Alan HOVHANESS (1911–2000) Solos, Duos and Trios
Trio 1 for piano, violin and cello Op. 3 (1935) [7.50]
Sonata Ricercare for piano (1935) [7.35]
Artinis ‘Urarduan Sun God’ for piano Op. 39 (1945) [6.35]
Suite for oboe and bassoon Op. 23 (1949) [15.33]
Poseidon Sonata for piano Op. 191 (1957) [10.55]
Bardo Sonata for piano Op. 192 (1959) [10.23]
Sonatina for piano Op. 120 (1962) [6.11]
Trio for strings Op. 201 (1962) [5.19]
Three Haikus for piano Op. 113 (1965) [5.19]
Night of a White Cat Op. 263 (1973) [2.43]
Sonata for two bassoons Op. 266 (1973) [7.40]
Sonata for two clarinets Op. 297 (1977) [6.42]
David Hersey (piano)
Christina Fong (violin/viola)
Libor Soukal (bassoon)
Jiri Sestak (oboe)
Karen Krummel (cello)
Michael Kornacki (clarinet)
John Barineau (clarinet)
Radek Dostál (bassoon)
Christopher Martin (viola)

rec. no dates or venue offered

Now here’s a curiosity for you, and a first for me … and I don’t necessarily mean this rare music. This is an Audio DVD; when you play it on your DVD player you will only hear the music not see any performers. It would not incidentally play on my computer because I did not have the valid DVD decoder. It’s important then that the recording should be good but it is rather boxy and not that pleasing especially when the piano is involved. Nevertheless let’s take these pieces in turn.

I have tended to find that a little Hovhaness goes a long way. Now don’t get me wrong I like his music. Back in 1974 when he was in London recording some symphonic music for Unicorn (now on Crystal: see review) I sat talking to him for two hours along with other students in a small office in the old Guildhall School of Music. I remember leaving feeling quite elated and deeply and profoundly moved by his guru-like presence. This CD offers us an opportunity to hear his development over nearly sixty years of composing. Beginning with the Trio No1.

This most prolific of composers decided that this piece should constitute his Opus 3. It consists of three movements and, amazingly was dedicated to Sibelius. The composer wanted to learn counterpoint so he went to the great Frederick Converse (also a composer) and this work as well as the ensuing Sonata Ricercare both date from these studies. In the case of the Trio the basic tonality is modal. The finale is a brief and rather earnest fugue, a texture which Hovhaness was to use constantly throughout his extraordinarily long life. The composer was a quick and talented pupil; in the same year he reached Op 10. He wrote the three movement Sonata using a simple melody at the start and then produced fourteen variants on it. He followed this with a mirror fugue on the subject and as a finale provided a strict fugue in four parts.

The CD then jumps forward ten years. Hovhaness’s Armenian descent became a special factor at this time although its influence lived always with him. Artinis was the sun-god of the pagan Armenian peoples. The title was added later but there are three elements which make up Hovhaness’s music from this period: 1.The melodic use of certain modal and pentatonic keys found in some eastern cultures 2. A basically simple texture which revolves around differing ways of using monody and 3. The imitation of ethnic instruments: here, the near eastern zither particularly in the third movement. It makes a unique and curious sort of piano music.

The Suite for oboe and bassoon has a lower opus number and was not completed until four years later. It was not published for a further twenty - perhaps undergoing much revision. It has ten brief movements. An oddly eclectic piece it has some movements, like 1 and 3, much influenced by eastern sounds such as slides and quarter-tones. Others sound more like student exercises in renaissance-style two part counterpoint: canzonas and fantasias. Although the piece is most beautifully and musically played there are a few too many movements for me and its earnest dullness is not really overcome.

Now into the 1950s we have made it as far as Op. 191 with another brief piano work, the Poseidon Sonata. This started life as an improvisation for a dance company. Afterwards written down it still sounds random. I have to say that I know of no work quite like this. In two movements it seems to stem from a world in which its creator had never been a part of what we call ‘The Western Tonal Tradition’. It is very ornamented and seemingly formless. It is also very difficult to like. The recording has certainly quite a lot to answer for, likewise with the next opus number which is from two years later marking an unusually fallow period for Hovhaness. The Bardo Sonata’s first movement inhabits a similar sound-world, but the second is a fleeting dancing Scherzo and the third a long monody where perhaps an Armenian string instrument is again evoked or possibly a desiccated chant melody.

It may well be that the opus numbers have little meaning, for example the piano Sonatina of 1962 is shown as op. 120. It offers more typical Hovhaness with a modal Japanese scale being its basis across three very brief movements. I have to say however that a better introduction to the composer’s piano music is on a disc from 1992 entitled ‘Fred the Cat’ which could still be available on Koch 3-7195-2H1 as recorded by Marvin Rosen.

From the same year is the Op. 201 Trio for strings. This is a Japanese piece and was inspired by travelling in that country, meeting its musicians and possibly writing for them and then transcribing his ideas into this little three-movement work. There are sounds here which according to the booklet notes imitate the Japanese hichiriki (the glissandi) and the free-strumming pizzicatos which imitate the koto. Quite fascinating.

The Japanese theme continues on this long disc with more piano music, the Three Haikus of three years later. These demonstrate in sound the poetic metre of 5, 7 and 7 in various orders either in notes, phrases or rhythms. The last chord sounds on as if the strings of a koto were left to vibrate. Hovhaness was still using Japanese scales in the 1970s as in Night of a White Cat and what better instrument than the silky tones of the clarinet for it. Hovhaness loved cats. Several of his works relate to the belief he held that cat spirits guided him especially when composing. Indeed the white cat in question had the Japanese name ‘Sasa no Yuki’ - snow on bamboo.

Alan Hovhaness was like a fountain from which music continuously flowed every day. Next comes a Sonata for two bassoons and, equally unusually, after it a Sonata for two clarinets. Both are described in the booklet as being in his “contrapuntal modal style” of several years before. There’s a typical melodic emphasis on the interval of the augmented second found in the music of his native land and in the Far East. Each is in three movements including fugues. The first movement of each smacks too much of note-spinning however.

Hovhaness writes well for woodwind. Indeed several works including the beautiful Symphony No 20 Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain (1969) are for wind only (Naxos: see review; see also; Delos: see review). We next have a six movement Sonata for oboe and bassoon. This brief work includes three even briefer dances. It is best thought of as a suite which includes various fantasies: one on ‘re’ and one on ‘me’.

The last work in this seemingly randomly organized CD is the longest on the disc: the Sonata for solo viola, the composer’s last chamber work. This is a substantial utterance of nine movements. If you can imagine Bach living today in the Middle East you may get some idea of the stylistic picture. Anyhow it’s a very expressive piece and superbly played with deep understanding by Christopher Martin who, like all of the performers, evidently got inside the music wonderfully well before committing it to disc.

Can I recommend this disc? Well if you are already keen on Hovhaness then this despite its format is generous and fills many a gap. But if you know little or nothing of his work then I would not start here. Perhaps a Naxos disc of the symphonies would be preferable (see review). The highlight? I’m very glad to have got to know the Viola Sonata.

Gary Higginson

If you are already keen on Hovhaness then this is generous and fills many a gap… see Full Review