Këngë: Albanian Piano Music (Guild 7257)

Kirsten Johnson, piano

Feim Ibrahimi
Tokatë për piano

Kozma Lara 
Ballade no. 4, ‘Pastorale’
Valle: moderato
Valle: allegro

Pellumb Vorpsi
Variations for Piano (Ballad) on a Popular Theme

J. Papadhimitri

A. Komino
Vallja e fatosave (Children’s Dance)

Alberto Paparisto
Këngë e lashte (Song of Ancient Times)

Simon Gjoni 
Këngë trimërie (Song of Bravery)

Ramadan Sokoli
Nocturne no. 2

Çesk Zadeja
Four Pieces for Piano

Tonin Harapi
Romance in Ab major
Valle: andante con moto
Nji dhimb je e vogël (A Little Pain)
Valle: allegro vivo
Romanze in A minor
Moll ‘e kuqe top sheqere (A Candied Apple)
Waltz on a Popular Theme

Arian Avrazi

Albania’s piano music is infused with rich folk melodies, rhythms and harmonies that have been passed down over hundreds of years.  The piano tradition itself is a comparatively recent phenomenon, as prior to the 20th century Albania’s folk tradition prevailed, with a nascent classical music presence emerging in 19th century choral and instrumental ensemble repertoire.  Under Enver Hoxha’s communist regime (1944-1985), the classical music tradition was nurtured and advanced.  The most talented composers were sent to Moscow for training (until Albania’s détente with the USSR in 1961), and other students, including performers, were allowed to travel to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Italy and France for studies, provided they themselves posed no perceived threat to the state. Several conservatories and an Academy of Music were established in Albania during this time.  Hoxha forbade the study of all music written after 5 March 1953 (the date both Stalin and Prokofiev died), all of the works of Shostakovich and Stravinsky, and all dodecaphonic and impressionistic pieces.  Every new composition had to be approved by the League of Artists and Writers of Albania before it could be performed publicly.  Any piece composed had to be ‘for the people’ and deemed accessible.  Therefore composers relied heavily on the rich folk music heritage of Albania, using folk melodies, dance rhythms and the imitation of folk instruments in their pieces.  Albanian piano music is strongly influenced by this folk tradition, and must be heard and appreciated in the context of the restrictive environment in which it was composed.

Tokatë për piano, written by Feim Ibrahimi (1935-1997) in 1963, is a mainstay of the Albanian piano repertoire.  The opening melody is a northern Albanian folk dance in 7/8, and imitates a quickly plucked folk instrument.  This martellato effect is achieved at the piano by alternating the hands in quick succession. The contrasting middle section is based on another folk melody, a northern Albanian folk song traditionally sung by women, and juxtaposes a chordal right-hand with an undulating accompaniment made up of two, three, four and five note groupings.  The opening theme returns, stated first in parallel root-position triads and later in parallel major 7ths.  Ibrahimi employs changing meters and brilliant octave technique to bring the piece to a rousing conclusion.

Këngë (Song) is the eleventh piece in Kozma Lara’s (b. 1930) cycle for piano Ditë të Gëzuara (Joyful Days).  The gently rocking accompaniment provides a background for this hauntingly beautiful setting of an Albanian folk song.  March (pub. 1975), a caricature of a military march, features seven-bar phrases and a fluctuation between a feeling of two and four beats in the bar, characteristics which endow the piece with unsettled cynicism. Lara’s Ballade no. 4, ‘Pastorale’, reflects the ancient Albanian folk story-telling tradition of the epic ballad. These sung stories are historical in nature, and are passed down orally from generation to generation. Published in a pedagogical collection in 1975, the repeated notes of the opening melody become a unifying device of this piece.  In three sections, the outer parts are linked by a slower, more introspective middle section.  Valle: moderato (Dance), a short piece in A minor published in 1971, is in 7/8 time.  The stark qualities of this work give it a particular emotional poignancy.  Valle: allegro (Dance, pub. 1975) is jaunty and fun, full of twists that take one by surprise, and rhythmic drive which gives the piece edge.

Pellumb Vorpsi’s (b. 1957) Variations for Piano (Ballad) on a Popular Theme (1978) is based on the folk song, ‘Why does the blackbird cry?’  Six variations follow the simple choral statement of the theme.  The first is straightforward, with the unaltered melody presented over broken chord figuration.  The second variation is highly rhapsodic and more exploratory in nature.  The third is an allegro written in perpetual motion toccata style, followed by the fourth, a more extended variation in which Vorpsi derives his material from the second bar of the original theme and places it over a tango-like ostinato.  This darker and more introspective variation is linked to the fifth variation by a brief cadenza.  Variation five, an electrifying allegro agitato, is interrupted by the sixth variation, a grandiose statement of the original theme in widely-spaced chords, before building to a shattering climax which unwinds into the bass of the piano.  This highly enjoyable set of variations ends with a quiet remembrance of the first half of the original theme.

J. Papadhimitri’s Nina-Nana (pub. 1983) is a gentle lullaby.  The lullaby is a popular folk tradition in Albania, sung usually by women, and with a limited melodic compass.

Vallja e fatosave  (Children’s Dance, pub. 1983), by A. Komino, is an appealing folk dance in 7/8, whose very simplicity reflects the innocence of childhood.  The title refers to children between the ages of seven and eleven, the fatos group.

