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Notes on the Caucasus Festival at the Elbphilharmonie, Easter 2018

For a week over Easter, the Elbphilharmonie was under the spell of music that had hitherto only been known in our part of the world to the chosen few. And it’s probably fair to say, if we’re going to cover the whole range of music played in the 14 concerts, that the chosen few actually needed to be more than a few: after all, who really knows their way around the music of Georgia and Armenia, of Chechnya and Azerbaijan?


Upon a closer look – and listen –, the region that we call Caucasus turned out to be a highly diverse world, full of fascinating individuality. The two outstanding orchestras that have the word Georgia in their names performed on traditional Western instruments, it’s true. And in the case of the Georgian Chamber Orchestra Ingolstadt there was even a Mozart work on the programme, namely the Concerto for Two Pianos & Orchestra, played with unerring instinct by the sisters Khatia and Gvantsa Buniatishvili. But nearly all the other pieces stemmed from Georgian composers.

Georgian Chamber Orchestra Ingolstadt, Khatia and Gvantsa Buniatishvili
Georgian Chamber Orchestra Ingolstadt, Khatia and Gvantsa Buniatishvili © Stefan Sauer

In the Grand Hall, the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra likewise played works by contemporary Georgian composers for the most part: two first performances of pieces by Nikoloz Rachveli, who also conducted the orchestra, and two works by the best-known Georgian composer outside his own country, Giya Kancheli, framed Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2. In the latter work the soloist was Dudana Mazmanishvili, an artist who, as cultural attaché of the Georgian embassy in Berlin, also does a lot to promote the knowledge of Georgian music and culture in Germany.

Giya Kancheli, the master from Tiflis, was present in person, and had already received ovations from a clearly touched audience that afternoon in the Recital Hall, after a concert given by the Ensemble Resonanz and saxophonist Asya Fateyeva.


The Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, which opened the Caucasus Festival the previous Wednesday, showed its gratitude for the frenzied applause at the end of the concert by playing the »Sabre Dance« by the Armenian composer Aram Khatschaturian: the only piece of music from the Caucasus that enjoys international fame. By way of contrast, the works from Giya Kantscheli’s extensive oeuvre that could be heard at the Caucasus Festival avoid any hint of sabre-rattling: Kantscheli’s music is often exceptionally gentle and delicate in tone.

Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, soloist: Narek Hakhnazaryan
Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, soloist: Narek Hakhnazaryan © Daniel Dittus


The ten-part Anchishati Choir from Georgia came on to the stage with sabres in their belts and awe-inspiring batteries of (fake) bullets strapped across their chests. But none of the 30 or so songs, some of them centuries old, that the ten men performed almost exclusively a cappella sounded particularly belligerent. The totally original harmonies and voice-leading of their singing, always unpredictable for Western ears, triggered astonishment even among experienced singers from Hamburg in the audience. The only familiar feature of all these many-part songs was that they always ended in unison.

The four ladies of the Aznash Ensemble from Georgia brought kindred, but independent and thoroughly intensive colours on to the stage of the Recital Hall with their Chechen songs and dances.


Maundy Thursday brought a reunion with Hewar, the ensemble led by clarinettist Kinan Azmeh and soprano Dima Orsho, both from Syria, who performed to an enthusiastic audience last year at the festival »Salam Syria« that formed part of the Elbphilharmonie’s opening season. This time, Hewar appeared alongside the ten-part instrumental group Gurdjieff Ensemble from Armenia. They played music by the great mystic Georges Gurdjieff, a figure as important to the Sufis as he is to confession-free Christians, and by Komitas Vardapet, the almost mystically revered torch-bearer of genuine Armenian music.

Hewar and Gurdjieff Ensemble
Hewar and Gurdjieff Ensemble © Maik Reichert


The renowned Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian had written a new composition especially for this encounter in Hamburg, a joint commission by the Elbphilharmonie, the Morgenland Festival, Osnabrück, and the Holland Festival in Amsterdam, entitled »Tun Ari«, which translates as »Come Home«. The Armenians haven’t forgotten that many of their people who managed to flee from genocide at the hands of the Turks in 1915 found refuge in Syria. And conversely, Armenians offer refuge today to Syrians fleeing their own country.


