GMCD 7257 – Këngë – Albanian Piano Music

Kirsten Johnson – Piano

To the CD in our Shop

American Record Guide 04.04

These enjoyable collections are the latest in a number of ethnic piano anthologies on CD. The Albanian program presents music that is rarely if ever heard by Ibrahimi, Lara, Komino, Gjoni, and other 20th Century composers. (There was apparently no earlier classical Albanian piano music.) These tuneful, sometimes delightful pieces illustrate the power of the creative spirit even under severe restrictions. According to Kirsten Johnson, who plays this music with loving care and wrote the authoritative notes, these composers were forbidden under the Communist regime to study any music written after Stalin’s (Prokofieffs) death; also outlawed was the study of Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and all impressionist and dodecaphonic music. So much for the 20th Century!

Don’t expect innovation or even conservative modernism, but do expect limpid melody, haunting modal harmony, folkloric atmosphere, and rhythmic vitality. Johnson plays with nuance and color; the recording is rich and resonant.

Classics Today -Tuesday August 26 03

It’s reasonable to suspect that Western audiences–especially Americans–have little contact with Albanian piano music. Pianist Kirsten Johnson has traveled to Albania to research the repertoire, interviewing pianists, composers, and musicologists along the way, and then performing this music in Albanian venues. Under Enver Hoxha’s communist regime (1944 through 1985), composers were forbidden to study any music written after March 5, 1953 (the day both Stalin and Prokofiev died). Any new piece had to be approved by the Albanian League of Artists and Writers prior to public performance. Given such restrictions, it’s not surprising how a lot of this music draws upon Albania’s folk heritage and is stylistically accessible.

A triptych by Alberto Paparisto includes a Song of Ancient Times (replete with tolling bass lines), plus a modal Toccata. Neither it nor Arian Avrazi’s Toccata quite matches the sophistication and invention that Feim Ibrahimi displays in his own Toccata that opens this disc with a bang. A suite of short pieces by Kozma Lara makes fewer demands on both pianist and listener. Tonin Harapi’s surface simplicity, though, conceals a subtle and refined style that just might grow on you over repeated listening. The same holds true for Pellumb Vorspi’s Variations on a Popular Theme and Ramadan Sokoli’s Nocturne No. 2.

Song of Bravery, by Simon Gjoni, creates a more ambivalent impression than the title implies in its intentionally stilted syncopations and bleak textures. And an arrangement of the popular song Nina-Nana by one J. Papadhimitri wouldn’t be out of place among the G. I. Gurdjieff/Thomas de Hartmann collaborations. I’m particularly taken with the stark rhetoric, quirky harmonic language, and restrained passion of Çesk Zadeja’s Four Pieces for Piano, which suggest a latter-day Janácek.

Kirsten Johnson’s loving mastery of this music and skillful, nuanced pianism are a delight. What is more, she’s able to find just the right tempo, sound world, dynamic range, and character that allows each piece to emerge as an individual entity, from her exquisite legato in Zadeja’s lyrical writing to the Ibrahimi Toccata’s piquant fingerwork. The engineering turns a bit strident in louder moments and picks up too many pedal noises for my taste. Don’t let that prevent you from hearing this fascinating release. Does Johnson plan a sequel?
Jed Distler

TEMPO :  A Quarterly Review of Modern Music

Volume 57, July 2003
Cambridge University Press

Kenge. Albanian Piano Music by IBRAHIMI, LARA, VORPSI, PADHIMITRI, KOMINO, PAPARISTO, GJONI, SOKOLI, ZADEJA, HARAPI and AVRAZI. Kirsten Johnson (piano). Guild GMCD 7257.

I have to confess that I knew nothing of Albanian music until I heard this disc and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. All the music her dates from the 20th century and all of it shows profound folk influence, not without good reason. This is hardly surprising when we learn that under Enver Hoxha, whose regime lasted from 1944 to 1985, forbade the study of the music of Shostakovich and Stravinsky; the 12-note serialists and the French impressionists; and any music written after 5 March 1953 (the day Stalin died, and also Prokoviev). All the music had to be approved by the League of Artists and Writers before it could be performed and all of it had to be deemed accessible to ‘the people’. Composers could – and did – travel to other countries to study including Soviet Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and curiously Italy and France. However any new stylistic understanding could only be incorporated into their work if it posed no threat to the state’s ideas about music, so folk material became the inevitable refuge. It was fortunate for composers that they had such good folk material.

