Isabel Bayrakdarian: Mother of Light (Armenian Hymns and Chants in Praise of Mary)

Serendipity has its rewards; it's certainly played a pivotal part in my life, musically speaking. To cite one long-ago instance, in the early ‘80s I was idly thumbing through the vinyl racks at a London, Ontario record shop when the most enchanting sounds began filling the store—my first exposure to Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne and the equally magnificent soprano singing them, Kiri Te Kanawa; needless to say, that recording accompanied me home and in the years since has brought me countless hours of joy. Something a bit similar happened recently when, halfway through a three-hour drive to visit family, I chanced by accident to hear another captivating piece of music, this time on CBC Radio and the title of which I mentally noted when the piece ended. The music was, of course, an excerpt from Mother of Light, a collection of Armenian sacred music sung with exquisite poise by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, which I quickly tracked down at the earliest opportunity. Admittedly, the earlier experience was the greater epiphany of the two, in large part because being young I was just then discovering whole new realms of music I'd hardly known existed, Canteloube's one of them; that being said, Bayrakdarian's recording is an enthralling collection tailor-made for lovers of spiritual sacred music.

Though she's dazzled listeners at some of the world's most celebrated opera houses and performed in many of the greatest operas (The Merry Widow, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute), I'm betting no recording is closer to her heart than this one. Recorded in Fresno, California in August 2015, the hour-long release is quite literally a family affair: her husband, Serouj Kradjian, arranged the eighteen settings; her brother, Dr. Ishkhan Bayrakdarian, plays ceremonial percussion instruments; and her sisters, Siroun Kojakian and Marie-Jean Zaatar, sing with her on three hymns. Adding to the music's presentation are the contributions of cellist Ani Aznavoorian and, conducted by Anna Hamre, Coro Vox Aeterna, a female choir consisting of (on this recording) nineteen sopranos and altos.

Yet the recording is even more personal for another reason. In Isabel's own words, “A couple of years ago I made a desperate plea to God to spare my mother's life, and in return, I promised that I would sing the praises of His mother, Mary. This recording, which includes music written from the fifth century onwards, is entirely devoted to Armenian hymns dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, and is the fulfillment of my promise.” Elaborating further, she states, “My mother was the choir director [of the Armenian Apostolic Church], and she often let me join the adult choir, even though I was too young to contribute effectively. That particular music, with its exotic melismas, Eastern melodies, and long legatos, formed the early foundation for my musical education, and continues to be my inner compass, by which I find and stay on my personal path in life.” Bolstering the impact of the soprano's delivery are understated arrangements by her husband that complement her voice without diminishing the music's alluring character.

In settings arranged for soprano, female choir, and cello accompaniment, three types of hymns are featured: the sharagan (a sacred hymn sung during liturgy), dagh (ode), and megheti (canticle), the latter distinguished from the dagh by long melismatic vocal lines and brevity of text. The recording mesmerizes almost immediately when the supplications of Isabel's vocal are deepened by the cry of Aznavoorian's cello on “Zartir Nazeli” (Arise, Graceful One), a dagh written by Baghdasar Tbir. As stirring are “Khngi Dzarin” (Frankincense Tree), which sees the soprano's vocal shadowed by the gentle murmur of the female choir, and “Mayr Yev Gouys” (Immaculate Mother), a sharagan by Ara Bartevian designed to be sung at the Morning Hour service and featuring Isabel augmented by both choir and cello. Those aforementioned “exotic melismas, Eastern melodies, and long legatos” are in plentiful supply in the haunting dagh “Varaneem” (Burdened with Sins) and in the meghetis “Badjar yev Sgizpn” (Cause and Origin) and “Panin Hor” (Word of the Father), and throughout the album, the purity of Isabel's voice is heard in all its rapturous glory, especially when the arrangements within which she appears are largely austere.

By way of supplemental reference, Mother of Light might be regarded as a must-have for admirers of John Tavener, Patricia Rozario, and specifically collections such as Mary of Egypt, Eternity's Sunrise, and To a Child Dancing in the Wind. Yet while it shares certain things with those works, exotic melodic character and ravishing vocalizing among them, Bayrakdarian's release requires nothing more than its own magnificent content to argue on its behalf.

March 2017