Don Mager: Terror, Grit, Catharsis

Terterian, Avet. Symphony No.3 and Symphony No.4.
The Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, Loris Tjeknavorian, conductor.
London: ASV Ltd., 1997.

Avet Terterian’s (1929-1994) seven symphonies are gradually becoming available on disc in the west. Although this recording is five years old it is new to me. Recently his final symphonies have been recorded, perhaps part of a projected complete cycle.
TERROR. When I was a young listener, in the early sometimes random and serendipitous discovery phase of music, I was given a 78 rpm set of Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite. In the middle of one side, amid the dance of the maidens, the Ogre who has them imprisoned, leaps in upon them in a sudden crash of sound. The first time I heard it, I actually leapt from the bed in terror. I was amazed that a composer would dare such a thing. Not long after I discovered Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, which also has an abrupt dynamic explosion.
What I have never been quite able to explain is why I could replay those recordings so many times and repeat the experience of terror, or something approaching it, even though I knew what to expect. Eventually the thrill wore off, but it had a surprisingly good run, I must say–not unlike people who play movie tapes of thrillers to re-experience the initial rush–over and over and over.
It has been a long time since I had an unalloyed rush of terror from music–not because I am jaded but because I no longer have the ability to be a merely passive and jejune listener.
These two symphonies by Terterian terrify me and continue to do so after many listenings. They erupt from a sound world apart from any analogues or peers. And as with Stravinsky and Bartok 45 years ago, I am amazed.
Although born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Terterian is Armenian and draws on Armenian materials. But this is not the tourist-attraction exoticism of Khachaturian, Hovanness or Yardumian. Colorful is far too pale a word for the sounds that Terterian lashes across the ear’s canvas.

GRIT. By the middle of the 20th century, we now realize, central Europe was no longer the center of symphony writing. Some prognosticated the death of the symphony much as they did the death of the novel, around the same time. Despite a few remarkable examples in America, England, and the western Slavic countries, the symphony had shifted north and east–Scandinavia and the Soviet Union, we now see, were the places where not only stunning new ideas were bursting forth, but also a performance tradition was in place that created audiences for a steady flow of new works. What distinguishes much of the post-WWII symphony writing is what I call grit. This is a commitment to speak in a public voice about compelling existential dilemmas shared by communities at large. These works, however subjective in content and inspiration, reach out to listeners and seem to speak for them as well. Shostakovich, in some instances, and Pettersson, almost always, push deep into a kind of nihilist despair that reflects a humanity on the brink of meaningless self-destruction. Audiences hear, recognize something in themselves in the music, and tremble.
Terterian has this girt. As his broad panoramas of sound spread across a duration of totally engrossing time, I feel I am engaged with emotions and ideas that express me, even though I had not known I had such ideas and emotions in quite this way until Terterian realized them for me. And even though the symphonies do not unfold in recognizable formal structures, playing on juxtaposition more than development, they move across time with conviction and coherence. The symphonies of the Georgian composer, Kanchelli, who has some similarities with Terterian, use juxtaposition and arbitrariness to create a sense of timelessness based on ebbing and rising flows of sound, not development, argument and climax. Terterian’s juxtapositions, by contrast seem always to be building to some realization, some knowledge and closure.

The juxtapositions are quite remarkable. Extremes of volume from full orchestral crushing throbs and sobs, to silences, and from playing so soft that one questions whether the music is over, to pounding percussion passages of driving ferocity. A battery of instruments including 12 French horns, organ, celeste, harpsichord and the Armenian mountain reed horns, the duduk and the zuma for Symphony No.3, are typical of the Terterian orchestra. These contribute to the apocalyptic terror.
CATHARSIS. Terterian states that he sees the world politically, ecologically, and morally on the brink of apocalypse. He says his seven symphonies are invitations to confront without denial or ideological rationalization the full magnitude of our imminent human undoing. But his relentless visionary honesty does not lead to an abyss of bleak despair. The tenacity with which he exposes his vision itself pushes one to a place of endurance. Just hanging on for the ride seems to marshal a kind of fortitude in the stark brilliance of his imagination, in the astonishing accomplishment of an orchestra in realizing his scores, and in the listener who braves it all, so that in the end, something like a purging or catharsis takes place.
This takes me to the Aristotelian notion of tragedy as a public ceremonial and cathartic purging that restores the community to moral wellness. I would like to hear particularly the fourth symphony in concert with a full house to see what kind of communal experience it incites. I believe it would be quite unlike any other symphony of the last fifty or more years. Although both works show this apocalyptic fortitude, No.4 seems to outpace No.3 in one very telling respect. No.3 draws to close in a gesture of regression and solace, as a solo harpsichord ditty seems to evoke the distant memory of a childhood lullaby. In this respect, the work flinches at the last minute and falls back into nostalgia and longing. It is as though at the end of Euripides Medea the children are not killed. No.4 by contrast bears its burden of tragic horror even out to the end of its ample span of time–doom.

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