Much of a muchness


Amir Farid

MOVE Records MD 3380


A tribute by local pianist Amir Farid to one of the significant figures in modern Persian/Iranian music, this is an album which holds a limited fascination, mainly because it speaks of a world that most of us will never encounter.  Not that Persian music is a completely unknown quantity; I can recall hearing Court music at an Adelaide Festival many years ago and any listener can easily gain access to the nation’s traditional and folk music at the flick of a Google switch.

Javad Maroufi (1912-1993) attempted to fuse his country’s music with that of Europe: a hard task when compared with his predecessors in that endeavour as most of them were by birth entrenched in the European tradition.   Maroufi’s education embraced both worlds and his piano music shows the way in which he tried to craft a language that spoke to listeners in both tongues.

Farid begins with Armenian Rhapsody, a soulful piece with a B minor tonality that doesn’t stray far from closely related keys.   A suggestively Oriental melody enjoys a straight common chord arpeggio underpinning and, in a treatment that quickens the tempo, Maroufi uses  a dulcimer effect in the right-hand, imitating the santur  –   a cimbalom that is common to pretty much every country in the region from Turkey to India.   The composer faces the same problem faced by every writer using folk-songs: what can you do except play the tune louder or softer, as Tchaikovsky did with his little fir-tree?  The problem here is that, because of the unadventurous harmonization,the melody soon palls.

Fantasie follows the same pattern although the melodic content is more interesting and varied – well, there’s more of it – but the harmonic support is just as staid with no changes offered from a predictable series of underpinning chords.  The santur imitation is heavily employed here.   Still there are modal deflections, including a recurring flattened second that contributes some much-needed colour in a none-too-atmospheric ambience.  Golden Dreams is one of Maroufi’s most well-known pieces and it has been subjected to a myriad arrangements.   After a burst of semi-improvisational-sounding introduction, the simple tune – a 6/8 lilt – begins with an Alberti bass underneath.   Farid gives it interest by his maintenance of the work’s underlying melancholy and by investing as much dynamic variety and pliability as he can in a construct that is easy to assimilate, no matter what your language.

Chargah-e-Esfahan strikes a heroic, quasi-Lisztian pose at its opening but quickly reverts to the by-now natural status quo.  A further  burst of action leads to a central section where the melody is interrupted by some flashy scale-work, but the piece seems to be an amalgam of segments, not at all difficult to decipher; some of them have a passing resemblance to folk-dances from further afield than Esfahan.   But Maroufi is concerned to end as he began with the same decorated melody returning to finish, with a final flourish of octaves that irresistibly recall Brahms and Liszt at their most ersatz Hungarian.

Rumi is the shortest piece on the CD; a brief musical vision, I suppose, of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic whose work underpins his homeland’s culture and those of many neighbours.  Any difference to what preceded it on the disc totally escaped me.    Jila’s Fantasy refers, I think, to one of the composer’s daughters and begins with an E minor melody in dulcimer mode; followed by a quicker movement which seems dependent on a simple descending scale and plenty of triplet passages, the opening melody later emerging in transmuted form.  Another tune follows with more obvious modal inflections. Kuku is the longest work on the disc, but it breaks no new ground.  A tune that could be popular/folkloric in origin is given concordant treatment, as well as the all-too-familiar dulcimer/santur oscillating effect.   By this stage, the cupboard seems to be bare; Maroufi makes no effort to give his works any chromatic spike or rhythmic variety. Indeed, you feel that much of this music is suited to pianists of much less talent than Farid; a fair bit could be sight-read without stress.

The five Preludes owe much in atmosphere to Chopin, but not exclusively so.  There is a repeated passage in the first E Major one  that brings to mind effortlessly Schubert’s Standchen and the over-use of sequences in thirds is a Romantic piano trope of the easiest kind;  and the santur device appears  in the piece’s coda.  As it also does at the opening to the next F minor prelude.  But by this stage, the sequences and chord progressions were so predictable that I could play along with Farid, the score for the most part not needed.  The third in the series evokes suggestions of the Chopin D flat Nocturne but without its melodic adventurousness and avoidance of cliche.   A burst of aggression in the centre defuses into dulcimer-work before a return to the first material.   No. 4 in F sharp promises an original touch or two with its opening motive but cannot avoid slipping into the predictable; and, by this stage, those transient heroic flourishes are wearing pretty thin.  The last B minor begins with a deft modal turn or two; then, when the development begins, it reverts once more to a predictable modulation pattern.

Concluding the disc are two short lyrics: Pish-Daramad-e-Esfehan and Sari Galineh.  The first, Prelude on Esfahan (Isfahan) seems to be a well-known tune that Maroufi set in a more brisk arrangement than most others I’ve heard, here splendidly carried off by Farid.. The last work might refer to a village in Azerbaijan but it follows the same pattern as its companion with a few tricks of truncation at the end of phrases.

It’s a set of pieces, in the end, that present no problems – to us or to Farid, who has absolute mastery of the contents.  But, compared to what we have seen him accomplish in the Benaud Trio, as a solo recitalist and in concertos, this is not very challenging matter; rather, an Iranian Album for the Young.   You can appreciate the point that Maroufi is straddling two stools and what he achieves in his efforts is not to be derided.  But, in a world used to the folk-song settings and utilizations of Bartok, Kodaly, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Grainger, Copland, even Berio, it seems that the Persian/Iranian pianist-composer was inclined to content himself with the use of too great a formulaic approach to his compositional constructs; at least, these piano ones.   A pleasant enough collection, but a little goes a long way.