Tigran Hamasyan and the Yerevan State Choir illuminate Union Chapel

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“Armenian sacred music from the 5th century to the 20th century” – that reads like the title of an academic monograph – the kind of thing you’d toil over in the drafty corner of a university library, watching the night draw in and your chances of making that early morning essay deadline evaporate. It may well be, but it’s also the unassuming tagline of Luys i Luso (ECM), the latest album by young Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan, which is anything but dry and dusty.

Hamasyan’s longstanding interest in the sacred music of his homeland has led him to collaborate with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir and to arrange a series of Armenian hymns, cantos and sharakans (chants) by composers such as Komitas, Mesrop Mashtots and Grigor Narekatsi, for piano and voices. It makes for a profoundly atmospheric recording, but performed by Hamasyan and a pared-down touring choir of eight voices beneath the cavernous domed ceiling of Union Chapel in Islington, the music sounded even better and more alive.

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Dressed in flowing robes embroidered with crosses – like illustrations from the pages of an illuminated manuscript – the choir began by singing the softest of drones, weaving in unsettling quarter-tone dissonances. They sang dirges and tearful laments that spoke of dour monasticism in curious near-eastern modes. There were flowing, riverine melodies and pulsing vamps, wails that sounded like gusts of wind howling through darkened cloisters, and moments of beautiful serenity when the voices of the soloists broke free and drifted upwards like wisps of smoke. Occasionally a more modern, Western-sounding hymn arrived and when it did it was wonderfully affecting – like a long-awaited resolution.

His head buried in the keys, Hamasyan accompanied the vocalists with trembling chords, embellishing and commenting on the music with folky trills, ornaments and grooving vamps. His contributions were subtle at first, as they are on the album, but he moved steadily through the gears as the concert progressed. Cross rhythms became more outlandish and unpredictable; the lines grew longer, unfurling like spools of thread; and the grooves became more overtly modern, taking us into familiar Tigran territory.

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The climax was an extended piano breakdown that eclipsed anything on the recording. Vocalising drum parts under his breath and hurling himself at the keys, Hamasyan played like a man possessed, as if swept away by religious fervour. Leaning back on the time he flirted with funk, hip-hop and ambient rock (influences that pervade his previous recordings like trio album Mockroot). Motifs spread like wildfire across the full range of the piano, there were syncopated riffs on top of syncopated riffs and the singers did well not to come unstuck, sticking to their parts with monastic stoicism.

As a standing ovation rippled through the pews, I glanced down at the programme notes where Hamasyan describes his fascination with Armenian sacred music as ‘living tradition’. It’s hard to imagine anyone making it sound fresher or more engaging than this.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees

– Photos by Roger Thomas