Armenia was the first country anywhere in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion. But in the music of the ensemble named after the mystic Georges Gurdjieff, oriental notes can be heard as well – played on the oud, the kanun (a kind of dulcimer) and of course the duduk, which, with its warm, nasal sound, comes close to being the national instrument of Armenia. Played to such perfection as it was by all the ensembles appearing at the Caucasus Festival, the duduk conveys an excess of mourning, and plenty of solace. It conveys pain – and provides the medicine to combat the pain.

Duduk © Maik Reichert


The Armenian Tigran Hamasyan, the Caucasian jazz musician with the largest international success, presented solo pieces, duets with the duduk playerNoyayr Katashian, and after the interval the programme »Luys I Luso« in his Good Friday concert. To accompany the Armenian sacred chants, some of them as old as the fifth century B.C., sung in festive costume by the Yerevan State Chamber Choir, Tigran Hamasyan improvised on the piano in the Grand Hall with quietly ecstatic intensity.

Tigran Hamasyan und der Yerevan State Chamber Choir


Arrangements in several parts of ancient, originally homophonic liturgical chants from Armenia go back to the above-mentioned Komitas Vardapet, who worked primarily as a monk. This music is likewise unique in its very individual melodies, which vary between plaintive, austere and wild, as impressively demonstrated at the final concert of the festival on Tuesday by the seven women of the Geghard Monastery Choir. After the interval, the ladies sang secular pieces of more recent vintage with strident voices. Remaining in the secular sphere, they also highlighted fascinating facets of cleverly arranged Armenian folk music, eliciting thunderous applause from the audience in the Recital Hall.

Geghard Choir
Geghard Choir © Claudia Höhne

The centrepiece of the recital given by the Kuss Quartet from Berlin was the melancholy String Quartet No. 1 by Tigran Mansurjan, which the Armenian composer wrote in the early 1980s and dedicated to a musician friend who had passed away. The ensemble even has a native Armenian among its members in the shape of cellist Mikayel Hakhnazaryan. In addition to the quartet by Mansurjan, they played traditional Armenian and Georgian pieces as well as improvisations: for the latter, they were joined by duduk player Emmanuel Hovhannisyan and the soprano Karine Babajanyan.

Kuss Quartet


The pieces sung by Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova on Easter Sunday in the Grand Hall penetrated the farthest of all into the world of Arabic music and indeed of non-European music in general. With their long and undulating, devoted invocations full of melismas and expansive gestures, with sparse instrumental accompaniment, the masters from Azerbaijan recalled the Pakistani qawwali and even Indian ragas.


An illuminating contribution to the programme to heighten people’s musical awareness was made by three performances of the production »Supra«; specially created for the Caucasus Festival, it told us a lot about Georgia and its population. »Supra« is based on a text written by the Georgian author Nino Haratischwili, who lives in Hamburg; Ms Haratischwili produced the piece as a Georgian banquet with cheese, bread and wine for the audience, who sit at a long, U-shaped table. In cleverly interwoven scenes, the three actresses Nina Sarita Balthasar, Solveig Krebs and Anja Topf conjured up portraits of Georgian women – both women who live in Georgia itself and emigrants who try (unsuccessfully) to come to terms with the very different lifestyle in Central Europe.

Supra – ein Fest
Supra – ein Fest © Daniel Dittus

As interludes, a small ensemble of Georgian women sang and played enchantingly exotic chansons. If the Caucasus Festival left one wish unfulfilled, it was the desire, one’s curiosity thus piqued, to learn more about the lives of people in modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan, conveyed in a similarly playful and touching style. But a literary chronicler as gifted as Nino Haratischwili is probably only to be found in Georgia.

Text: Tom R. Schulz

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