December 2019 New Arzruni CD surveys Hovhaness early piano works, including first recordings
Alan Hovhaness's bountiful output for solo piano has been served rather well of late, but it is far from fully explored. This welcome release from Turkish label Kalan Müzik merits special attention on two counts: firstly, it features pianist Şahan Arzruni, one of the preeminent Hovhaness interpreters, whose last Hovhaness disc appeared some 30 years ago (and with the composer joining for a piano duet); secondly, it comprises little-known or hitherto unknown repertoire from a particularly fertile period in the composer's development.
The bulk of the music spans the decade from the mid-Forties to mid-Fifties, including several works extant only in manuscript form. This period, which some scholars (including Arzruni) consider to be the composer's most fruitful, is often designated the "Armenian period", but as Arzruni's selection makes clear, Hovhaness had thoroughly assimilated musical cultures from much further afield. For example, we hear evocations of Near and Middle Eastern stringed instruments in the openings of Yenovk and the Fantasy, which are marked "Oud-like" and "Imitating the Kanoon" respectively. (Such moments point to why Arzruni is perhaps the ideal pianist in this repertoire, for with his Armenian roots, ethnomusicological background and long association with Hovhaness he imbues the music with an ethnic vitality and expressive authenticity that can elude Western-trained pianists approaching what is essentially non-Western music.) Then there is exotic rhythmic complexity, such as in one of the Greek Tunes where Hovhaness employs shifting rhythmic patterns or "tala" — a device from Indian music not dissimilar to isorhythm in European medieval music. Getting into the early 1950s more familiar-sounding polyphony and fugal writing are added to the mix.
Overall this circumscribed survey of the composer's piano works serves almost as a lexicon of his early compositional palette, offering a reminder that for all its accessibility and surface attractiveness, by the mid-1940s Hovhaness's music was in its own way quite radical, and no less of a cross-cultural melting pot than we find in Henry Cowell or John Cage, both of whom were admirers.
With its offerings of first recordings and some rare novelty pieces, existing admirers of the composer should not hesitate to acquire this disc. Recording quality, as well as balance between piano and percussion, is good throughout.
For the newcomer to Hovhaness, it can be a daunting task seeking out the best introductory disc of piano works for this composer. As with Hovhaness's plethora of symphonies, no one disc has the capacity to showcase all the avenues explored by such a restless creator, and whilst this one clearly doesn't aim to — with its focus on the composer's first mature piano works — it is as good a candidate as any. But what gives it a definite edge is the calibre of both music selected and performances, putting it amongst the top 3 or 4 available discs to own, another of which is Arzruni's earlier Hovhaness disc Visionary Landscapes (details below).
In his 1940 application for a Guggenheim grant Hovhaness wrote: "I propose to create a heroic, monumental style of composition…direct, forceful, sincere, always original but never unnatural." The two works bookending this disc, Invocations to Vahakn and Hakhpat, live up to these ideals and both are for piano with percussion. Several movements are completely non-harmonic (employing only sparse drones) and exotically melodic with Oriental idioms evoked through fine-filigreed, single-note percussive melodies.
The 1945 Invocations to Vahakn was recorded admirably for the New Albion label in 1991, but a second recording of this enchanting work is most welcome. It was subtitled "Ancient Armenian God- King" and its five numbers display a sparseness and vitality evocative of adoration and valour. Invocation #1 was choreographed by Merce Cunningham for a performance at New York's Hunter Playhouse in May 1946, with John Cage on piano. The remaining 4 movements add percussion parts, and both here and in Hakhpat, percussionist Adam Rosenblatt very ably handles his small batterie of percussion. Invocation #3 in particular, contrasting graceful outer sections (with 3 tuned Chinese gongs) and a martial central one (complete with thunder sheet and conch) is a real gem.
Extract from Invocation 3
Hakhpat (1946-51) receives its premiere recording here, and comprises 8 short movements whose moods vary from vigorous dance-like numbers to tender and lyrical ones. Never published, Hovhaness perhaps felt that other works in this vein were stronger, such as the Invocations and the later chamber work Khaldis. He did, however, recycle a melody from one of the movements for his delightful miniature Upon Enchanted Ground.
