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Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
CD side [59:00]
Janabar ‘Journey’ for piano, trumpet and orchestra op. 81 - I Fantasy (1950) [11:54]
Talin – for viola and orchestra op. 93 – II Estampie (1951) [1:51]
Shambala – for sitar, violin and orchestra op. 228 (1969) [45:00]
Audio DVD side [126:00]
Janabar ‘Journey’ for piano, trumpet and orchestra op. 81 (1950) [37:01]
Talin – for viola and orchestra op. 93 (1951) [16:19]
Shambala – for sitar, violin and orchestra op. 228 (1969) [45:00]
Interviews and Talking: Alan Hovhaness and Antony Hopkins [28:00]
Christina Fong (violin; viola)
Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar)
Paul Hersey (piano)
Michael Bowman (trumpet)
Slovenská Filharmónia/Rastislav Štúr
rec. Bratislava , Slovakia. DDD
OGREOGRESS PRODUCTIONS no number [CD: 59:00 + DVD-audio: 126:00]
UPC Code 634479667077
Experience Classicsonline

The Alan Hovhaness website

What exactly are you getting here? First and foremost this is a substantial fix of Hovhaness’s major concertante works and for that reason cause to celebrate. These include three rare concertos of which Shambala and Janabar are completely unknown quantities. On top of which there is approaching half an hour of spoken material by the composer and a distinguished interviewer.

This is that rare creature: the ‘dual disc’. Physically it’s only one disc. On one side (it’s labelled) is the conventional CD. Flip it over and put it in a DVD player and you can hear a very extended audio-only sequence. Be clear – the CD gives you the Shambala Concerto complete plus single movements from Talin and Janabar. The DVD-audio contains complete performances of all three concertos and the spoken word material. Shambala and Janabar here receive world premiere recordings. The CD side also contains pdf files with notes by authority Marco Shirodkar whose Hovhaness website is the place to go for all Hovhaness information. The disc is fitted into a slimline jewelcase. Glenn Freeman of OgreOgress Productions has done all Hovhaness admirers a great service in releasing this disc. It’s not the first time either – witness Christina Fong and Arved Ashby’s album of works for violin, viola and keyboard.

On the CD the centre of attention is bound to be the single continuous movement Shambala concerto. It is a magical piece and juicily evocative, in all its Eastern otherworldliness, of the mythical Tibetan realm by which it was inspired. The sounds of the sitar are steely, tangy and notes wander as if mildly unstrung and suggestive of things only partly or hardly understood. Pattering and thrumming rapid raindrop patterns take their place in the instrument’s deployment (15:01) as does a strong aleatoric-improvisational element. Christina Fong’s solo violin has a major life-enhancing part to play throughout and the slaloming violin notes we know from the same composer’s Fra Angelico overture also figure strongly (32:31). Grand courtly dances – another of the composer’s signatures - also put in appearances as at 14:00 and 21:12 as do mystical bursts of tintinnabulation and intertwining tendrils of woodwind lyricism. While much of the piece is moodily contemplative there are moments of buzzing and thrumming activity as a 31:12 onwards. This makes for a very different and more style-coherent contrast than the recently recorded Saxophone Concerto with its unnerving collisions of style. While much of the concerto is instantly recognisable as Hovhaness one or two passages may yet surprise such as the rapid cantabile of the violin soloist at 37:02. At the end the work fades into a misty gleam and intimations of a serene eternity.

Shambala was written for Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar and dates from between Symphonies 21 Etchmiadzin op. 234 and 22 City of Light op. 236. It was commissioned by Menuhin and seems to have been intended as a continuation of the Shankar-Menuhin East meets West fusion series which produced several LPs. Shankar’s two sitar concertos which are part of the same movement can be heard on EMI Classics Gemini 5865552 where the performers include Ravi Shankar, Menuhin, Rampal, LPO/Mehta and LSO/Previn. The sitar player for the present recording, Gaurav Mazumdar is a Shankar pupil. While Menuhin never performed Shambala it was not the end of his association with Hovhaness. He premiered the composer’s Violin Concerto Ode to Freedom on PBS-TV on 7 March 1976 with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by one of Hovhaness’s staunchest champions, André Kostelanetz. It was this conductor who recorded for CBS an LP of And God Created Great Whales, Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, Floating World and Meditation on Orpheus (M34537). The Ode is a worthwhile work and one which I rather hope Christina Fong might consider reviving.

