Hovhaness is one of the most recorded of neglected composers. Most of his output, including 67 symphonies, remains unrecorded (a sensational project for Naxos, perhaps). Crystal have done more than their fair share by having systematically reissued the Poseidon LP catalogue onto silver disc. This is the latest instalment taken directly from the now 31 year old Poseidon 1005.
Berberian (no relation of Berio's Cathy, as far as I am aware) has a malleable voice which ventures into baritone territory to colour these songs. He is fairly steady in tone production as you will hear in O Love Hear my Cry.
The Hafiz Love Songs are set with care and done with grace. They range from the childlike ditty of Hafiz is a Merry Old Thief (for all the world like an Eastern shadow of Old King Cole) to the delicate mayfly tracery of Where is my Beloved. These songs can be likened to Holst's Rig Veda hymns though the piano part is coloured by a knowing 20th century mind alive to Schoenberg's Hanging Gardens, Martinu's Toccata e Due Canzoni and the techniques of Cowell and Ornstein. The singable vocal line (which can be declamatory à la Alan Bush, at times - as in Love for the Soul).
How I adore thee would pair rather well with Ivor Gurney's Black Stitchell. When Hovhaness sets Black Pool of Cat to words by Jean Harper we are in a tremulous twilight world. Consuelo Cloos's Lullaby of the Lake moves forward briskly with a decorously rippling piano line.
Dawn at Laona is in four movements with the first, a Prelude, for piano solo. As so often in these songs Berberian takes easily to the muezzin's melisma, heard strongly in the Vision of Dark Places. Motionless Breath is as static as expected. The Three Odes of Solomon share the dark turn of mind of Laona touching and with reverential gravity and devotional wonder. As the Wings of Doves would match up well in company with Herbert Howells' King David. As I have commented before in reviewing the Delos Magnificat and other choral works, Hovhaness can often sound like a soul-mate to the metaphysical-ecstatic strand in British cathedral music.
Hovhaness transposed these songs specially for Berberian's voice. The singer, whose notes appear on the liner booklet, clearly has a deep affection for the songs. It is notable that Berberian shared his concerns that his voice might be too heavy for the Hafiz songs yet it works very well. I can, however, imagine the songs spinning a yet more golden trail in the hands of a fine baritone such as Brian Rayner Cook or Peter Savidge. As it is, this is not a disc to hear in a single sustained listening session. This is no slur on Berberian but such is the steady character of tracks 9 to 19 that the effect can pall unless one takes a break.
The texts are printed in full and the poems are set and sung in English.
We can look forward to another Crystal CD that will couple the two other Poseidon LPs of Berberian singing Hovhaness songs.
Like a mantra I must not avoid my usual aspirational plea: that Crystal will work wonders on the original tapes or if lost then on a good quality version of the Poseidon LP which included the wind orchestra symphony Ani. Fingers crossed also that the tapes of the MGM Hovhaness series will turn up.
A disc to open ears to Hovhaness's pianism and to Berberian's sturdy devotional legato. Watch this space for the next disc.