Lianna Haroutounian (from her Web site)
Yesterday afternoon Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian made her United States solo recital debut in Herbst Theatre. The event was arranged by what seems to have been an ad hoc organizing committee calling itself “Friends of Lianna.” Haroutounian clearly had a lot of friends, who turned out in enthusiastic abundance; but the recital also had much to offer to those of us who learned about the event through other channels.
Haroutounian divided her program into four sections. The first consisted of Italian songs, two by Gioachino Rossini, three by Vincenzo Bellini (the last of which was subsequently repurposed for his opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi), and one by Gaetano Donizetti. This was followed by six settings of Armenian melodies by Komitas. The intermission was followed by a Russian set of two songs by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and two by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The final set turned to opera with two arias from Adriana Lecouvreur (Francesco Cilea) and one each from L’amico Fritz (Pietro Mascagni) and Faust (Charles Gounod). Between the two sets in the second half, Haroutounian’s accompanist, Tamara Sanikidze, performed Frédéric Chopin’s posthumously published nocturne in C-sharp minor.
No text sheets were provided, and the titles for the Armenian and Russian selections were given in the alphabets of their respective languages. Thus, there were many challenges for listeners interested in the relationships between words in music. To be fair, however, those relationships were not strictly necessary for many of the offerings. With her experience in opera Haroutounian commanded an informed control of body language, which always seems to have been conceived to establish the spirit of the text, even if the literal meaning was beyond the grasp of most of the listeners.
From a personal point of view, my interest was greatest in the Russian set. Those who have followed my work know that I have written about recorded compilations of the complete songs of both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. These seldom show up on recital programs, so I do my best to keep up with those rare occasions.
In this case, however, the occasion had its dark side. Haroutounian dedicated the two Tchaikovsky songs to the memory of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who had died this past Wednesday. Hvorostovsky had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in June of 2015; and it is to the credit of both modern medicine and Hvorostovsky’s personal commitment that he succeeded in battling his malady for about two and a half years. His recent recording of Rigoletto will now stand as a memorable symbol of the strength he brought to that battle.
Both of Haroutounian’s Tchaikovsky selections were from early collections, beginning with the first of the Opus 16 songs, followed by the fifth of the Opus 6 songs. The six Opus 6 songs were written in 1869, meaning that the only “familiar” Tchaikovsky composition written earlier would have been his first (“Winter Dreams”) symphony in G minor, which he composed in 1866 but had not yet published . On the other hand the Opus 16 collection was written shortly after his first string quartet in D major. It is therefore no surprise that neither of Haroutounian’s selections had what could be called “the familiar Tchaikovsky sound.” However, the sounds of those songs are not so much retrogressive as they are searching for new approaches to expressiveness (what Stefan George called “air from another planet” in the text that Arnold Schoenberg set for the final movement of his second string quartet in F-sharp minor).
Indeed, Haroutounian’s overall program made for an engaging balance between the “comfortably conventional’ (so comfortable that text sheets would not be necessary) and the adventurously unfamiliar. The latter was certainly the case with Komitas, since many serious listeners had given little thought to Armenian music prior to his bringing his settings to the performing repertoire. At the same time Haroutounian had the sort of physical bearing that could convey depths of expressiveness even when the music was unfamiliar, if not unknown, to many of her audience’s serious listeners. For that matter, even Sanikidze’s approach to “posthumous” Chopin offered those listeners a journey into discovery, having found her own voice in which to express a nocturne fraught with ambiguity and even structural uncertainty.
Familiarity was in richer supply when Haroutounian moved on to her four encores. Even the Tchaikovsky selection was familiar, the last of the Opus 6 songs best known by its English title “None but the Lonely Heart.” She also offered what may be Alfredo Catalani’s only warhorse, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from his opera La Wally. She then appealed to the personal side of her audience, first with an a cappella rendering of an Armenian song and then with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for the rest of us.