September 2023  New Hovhaness piano CD from Haskell Small

Hovhaness piano recital CDs have not been in short supply over the last few years, but every additional offering is welcome, especially coming from a pianist new to the discography. This CD comes courtesy of Haskell Small, a distinguished Washington D.C.-based pianist and composer who in addition to his concertizing has served on the faculty of that city's Conservatory of Music for some four decades. Small has recorded a wide range of piano repertoire, as well as his own music, for labels such as Naxos, Centaur and the issuer of this disc, Connecticut-based MSR Classics - and hats off to MSR for shining a light on these recordings which were made as far back as 2013-14.

The disc's title of Mountain Fantasies for Piano sums things up nicely: a program centred around three of the composer's mountain-titled late piano sonatas, which are in truth freely-composed suites, several named for the peaks he so admired since boyhood, even if the music is more impressionistic than programmatic. Some shorter pieces (mostly from the 1940s) fill out the CD including the charming 12 Armenian Folk Songs, which dates from the time Hovhaness was rediscovering his paternal ethnicity. None of the works here is a first recording, but that should not deter serious Hovhaness collectors because from the outset it is apparent that here is a pianist both clearly attuned with Hovhaness's musical world and offering highly accomplished yet at times quite different readings of music many have come to know through existing recordings.

The disc's curtain raiser is the Blue Job Mountain sonata (1979) where Haskel's delicacy on the keys and dynamic precision is immediately in evidence. For the opening Andante he maintains a perfect balance between a rocking left-hand ostinato and singing right-hand melody and melisma. This sets a standard of precision followed throughout the disc. The ensuing Fantasy, alternating between searching melody and big chords with grand flourishes is played with meticulous control lacking any superfluous bombast.

In the jaunty outer movements of the 1980 Prospect Hill sonata Haskell brings an effortless fluidity and joyfulness to the music. For the first time, his playing brought to this listener an image of the young Hovhaness excitedly exploring the nooks and crannies of this suburban Boston peak from which, on a clear day, the keen hiker would have been able to see the distant Mount Monadnock, a peak that featured more than once in the titles of his music.

The 4-movement Mount Katahdin sonata (1987) comprises the composers' late-period characteristic juxtaposing of diverse musical idioms. The first movement's chordal hymnody breaks into a Near Eastern kanoon-like melismatic improvisation over a static drone. Then follow a lullaby-cum-procession movement, a jhala movement and more Near Eastern hues in the finale. Also squeezed onto this one-hour disc is the final 'Hymn' movement from the 1982 Mount Chocorua sonata. This covers similar musical terrain as elsewhere, comprising hymnal and jhala idioms.

Alan Hovhaness: Mountain Fantasies for Piano
Haskell Small, piano

MS1796  |  Total Timing: 59:26  |  DDD

Hovhaness Haskell Small
1-3Sonata: Blue Job Mountain Op. 340 (1979)11:19
I - Andante 3:01
II - Fantasy 6:25
III - Jhala to Blue Job Mountain 1:56
4-6Sonata: Prospect Hill Op. 346 (1980)11:19
I - Andante, Allegro Vivace 3:58
II - Andante 1:42
III - Allegro Vivace 2:08
Sonata: Mount Katahdin Op. 405 (1987)12:58
I - Solenne 6:51
II - Lullaby 2:26
III - Jhala of Larch Trees 1:13
IV - Maestoso Tragico 2:30
11Pastorale No.1 Op. 111 No.1 (1952)5:39
12Hymn to Mt. Chocorua Op. 335 (1982)6:57
13-2412 Armenian Folk Songs Op. 43 (1943)11:51
25Farewell to the Mountains Op. 55 #2 (1946)12:47



The Pastoral No.1 is unusual Hovhaness piano fare in that the pianist plays both on keyboard and directly on the piano strings using timpani sticks. This work's first recording was made some 60 years previously by Haskell's one-time teacher William Masselos, who may well have introduced his pupil to Hovhaness.


Despite Hovhaness's piano scores having an economy of performance markings, Haskell has a knack for picking the right tempi, judicious pacing of momentum, and shaping so many gestures just perfectly. As well as the necessary fluid technique, he displays a probing musicianship and instinct which bring out the essence of each piece beautifully. The performances of the Armenian Folk Songs here are as appealing as any already out there, but these are arguably the most engaging recordings of the three selected piano sonatas, so the disc can be recommended for these alone. Let's hope that if there is to be a Volume 2, it will not have to wait a decade from recording sessions to release!

Marco Shirodkar

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