Comment by Thanh-Tam Le, French violinist

Comment by Thanh-Tam Le, French violinist

[] When I ordered Ermira Zyrakja's CD, [] there were less than five recordings of Albanian classical music commercially available, including lighter music, and sadly, it is unlikely that CDs can be produced in Albania before some time. This makes this piano recital all the more important and valuable, I think. Albania has a very rich musical tradition. It is a Balkanic nation, but it is also a Mediterranean (Adriatic) country whose montainous profile has fostered the development of variegated local cultures. Polyphonic songs are particularly famous, in a style which notably differs from Croatian klapa singing, but there is also a wealth of folk instruments and interesting rhythmic patterns which can relate this music to more Oriental conceptions. "Serious" music is relatively recent in Albania. Apart from a work, "Skenderbeg", composed in exile by Fan Noli (a kind of Albanian Paderewski, maybe more controversial), the first symphony was completed in 1956 by Cesk Zadeja, who had studied in Moscow and became a major figure in Albania's music. Other important names are Pjeter Goci, Aleksander Peci, and the three other composers presented on this record: Kosma Lara [], Tonin Harapi and Feim Ibrahimi [] As can be expected, this is no avant-garde music. These composers studied in Moscow, but it should be stressed that Russian influence is much more felt on techniques than expressive means -- in particular, these relatively short pieces avoid plain Soviet official style and its compulsory optimism and bombast, and they display many finely inspired moments, far from many clumsy attempts to forcedly adapt local Eastern folklore into ready-made "Western" patterns. At first hearing, I must say that I more often thought of Grieg than Prokofiev, apart from a passage of Zadeja's Toccata. The forms used are familiar from Romantic piano music, Ballads, Variations, Miniatures. More careful listening gradually reveals subtle specific features. For instance, repeated-note patterns are less regular and even that would be expected in a standard virtuoso piece, and this reflects the special modes of attack used by Albanian folk musicians, either with pinched string instruments or with struck membranophone instruments. Another feature is the general use of small intervals, which do not lead to uniformity but convey the feeling of obstinacy and legendary epos, which makes some of South-Eastern European music so captivating. Melodic lines tend to be sparse, harmonic filling is rare, and thus the impression of austerity is naturally avoided, probably a heritage of deeply integrated vocal polyphonies. Harmonies are generally consonant, with hints of modality, without sounding dull or purely decorative. More surprising perhaps is the light-heartedness and delicacy of some pieces. The interplay of musical textures, well-balanced interjections makes up for renewed interest, liveliness more than boisterousness, but the overall impression is that of smooth refinement. One of Lara's 3 Ballads reminded me of Tubin's Estonian Dances. Harapi's Miniatures, based on urban songs from Northern Albania, are poetically touching as well (I know, some will call it "adolescent critic's writing", but we musicians are not used to despising this kind of profound qualities...) ; the "Little Sorrow" even has a French touch about it, not so far from Poulenc or Satie, actually. This does not mean that the more developed works lack vigour or expressive range and power (Lara's Pastoral Ballad or Ibrahimi's Toccata, maybe the most clearly redolent of its geographical origin, are outstanding instances of this), but what I mean is that "cliches" which come to the mind about what Albanian music might look like are almost constantly absent from this often endearing discovery trip.

Of course, I would not say that every single piece is a neglected gem, but there is more than enough for patient, devoted listening and reflection in this CD. While this might not appeal to fans of Boulez, Cage or Carter, it should be readily enjoyable for general audiences, even if it obviously takes time before one grasps its full dimension. A word about the performer. Some very fine Albanian musicians have appeared lately, singer Inva Mula and violinists Klodiana Skenderi and Tedi Papavrami, for instance. Ermira Zyrakja has a fine technical command, which is no surprise in a country where young gifted instrumentalists seem to have been submitted to Soviet-style intensive teaching, but she does not indulge in thoughtless virtuoso display. Put plainly, she truly plays this music with the same commitment that one could expect for standard classical repertoire. Even though some would dream of more spectacular performances, probably not welcome here anyway, I was thankful for the sober, sometimes restrained dynamic progressions, while quite a few other young "fireworkers" tend to mistake brutal emphasis for power of expression...Most importantly, the variety of attacks is vividly rendered, which is vital whenever the music wants to evoke folk instruments and original vocal writing. Of course, this is first and foremost fully integrated piano music, not a mere imitation of exotic effects. []