There are many works here that would make good encore pieces and some good music for children to play; such as Nina-Nana by Papadhimitri. Kozma Lara (b. 1930), one of the most important of living Albanian composers, has written a great deal of which his five pieces on this disc are charming. Not much Bartok influence here but instead a strutting and ironic March in Soviet style. Pellumb Vorpsi’s (b.1957) Variations on a Popular Theme (1978) is the most substantial virtuoso piece on the disc and contains stylistic references to Schumann, Liszt, Chopinesque bravura and a habanera ( a reference to Cuba?) but hardly a note that sounds as if it was written in the latter part of the 20th century. There is evidence of French neo- classicism in Cesk Zadeja (1927-1997), whose urbane Four Pieces had a distinctly Poulenc-esque atmosphere. The French influence was also very apparent in the Satiesque Song of Ancient Times of Alberto Paparisto (b.1925) that seems to owe something to French interest in ancient Greek music at the beginning of the 20th century. Arian Avrazi’s brilliant Tokkata comprising bravura passage work with almost Rachmaninoff-like chords was a highlight of the disc. All these are real composers working the ‘system’, but despite much bravura and subtle melodies, I was left feeling somehow unengaged. I think this may be attributed to the lack of any sense of conflict and resolution in the harmony. But all these pieces are superbly played by Kirsten Johnson and well recorded: this is a repertoire well worth exploring.
Raymond Head

BBC Music Magazine June 2003

Of all the old Stalinist dictatorships, Albania has a reputation as the most ‘backward’.

Enver Hoxha forbade study of any music written after 5 March 1953 (when Stalin and Prokofiev both expired).

Unsurprisingly, the music on this disc sounds a couple of generations behind itstimes. It tills a narrow plot, its boundaries defined by early Bartok, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, constant reference to folk intonations and a mildly exotic, ‘oriental’ melos.

The repertoire recycles percussive ostinato writing, children’s songs and dances, ballades, marches and folksong settings.

No strong individual personality is likely to emerge from such restrictions, yetthis is a surprisingly enjoyable collection. Albania’s composers turn out to have been a capable and thoroughly musicianly lot who turned limitation to advantage and worked within their narrow confines with skill and grace and inventiveness.

Nothing here is epoch-making, but nor is anything clumsy or ineffective either. The toccatas of Feim Ibrahimi and Arian Avrazi are invigorating works, much elsehas charm or carries elegiac conviction, and the haunting and impressive Four Piano Pieces of cesk Zadeja (1927-97), at least, introduce a composer I’d like to hear more of. Kirsten Johnson, who has made an intensive study of Albania’s music over the past decade, expounds all this repertoire with manifest sympathy and skill. An unexpected delight. BBC Music Magazine Direct call for price

CD Review BBC Radio 3 of Wednesday 30 April 03 by Andrew McGregor

Nina-nana, a lullaby from….Albania! It’s by J. Papadhimitri, and it’s an example of what happened to Albanian music under Enver Hoxha’s rule. Classical music was encouraged, but everything written after Stalin’s death was forbidden, so composers had to become creative with Albanian folk music to get past the official censors. The pianist Kirsten Johnson has spent years studying Albanian piano music, and she’s gathered some of the fruits of her knowledge onto this single disc. There’s some really charming music here, which you won’t find anywhere else. Këngë – Albanian Piano Music, new this month from Guild…and if that simple lullaby felt good, then don’t miss my Disc of the Week at 1135: a beautiful CD of lullabies from many traditions and over five centuries, performed by Montserrat Figueras. You’ll hear an extended excerpt in just over two hours from now.”

