HOVHANESS Violin and Viola Pieces · Christina Fong (vn/va); Arved Ashby (pn) · OGREOGRESS PRODUCTIONS OG003 (60:04)
Oror (1922/26). Varak (1944). Chahagir (1944). Saris (1946). Shatakh(1948). Yeraz (The Dream) (1948). Khirgiz Suite (1951). Duet for Violin and Harpsichord (1954). Three Visions of Saint Mesrob (1962)
This CD caught my attention chiefly because it concentrates on rarely heard pieces by Hovhaness composed during the 1940s and 50s—the period when he was writing his most inspired work. I was not previously familiar with either of the performers, or with Ogreogress Productions, which seems to be a tiny operation based in Grand Rapids, Michigan (see www.ogreogress.home-page.org). Violinist Christina Fong is no Itzhak Perlman, displaying a rather thin tone, with little vibrato, and a reticent approach overall, although her intonation is generally on target, and there is a clean purity to her sound. Furthermore, this music does not require a rich, throbbing violin sound or lots of “personality.” Most of the music on the disc has either not been recorded before, or was available on obscure and/or long-unavailable LPs.
Oror has the distinction of being identified as the prolific composer’s first composition, ostensibly dating from his early teens. (I say “ostensibly” because Hovhaness was one of those composers inclined to revise early works without indicating having done so.) It is a brief lullaby based on a simple, pentatonic-flavored melody presented and reiterated with little adornment or complication.
Almost all the remaining music on the disc originated during the 1940s and 50s, when Hovhaness returned to his spiritual/cultural roots, attempting to use aspects of Armenian (and other similar) folk and religious music as media for expressing his own personal concerns. Much of the music from this period displays a dynamic fervor and creative urgency largely absent from his later work. Most notable of these pieces is the brief (four-minute) Varak, named for a holy Armenian burial ground. An opening section presents a passionate incantation with strong major-minor conflicts. This section calls to mind portions of the work that many Hovhaness experts consider to be the composer’s masterpiece: the Concerto for Viola and Strings, subtitled Talin. (A brief digression is warranted here: A brilliant and deeply moving performance of Talin, featuring violist Emanuel Vardi, was available briefly during the mid-1950s on an MGM LP. Some twenty years later clarinetist Lawrence Sobol persuaded the composer to make an alternate version of the work for him to perform and, later, record. That recording has been re-issued on a Citadel CD [CTD88107] still available. However, the clarinet, lacking the viola’s capacity for incisive articulation and passionate intensity, is a poor substitute and changes the character of the work entirely. Unfortunately, Vardi’s performance has never been re-issued, nor has any other violist chosen to champion the work. [One would think that Kim Kashkashian would be a natural and likely candidate, wouldn’t one?]) In a sense, Varak is almost a preparatory study for Talin. The lively second section displays one of Hovhaness’s more effective devices: the violin and piano each representing the characteristic style of a different Middle-Eastern instrument, playing together but independently in seemingly ad hoc, improvisatory counterpoint. Similar in style but not quite as inspired is the somewhat more extended Shatakh. Hovhaness enthusiasts will want to know both these pieces.
On the other hand, quite disappointing is Saris, actually (at fifteen minutes) the longest piece on the disc. The violin plays long, melismatic melodies, while the piano accompanies, first “strumming” in obvious imitation of a stringed instrument, then later in a slow “jhala” style, rather like raindrops. Initially intriguing, the piece remains flat in affect throughout, becoming an excellent soporific.
Chahagir features unaccompanied viola, while Yeraz (The Dream) is for unaccompanied violin. Both are improvisatory modal incantations. By now readers will know whether these pieces are their cup of tea.
Familiar from another MGM LP of the 1950s, the six-minute Kirghiz Suitecomprises three concise movements. This is the only piece that calls for anything approaching virtuosity, and here Ms. Fong really shines. Her rendition is more polished, precise, and dynamic than that of Anahid and Maro Ajemian, who originally championed and recorded the work, and she and Ashby make of it a far more substantive and satisfying piece of music.
Even more concentrated is the Duet for Violin and Harpsichord, composed in one day, its three movements lasting a total of three minutes. Floating around for nearly 50 years on CRI issues performed by Robert Brink, with composer Daniel Pinkham at the harpsichord, this rather odd piece comprises two movements in which angular phrases in the violin are accompanied by cluster harmonies, then later, by a strange ostinato, in the harpsichord. More than one listener has described these movements as “Webernian” and not without reason. The third movement is a fervent hymn, accompanied by full triads in repeated quarter-note rhythm. Here I think I prefer Pinkham’s more sustained rendition of the accompaniment to Ashby’s detached plunk-plunk-plunk.
The melodic angularity and cluster harmony of the Duet anticipate the direction Hovhaness was to take in the 1960s, exemplified by Three Visions of Saint Mesrob. Attempting to evoke a sense of mystery, these short movements comprise improvisatory melismas without a clear sense of meter, accompanied by tone clusters or single notes in the piano, often tonally unrelated, played with pedal remaining down throughout, creating a semblance of some exotic stringed instrument.
Ogreogress Productions’s packaging is spare, to say the least, with no information about the performers, although this is mitigated somewhat by a mid-range price. Pianist Ashby provides brief but informative program notes on the music.