Çiftelia, written by Alberto Paparisto (b. 1925) in 1967, is an imitation of the two-stringed folk instrument by the same name. Semi-quaver alternation between the two hands, in which one hand represents the melodic string and the other the drone, drive this piece unrelentingly forward.  Këngë e lashte (Song of Ancient Times, 1964) creates a mood of timelessness and nostalgia.  Humoreska (1976) is more modern in approach, with the use of extended harmonies, irregular phrase structures and tweaking dissonances.

Këngë trimërie (Song of Bravery, pub. 1983) is a short but evocative piece by Simon Gjoni (1926-1991).  In 7/8 time, this arresting piece in C minor gives a sense of the pride Albanians have in their ancient heritage.

Nocturne no. 2 (1942) by Ramadan Sokoli (b. 1920) resembles a lament, a folk song usually sung by women when grieving for a loved one.  Repetitive rhythms in both hands and an emphasis on the second beat of the bar create a sense of loss that turns to hope towards the end with a brief foray into major tonality.

Çesk Zadeja’s (1927-1997) Four Pieces for Piano is a collection of individual works gathered together by the composer. Improvizim (1986) is a masterful free-form portrait of historic grandeur with Turkish influences showing in the melodic presentation. Humoreska (pub. 1966) is taken from Zadeja’s balletDelina.  The opening rhythm, a unifying element of the piece, is associated with the daulle, a folk percussion instrument. The first section, in which the melody is set out in parallel fourths, is reminiscent of a men’s dance, and is followed by the female dancers being represented in a higher register with parallel first inversion triads.  A gentle waltz interrupts the rambunctious dance, which quickly reasserts itself and brings the piece to a boisterous finish.  The third piece, Prelud (pub. 1989), is an impressionistic setting of a simple melody against quaver accompaniment.  Tokata (1986) opens with a spiky left-hand melody crossing from bass to treble against an ostinato pattern in the right-hand.  It is eccentric and humorous, driving forward until relaxing into an improvisatory middle section decorated with trills and figuration.  The toccata returns again, building into a climax of chords and octaves that leads to a thunderous conclusion.

Tonin Harapi (1928-1992) is one of the most revered Albanian composers. Romance in Ab major(pub. 1987) creates a mood of tranquillity at the outset, becomes more passionate as the melody is developed, and moves into a sprightly allegro section before returning once again to the ambience of the opening.  Valle: andante con moto (Dance, pub. 1966) is based on folk dance rhythms, evoking both a waltz and a mazurka at different stages.  Nji dhimb je e vogël (A Little Pain, pub. 1966) grieves after a loss, but becomes reconciled to that pain as the piece moves through shifting harmonies. Valle: allegro vivo (Dance, pub. 1966) is an exuberant rollick in a folk dance style.  Romanze in A minor’s (pub. 1966) very serenity arises from Harapi’s opaque treatment of an uncomplicated melody, which is briefly developed before returning in a slightly altered guise.  Moll ‘e kuqe top sheqere (A Candied Apple, pub. 1966) is a charming piece in 7/8 time, reflecting the simplicity of childhood treats in its setting of an off-beat melody against a rhythmically hypnotic left-hand accompaniment. Two northern Albanian folk songs are the basis of Harapi’s Waltz on a Popular Theme (pub. 1987), a favourite piece of Albanian pianists.

Arian Avrazi’s Tokkata (1979) imitates folk instruments and rhythms through the percussive effect of alternating hands.  He explores quartal harmony, crushed dissonances and a variety of meters, including 7 + 5 / 8.  Frequent meter changes and rhythmic alterations to the opening theme, including triplet quaver patterns within 7/8 and syncopations that emphasise the second half of secondary beats, give a dynamic edge to this toccata in ABA form.  The solemn stillness of the central Adagio provides welcome relief from the driving intensity of the outer two sections.

Audiophile Auditionwww.audaud.com, December 2003

‘Kenge is translated as “song” and establishes that most of these short pieces and suites are lyrical, though with a strongly exotic turn of melody and harmonies coming from the age-old Albanian culture’s mix of elements from East and West. There are waltzes, marches, humoresques, romances and nocturnes. Some of the pieces are just a bit over a minute length while Zadeja’s Four Pieces for Piano runs 11. Complete notes on each piece are enclosed. A very pleasant keyboard tour of an exotic land.’

American Record Guide, 1 March 2004

‘Kirsten Johnson plays this music with loving care and wrote the authoritative notes; do expect limpid melody, haunting modal harmony, folkloric atmosphere, and rhythmic vitality. Johnson plays with nuance and color; the recording is rich and resonant.’

BBC Music Magazine, 1 June 2003

‘…this 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. The toccatas of Feim Ibrahimi and Arian Avrazi are invigorating works, much else has 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.’

Classics Today, 26 August 03

‘Kirsten Johnson’s loving mastery of this music and skilful, 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. . Does Johnson plan a sequel?’

CD Review, hosted by Andrew McGregor, Radio 3, 29 March 2003

[ Played Nina-Nana by J. Papadhimitri in entirety] ‘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.’

Music Web, 30 April 2003

‘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.’

TEMPO : A Quarterly Review of Modern Music, Volume 57, July 2003

‘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 here dates from the 20th century and all of it shows profound folk influence, not without good reason.. all [of] these pieces are superbly played by Kirsten Johnson and well recorded: this is a repertoire well worth exploring.’

The Times, 25 March 25 2003

‘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. .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.’