I am indebted to the writings of Marco Shirodkar for the following information. Hovhaness had a longstanding and sustained interest in music of the east. There is a CRI CD which provides evidence of this. Hovhaness’s first contact with Indian culture came when in 1936, Uday Shankar's dance troupe held concerts in Boston. Among the ensemble was the 16-year old Ravi Shankar playing sitar. "In the early 1950s Hovhaness was Director of Music and composer for the Near and Middle East sections of the Voice of America, and in 1959/60 spent a year in India on a Fulbright Scholarship, becoming the first Westerner to have his works performed at the Madras Music Festival."

I then turned to the DVD and the complete five movement Janabar. In the first movement, Fantasy, Paul Hersey's steady yet restless minimalist solo, contrasts with the later entry of a stormily oriental orchestra. The same pattern of 'solo later joined by orchestra' follows for the Yerk: a melancholic Bachian, arioso in which violins that muse in devotion, in passion and in frictionless mercury over the outline of the solo violin's song. The third movement is a Toccata which is even more blackly minatory than Fantasy. Again the solo piano initiates this, the shortest of the five movements. The piano writing here and in Fantasy recalls that of Bax in The Devil that Tempted St Anthony but with an added twist of dissonance. Michael Bowman's trumpet then sings a typically dignified benediction over the tense thrum of the strings. Years before Nyman's score for The Piano we hear a similar cantabile chime in Sharagan - Hymn, which is the penultimate movement. Hersey is later joined by Fong and the silvery meditations of the string choir again. The finale, Tapor is the only movement to begin and continue with orchestra and soloist - this time Michael Bowman's trumpet - part chant, part hymn, part holy reflection. If you think in terms of the Tallis Fantasia with trumpet solo then you have some crude approximation of the sound of this movement. One can never doubt Hovhaness's earnestness of conception and execution. In his writing one is often confronted by the sense of a composer lost in wonder and supplication at the feet of some deity.

The viola concerto Talin is the shortest work here at just over quarter of an hour. It was first recorded by Emanuel Vardi on an MGM LP E3432 (1957) while still comparatively new. Vardi was joined by the MGM String Orchestra/Izler Solomon and the coupling was Hindemith’s Trauermusik and Oedoen Partos’s Yizkor ("In Memoriam"). For the present recording Christina Fong is our surefooted guide as soloist. With a suitably spiritual stance and impressive concentration she brings out this three movement work's introspective, unflamboyant and hoarsely dark-amber tones. The movements are Chant, Estampie with its quick-pattering pizzicato perpetuum mobile and the Tallis-seraphic summation of the Canzona. Finzi lovers should warm to Hovhaness's music-making if they can accept the oriental accent.

It's a pity that access to the full Janabar and Talin is restricted to those (no doubt many) who have DVD players. So much more convenient if this had been two CDs or a single disc with two CD sides. However this is a minor aside about a volume that blazes the Hovhaness trail into thickets dense with a mass of undiscovered works. There is so much more to come.

The interview tape is from the Cristofori Foundation. In them the composer speaks of man the conqueror diminished by his failure to merge with what he encounters rather than subjugate it. His gods are Shakespeare, Bach, Handel. He recounts his love of mountains and of long walks. He claims Wagner as a Gagaku composer from a previous incarnation. The Japanese Shõ or mouth organ is praised to the skies and Hovhaness speaks of having played the instrument in a Japanese student orchestra. He also played the Indian vina rather well and the sitar though less well. There are reminiscences about the way professional orchestral musicians laughed at his use of ‘spirit murmur’ aleatorics in the 1950s but grew to like the sound. Brass instruments are venerated. The trombone is spoken of as the last voice in the modern orchestra of old civilisations. The trumpet speaks as cantor or as the voice of God. The horn is also spoken of in the same breath but its effect is best as part of a ‘choir’ of horns. Antony Hopkins speaks in measured tones - and briefly - about some of the elements to be found in the music: the mountains, use of Armenian chant, Gagaku court music, the opera-oratorios of Handel and aleatorics. These are felt to have alienated many musicians at least until the thaw imperceptibly set in during the late 1970s. Hovhaness recognises – but we are not given a date for the interview - that his music is growing to be more acceptable as the listening world becomes a more diverse place drawn to the music of many cultures.

OgreOgress disdain the humdrum so no catalogue number but I gather that the disc is easily available from Amazon and CDbaby.

A celebration of Hovhaness’s otherworldliness idiomatically done – invaluable.

Rob Barnett

Catalogue of works by Alan Hovhaness


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