Extract from Hakhpat
Hakhpat 1st recording • Laona 1st recording
Vijag • Lake of Van Sonata
Journey Into Dawn 1st recording
The Fantasy is the first movement of a suite called Lalezar, derived, Arzruni's notes tell us, from an earlier song cycle. Its initial melody, however, will likely be recognizable to some as the opening trombone theme of the composer's 1950 St. Vartan Symphony. Here it is given a Middle Eastern-sounding zither-like treatment, whereby repeated notes sustain the longer tones. The melody is freely developed with exotic elaboration, leading to a gamelan-like final section.
Yenovk (Partita for Piano) was originally a suite of seven movements, but Hovhaness removed one and reordered the others. It comprises short numbers varying from strumming and gamelan figurations to vocal-like canzonas, and ends with a longer fugue movement. Much of this piece will be familiar to some, since in 1959 the six movements (minus only the first movement's introduction) were regrouped into just three and retitled 'Madras Sonata' for Hovhaness's performance of it on New Year's Day 1960 in Madras, India. This was not the only Armenian-titled work which got an Indian re-christening for that trip (and which stuck upon publication), perhaps suggesting that Hovhaness saw little disparity between the two musical traditions.
In the mid-Fifties Hovhaness penned several comparatively experimental works that explore a broader harmonic vocabulary through freely chromatic passages. The unpublished Laona (1956) is such a curiosity, recently brought to light by the composer John Diercks, a one-time pupil of Hovhaness at Rochester's Eastman School of Music. Originally titled "Genesee River", its chromatic, arpeggiated chords suggest flowing water, and alternate with three melodic sections, the first of which is in the Indian Purvi raga (sharpened 4th tone, flattened 2nd and 6th tones).
Extract from Laona
There is further eerie chromaticism in the opening Hymn movement of the unpublished Journey Into Dawn, originally titled Piano Suite No.2. Its sequence of five movements sounds rather haphazard, and the ethereal Hymn is at odds with the down-to-earth, disciplined fugue that follows.p>The original version of Mystic Flute (recorded here for the first time) was engraved in 1941 by the composer's earliest publisher, Whitney Blake. That imprint bore an opus number of 43, whereas the oft-recorded later version (published by CF Peters) carries a lower opus number of 22. Its delightful 7/8 oriental melody never changed, but this original version has minor differences in the high-registered ornamental writing. The most discernible difference, however, is the assertive ending.
Vijag is a 3½-minute 'perpetual motion'-like piece, whose two piano parts (both played by Arzruni) weave melodic tapestries around each other over an unchanging drone. The effect is beautiful and cumulatively hypnotic. Like in other early Hovhaness, the motoric streams of notes create a heightened musical stasis that is uncannily prescient — any chronology of early American Minimalism should include this 1946 piece.
The 1949 Suite on Greek Tunes has no opus number and is dedicated to the Greek-American pianist William Masselos, from whose papers this (and other) manuscripts originated. Masselos probably premiered it before the work passed into oblivion until this first recording, some 70 years later. Perhaps to add interest and challenge himself, Hovhaness presents the folk tunes with nimble but rhythmically playful left-hand accompaniments — here and there governed by strict numeric cycles.
The three-movement Lake of Van Sonata juxtaposes dark and brooding sections with lighter, dance-like ones. With its lightness of touch and observation of rubato Arzruni's performance offers the work's best recording yet.
The disc and its accompanying glossy booklet come in a half-inch thick sturdy box. Arzruni has provided booklet information that is generous on both background notes and supporting imagery, including a few photographs of the manuscripts used. The notes are thoughtfully provided in Turkish, Armenian and English, although images have Turkish annotations only. The CD's rather austere cover design stems from its being part of Kalan Müzik's projected 8-CD series in which Arzruni is surveying the history of Armenian piano music. Details of the two other discs so far released appear below.
"[Arzruni's] deep understanding of the roots of this music is coupled with impeccable performances. Even if these were not world premiere recordings, this would be a highly-recommendable release of Hovhaness' piano music."
"...there are no visible links to any 20th century tradition, [Hovhaness's] voice being far too individual and maybe even ahead of his time...a well recorded, extremely well played and gap-filling project. For those interested in this it’s an easy recommendation."
"Arzruni has made a generous selection, nearly all of them world premiere recordings."
"Arzruni has done a great service bringing this magical, undeservedly obscure repertoire to a global audience."
"Arzruni is an excellent interpreter of this rather rarefied repertoire, and this disc is as good a choice as any for listeners who would like to hear more of Hovhaness than his few works that are occasionally programmed in concerts and recitals."
"Nothing is superfluous here. All are excellent Hovhaness and so very much a treasure trove. My strongest recommendation I give to this one. Wow!"
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