MusicWeb Wednesday April 30 03

Këngë is the Albanian for ‘song’. This gives the clue to this selection of pleasing folk-accented solo piano pieces. Dissonance plays only a bit part here and there. Otherwise the emphasis is on ‘singing’ melodic material sometimes with a subtle Middle Eastern flavour. Before we become too superior about these products of Enver Hoxha’s regime (1944-1985) we should reflect on the strengths of E.J. Moeran’s solo piano music (well taken by Una Hunt on ASV), Peter Maxwell Davies’ Farewell to Stromness, Ronald Stevenson’s folk pieces, the piano music of Lionel Sainsbury, the phenomenal success of Gurdjieff and de Hartmann and of Alan Hovhaness. These Albanian pieces were written under an oppressive regime that forbade the study of music written after the deaths of Stalin and Prokofiev (1953). Confinement to folk roots must not condemn this always attractive and rarely anodyne material.

Ibrahimi’s Tokatë (1963) and Avrai’s Tokkata (1979) are whirling Dervish dances dusted with Bartókian dissonance – more in the Ibrahimi than in the Avrazi. Dissonance is banished for Lara’s gently rocking Këngë (rather Nyman-like I thought) and a delightful folksy Pastoral with that Eastern tang. It is no surprise that Kenge comes from a suite called Joyful Days. The Lara pieces are from the 1970s. Vorpsi’s hypnotic Variations on a Popular Theme (1978) is based on the folksong Why does the blackbird sing? It is cut from the same cloth as the Lara pieces. Nina-Nana, a gentle lullaby, again with that exotic eastern flavour (a touch of Borodin), is by J. Papdhimitri. The glinting and smiling Children’s Dance is by A Komino. Alberto Paparisto’s three pieces are by turns motoric (Çiftelia is a chicane ride evocative of the folk instrument of the same name), dissonantly reflective and sardonic (the seas of Prokofiev being plied in Humoreska). Gjoni’s Song of Bravery is not your standard fare – nothing of the stand and bawl about this. Instead we get a noble, sometimes slightly dissonant and fiercely declamatory hymn-cortège using the apparatus provided by the Liszt piano sonata. The Dies Irae is woven into this music. Sokoli’s Nocturne has a quiet Beethovenian air about it – rising from lament toward indomitable major key optimism. Zadeja’s Four Pieces from the 1980s are subdued (tr.15), Shostakovich-like in places (tr.16), starry in the manner of Sisask (tr.17), idyllic and quietly nervous. Harapi’s tranquil, folk-like and Chopin-spirited Romance, Valle, Nji Dhimb, Moll’e Kuqe and Romanze contrast with the spirited toccata-like allegro vivo (tr. 22) and the nostalgic Waltz on a Popular Theme. These Harapi pieces are from the period 1966 to 1987. They recall the sincere pastiche piano solos of Valentin Silvestrov and the Schumann inflections of the Swiss composer Richard Flury.

Without denying its individuality this music will appeal to you if you have already discovered and remained loyal to the Gurdjieff/Hartmann series on Auvidis Naive or the Hovhaness piano discs on Koch.

This folk-exotica is sympathetically played by Kirsten Johnson who also wrote the excellent notes. I wonder if she is planning a second Albanian volume. If not perhaps she and Guild might consider doing the same for the piano music of Bulgaria and Rumania.

This disc has the potential to become extremely popular. I hope that the likes of Classic FM in the UK will do more than take note of it.
Rob Barnett

THE TIMES (LONDON) Tuesday March 25 03

Not all composers have enjoyed Beethoven’s freedom, especially those in totalitarian regimes. Consider Kirsten Johnson’s album Kenge, devoted to 20th-century Albanian piano music (Guild GMCD 7257).

I know. I smiled at the prospect too. Then I played the title track – the word means song – and felt the old stone heart softening at a rippling folk-song setting from the pen of Kozma Lara. Simplicity of thought dominates. Time seems not so much to stand still as to move in reverse – Tonin Harapi’s Romance, published in 1987, belongs more to 1887. The explanation lies in another name: Enver Hoxha. Johnson’s notes explain that his communist regime instituted a cut-off point for the study of classical music, March 5, 1953, the day Stalin died.

Atonality was forbidden, plus the renegade Russkies Shostakovich and Stravinsky.

Safety for composers lay in folk song, pedagogical trifles, or silence.

The pieces by Cesk Zadeja have more substance and grit than most. Throughout the disc you can feel a kinship with Bartok, though none of the music can survive his competition, and in bulk its triviality fatigues. But I was glad to have a door opened, and Johnson’s performances, warmly recorded, offer their own attractions.