December 2015  New Hovhaness CD features Chamber Works for Strings & Piano and String Quartet

This new CD of Hovhaness chamber music comprises two pieces for string quartet, an early piano trio and, in its first commercial release, the composer's late cello sonata. It is one of those Hovhaness discs which from time to time surface without warning from small and enterprising labels whose management or roster of artistes is in sympathy with some aspect of the composer's oeuvre.

The label here is Vivace Records, the classical marque of K2B2 Records, one of whose co-founders is Buell Neidlinger, the cellist of this disc's featured ensemble. The Alder String Quartet regularly performs in the Pacific Northwest and its members have previously held positions in various ensembles.

The disc begins with the Four Bagatelles, Op.30 that Hovhaness composed in 1966, so their low opus number is rather misleading. They are lyrical, fleeting miniatures, essentially a nine-minute suite replete with attractive melodies often set against the composer's trademark pizzicato accompaniments.

String Quartet No.4, Op.208 No.2 is a weightier affair with the curious subtitle "Under the Ancient Maple Tree". This alludes to the work ostensibly being Hovhaness's memorial to a fondly-remembered tree on an uncle's farm which had been destroyed by lightning. However, no such devastation seems discernible in the music, where two predominantly brooding movements flank a lighter neo-Baroque fugal one.

The Alder's performances of these two quartet works sound aptly rustic for the at times almost folksy material, showing an alternate approach to that taken in this music's only previous recording by the Shanghai Quartet back in 1994.

Alan Hovhaness: Piano Works
The Alder String Quartet
with Sheila Weidendorf, piano

VIV 8806  |  Total Timing: 49:24  |  DDD

Hovhaness Alder String Quartet
Four Bagatelles for String Quartet Op.30 (1966)9:10
5-7String Quartet No.4 Op.208 No.2 (1970)16:21
Sonata For Violoncello and Piano Op.255 (1932/72) First release15:19
11-13Trio I Op.3 (1935)8:28

In his later years many new works by Hovhaness had material quarried from an ample supply of early unpublished music which had luckily (or intentionally) escaped his alleged bonfires. One such beneficiary was 1972's Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op.255, whose outer movements are extended elaborations of Mountain Saga, a two-movement piano miniature from 1932. In between is a delightful stasis-like movement, whose outer sections have the pianist playing in the composer's jhala style (alternating drone and high-pitched melody notes), hovering above a lower-registered sinuous melody on cello. The effect is truly refreshing, making for an effective contrast with the motivic, developmental workings of the outer movements. The third movement's theme in particular is one of the most poignant Hovhaness ever penned, and had this sonata been in the catalogue of the composer's main publisher, CF Peters, one wonders if it might have made headway into the American cello repertoire, instead of remaining in effect something of a well-kept secret.

As the only work here not previously commercially released, the Cello Sonata is arguably the disc's main attraction, at least for the avid Hovhaness collector, so it is particularly unfortunate that in too many places the cello playing is decidedly off in terms of intonation and pitch, making for a less auspicious premiere recording than one might have hoped. That said, the quality of this music and Sheila Weidendorf's consistently fine piano playing help mitigate the situation.

Lastly on the program, and appearing in only its second recording, is the early Trio I, Op.3, scored for the standard piano trio. It dates from 1935, a time when the young composer was in the throes of mastering traditional Western counterpoint as well as enamoured with Sibelius, the work's dedicatee. As such the work is a rare example of a Hovhaness ensemble piece completely free of the eastern hues that would permeate his mature music. Two outer fugal movements frame a central 'double canon' one. As with the string quartet pieces, the performance here is certainly adroit, but might have benefited from a brisker tempo in the first movement.

Despite the short time span between recording (late August 2015) and release (November) K2B2 have not compromised on audio quality; label co-founder Marty Krystall's mastering is really very good. Also likeable is the slip case's layout with its clear, bold typography and graphics, lacking the formality of many classical CDs. However, this disc also lacks some standard features found with classical CDs which in fairness should be highlighted here, for there are no obvious clues to their absence when buying online. The disc's housing is not the usual plastic jewel case with its usefully indexed spine, but a spineless cardboard slip case, probably the normal housing with all Vivace releases. Of more concern to the classical CD enthusiast might be that there is no booklet of background notes on the music or performers, a standard inclusion with classical discs asking rather less than the $15 admission price here (or nearer $20 if you buy from Amazon).

In conclusion, this is a disc that some Hovhaness devotees might enjoy exploring, even if three of the four works have been recorded previously with rather more finesse (the two string quartets by the Shanghai Quartet on Delos and the Trio on the OgreOgress label). The remaining work, the Cello Sonata, is not well served here but fortunately a much-delayed release of its world premiere recording (made in February 2015 by OgreOgress) will finally appear in Spring 2016. A further disincentive for some will be the aforementioned lack of any program notes with the CD. For the truly curious, a more cost effective investment might be an audio download, as Vivace has this album available digitally from the iTunes store.

Marco Shirodkar

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