September 2022  New Hovhaness piano CD from François Mardirossian

Collectors of Hovhaness's piano music have been almost spoilt of late, with a third recent release of his piano works appearing in September. Released on the French Ad Vitam label, this one comes from François Mardirossian, a young pianist active mostly in France and Belgium, who has put much of his musical energies into championing the music of recent decades, in the process garnering the Grand Prix de la musique de la ville de Lyon.

Although Mardirossian has cited Chopin as his favourite composer, he has looked across the Atlantic for the repertoire he chooses to record. His 2019 debut solo disc featured the piano works of 'Moondog' (the American Louis Hardin), and the follow-up was a recording of Philip Glass's two-hour Piano Studies — both released to critical acclaim.

Given Mardirossian's evident Armenian ancestry and his interest in 20th century American piano music, it is not surprising that he has also taken a deep interest in the music of Hovhaness. In June 2021 at Lyon's Superspectives festival he gave an all-Hovhaness piano recital, something of a rarity in France, to commemorate (belatedly) the 20th anniversary of the composer's passing in 2000. Much of the repertoire from that recital was subsequently recorded in the studio for this disc which, spanning some six decades of the composer's creativity, provides a good overview of Hovhaness's various pianistic idioms. The 12 pieces featured are not ordered chronologically and comprise eleven short works alongside a larger 1985 piano sonata. More familiar selections are mixed in with lesser-known pieces, including one receiving its first commercial recording.

Works included from the 1930s are Dance Ghazal (1930), Two Ghazals (1933 rev. 1966), Mystic Flute (1937) and the two 1937 Mountain Dances. Despite their early dates, they already show the twenty-something year-old composer in sympathy with Eastern modalities and forward-looking in his employment of dissonant note-clusters. The Macedonian Mountain Dance was said by the composer to have been played by Rachmaninov as a concert encore. The Mountain Dance No.2 (revised in 1962) sounds like a macabre dance for Halloween night. In his booklet notes, Mardirossian astutely draws connections between the sound worlds of these dances and Bartok's 2 Romanian Dances Op.8a, citing "violence that is almost primitive" and "abrupt changes…rhythmic shifts and…sonic profusion".

From the 1940s Mardirossian has chosen Achtamar (1947) and Suite on Greek Tunes (1949). These are characteristic pieces of that decade with their monophonic melodic writing and left-hand accompaniments providing either a percussive drone or off-beat rhythmic decoration. In the case of the masterful Achtamar the composer consciously imitates near-Eastern plucked stringed instruments on the keyboard. Mardirossian chooses an approach less rubato-like than some earlier recordings but his sympathy with the music is never in doubt.

Alan Hovhaness: Works for Piano
François Mardirossian, piano


Ad Vitam AV 220715  |  Total Timing: 60:47  |  DDD

Hovhaness Francois Mardirossian
1Mystic Flute Op. 22 (1937)2:00
2Pastorale No.1 Op. 111 No.1 (1952)5:28
3-5Suite for Piano Op. 96 (1954/67)9:18
I - Doloroso 2:00
II - Invocation Jhala 4:08
III - Mysterious Temple 3:10
6Dance Ghazal Op. 37a (1930)1:56
7Achtamar Op. 64 (1947)3:51
8Two Ghazals Op. 36 (1933 rev. 1966)7:01
9-12Cougar Mountain Sonata Op. 390 (1985)12:47
13Consolation Op. 419 (1989) 1st recording2:09
14-16Suite on Greek Tunes (1949)4:37
I - Wedding Song 1:29
II - Grape-yard Song 0:54
III - Dance in Seven Tala 2:14
17Love Song Vanishing Into Sounds of Crickets Op. 327 (1979)3:53
18Slumber Song Op. 52 (1954)4:37
19-20Macedonian Mountain Dances 2:22
I - Dance No.1 Op. 144 (1937)3:01
II - Dance No.2 Op. 144b (1937/1962) 2:22

   

               

The 1950s decade is represented by quite dissimilar pieces. The Pastorale No.1 (1952) is a rare instance of the more experimental Hovhaness exploring the dark, foreboding sonorities from the lower registers inside the piano before a brighter fugal passage tentatively emerges on the upper keyboard. This is one of the composer's most effective piano pieces, both to listen to and watch, and below one can see Mardirossian's performance of this piece from his Hovhaness recital at the aforementioned 2021 Superspectives festival.

From 1954 there is a simple but charming children's piece entitled Slumber Song, dedicated to the composer's daughter (although she was around 18 at the time). Its elegiac melody was used several times by Hovhaness, including for his orchestral work Meditation on Orpheus.

The Suite for Piano (1954/67) was previously recorded in the early 1990s and comprises three colourful, impressionistic movements. The last of these, 'Mystic Temple', pits high-registered chords against very low ones, putting one in mind of Debussy's La Cathédrale Engloutie, although here we get a more straightforward and exotic melody — one which will be familiar to some as the theme to the composer's weighty orchestral meditation Fra Angelico.

The sole work from the 1970s is Love Song Vanishing Into Sounds of Crickets Op. 327 (1979), a short but delightfully effective work comprising essentially a chromatic hymn morphing into a coda of 'cricket sounds', an ethereally harmonised repeating high C note, that eventually fades into nothingness.

The Cougar Mountain Sonata Op. 390 (1985), even at around 13 minutes, is the longest piece on the disc. This engaging work's four movements encompass a gamut of moods from great turbulence to opulence and tranquillity, giving pianists a lot to get their musical teeth into. Cougar Mountain has previously been recorded by Nicola Giosmin and Alessandra Pompili, and Mardirossian's performance is very much his own, but as convincingly accomplished as any.

The last-composed work here is 1989's Consolation, essentially a chromatic chorale bookended by a few harp-like ascending chords. At just 2 minutes long it is perhaps not the major draw for completists that a first recording might otherwise be.

Conclusion

It can be a double-edged sword when a performer (or conductor) is forced to deal with scores containing a bare minimum of performance directions - in the case of Hovhaness there are often just general markings for tempo and dynamics. However, the flip-side of this is that his scores can also provide ample scope for diverse interpretations of the music. Mardirossian's approach to Hovhaness casts some of these works with a different hue to existing recordings by, for example, Turkish-born Sahan Arzruni where rhythmic articulation and elasticity of tempi are effectively brought more to the fore. Yet these are intelligently-performed recordings with Mardirossian finely attuned to each of Hovhaness's assorted piano styles. The recording is well produced too, and the booklet (in both English and French) generous in its information and imagery. Coming from France it is hoped that this welcome release will stir up some new interest in the composer in that part of the world. As an overview of the piano works of Hovhaness it makes for an easy recommendation.

Marco Shirodkar

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