted they tend to be classically-inspired and conventional as in the Sonatina or the quite Romantic, Schumannesque ‘Theme and Variations’ by Harapi whose work ranks very high in the brief musical history of this country. There are also pieces entitled Ballade or brief Sonatas or Rhapsodies like the wonderful 2nd Albanian Rhapsody of Ramadan Sokli.

Needless to say, Johnson plays with real sympathy. I had not heard these works before – who has? – and of course have no scores. She is however a perfect advocate and a true enthusiast for this little known music.

I can honestly say that if I had not been sent this CD to review then I would have purchased it. This project is fascinating, enterprising and should be supported. More music from Albania should be given an airing. Quite apart from that it is of good quality and is immensely enjoyable.
Gary Higginson

Folksy-romantic Albanian piano music from the 1960s scintillatingly revived …

MusicWeb Tuesday May 09 06

We need more pianists prepared to venture out into unfashionable regions. American-born Kirsten Johnson is one such pianist: valiant, having the acumen to choose her revivals wisely and with both sensitivity and fire in her playing www.kirstenjohnsonpiano.com. Having already recorded the piano music of Goetz and Schulz-Beuthen (GMCD7282 and GMCD7277 review) for Guild she now returns to Albanian music. Her first disc from this neglected genre is titled Këngë on Guild GMCD7257 review . Johnson was a pupil of Ronald Smith, a noted champion of another neglected composer, Alkan. Johnson has made four tours of Albania and her concert in Tirana was a televised gala event. Her interest in the piano music of Albania has been pursued with a pilgrim’s seriousness extending to interviewing many of the composers represented on these two collections.Rooted in the folk music and traditions of Albania these pieces owe their existence to the communist regime of Enver Hoxha (1944-1985). They represent part of the response to the demand for music borne of the soil, not elitist but open to appreciation by farm worker, shopkeeper, road worker and factory hand. Kirsten Johnson points out that Rapsodi “is a musical representation of the epic, a narrative folk-song which tells the story of an historic event … a central part of Albania’s folk tradition.” I am indebted to her programme notes which you can read in full on the Guild website

Çesk Zadeja studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow (1951-56) and wrote works for orchestra, choir and ballet, as well as a piano concerto and smaller instrumental pieces. He achieved the highest honour bestowed on a musician in Albania by being given the title ‘Artist i popullit’ (Artist of the People). Tokkata dates from 1952 is tense and peckingly insistent yet delicately attentive to shifts in dynamic. His Theme and Variations in E minor has dignity of a village cortege, scintillating flair, is elusively romantic and finally benignly triumphant.

Feim Ibrahimi studied with Tish Daija at Tirana Conservatory. He is said to have used folk elements to cover his real intentions as a composer. He wrote works for orchestra, ballet and choir, as well as two piano concerti and smaller piano pieces. The Vals (Waltz) softly enfolds dissonance in a piece that suggests the flickering of goldfish while Valle për piano (Dance for piano) is much more robust, ruddy-cheeked and heavy-footed.

Tonin Harapi also studied at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. His output includes operas, works for choir and orchestra, songs, a string quartet and a piano concerto, as well as many pieces for solo piano. The three movement Sonatina follows the style-sheet with the traits of almost Mozartian innocence, gentleness and folk traits fully engaged. The Këngë mbrëmje is kindly and impressionistic – one of the most sheerly beautiful pieces in the collection. The 1966 Temë me variacione (Theme and Variations) combines the quality of classical poise and rustic innocence.

A. Komnino’s Këngë polifonike (Polyphonic Song) is a guileless innocent song and is followed by the same composer’s Song – a piece that is reminiscent of a gliding chiming Chopin waltz.

As Kirsten Johnson points out Daija’s little Vals (Waltz) is reminiscent of Satie’s famous Gymnopédie but cast in wispy nostalgia. Tish Daija is credited with writing the first Albanian string quartet (1953) and the first Albanian ballet, Halili dhe Hajrija (Halili and Hajrija, 1963).

Baresha e Vogël (The Little Shepherdess) by Jani Papadhimitri is another lightly dancing folk-inspired piece – part musicbox and part whispered confidence.

Alberto Paparisto’s Scherzo is elfin and flickeringly humorous and there’s also humour to be heard in the folksy-grotesque Val.

As with so many of his gifted contemporaries Kozma Lara studied composition at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory. He has written five piano concertos, four rhapsodies for piano and orchestra, six piano sonatas, four ballades, four albums of piano pieces, one set of theme and variations (1965) and eight piano preludes (1997). Ballade no. 2 (1983) is a grand affair much taken up with bells and having the feel of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux. The short Piano Sonata No. 2 is gruff, flowingly romantic and with that same sense of grandeur encountered in the Ballade.

Ramadan Sokoli is a much respected Albanian musicologist. His Rapsodi Shqiptare nr. 2 (1961) is discursive and exotic and here is played with a sense of sinuous fantasy.

Following a concert I gave in Tirana, the folk band at the restaurant afterwards began to play The Snowdrop (1949) by Simon Gjoni. This song is a national favourite, and the entire table of eminent musicians, including the head of the Music Faculty as well as government representatives, stopped eating and chatting and joined in full throttle to all of the verses of the song, with tears in their eyes. This passion comes through in Rapsodi Shqiptare nr. 2, an arrangement of two folk-like melodies.

Simon Gjoni studied conducting in Prague (1952-1958) and then worked at Tirana’s Opera and Ballet Theatre. He was a founder of the Albanian Radio-Television Symphony Orchestra. He wrote over two hundred songs, pieces for solo instruments, cantatas and major orchestral works (Four Albanian Symphonic Dances, the Symphonic Suite ‘Albania Celebrates’ and the Symphony in E-flat major). His hypnotically tolling Prelude in E minor (1965) is both melancholic and soulful. Things end on a sparkling upbeat with the folk-dance inflected Tokata (1968).

Folksy-romantic Albanian piano music from the 1960s scintillatingly revived and handsomely documented by Kirsten Johnson. Now let’s hear her in the piano music of other ex-communist Balkan states. Surely there should also be an opportunity to hear her in the piano concertos of Lara, Zadeja and Harapi. 
Rob Barnett