HOVHANESS: Concerto for Viola and Strings, “Talin.” Concerto for Violin, Sitar, and Orchestra, “Shambala.” Five Hymns of Serenity, “Janabar”

HOVHANESS: Concerto for Viola and Strings, “Talin.” Concerto for Violin, Sitar, and Orchestra, “Shambala.” Five Hymns of Serenity, “Janabar” • Rastislav Štúr, cond; Slovak Philharmonic; Christina Fong (vn, va); Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar); Michael Bowman (tpt); Paul Hersey (pn) • OGREOGRESS DualDisc (DVD: 126:00; CD: 59:00) – Interviews and Talking (Alan Hovhaness and Antony Hopkins)

This is a most peculiar release. It is a “DualDisc,” containing both DVD and CD information. The DVD is more than two hours in duration, while the CD portion comprises 59 minutes selected from the complete program—Shambala in its entirety, plus one movement each from Janabar and Talin. The CD also holds useful program notes by Marco Shirodkar—who created and manages the extremely informative Web site www.Hovhaness.com—which augment the brief notes that appear on the oddly designed disc package. I should emphasize, however, that the only visual component of the DVD program is the menu of the disc, indicating what is being heard. The package appears to sell for $24.50. Anticipating that this format will bewilder many potential consumers, I wrote to producer Glenn Freeman, inquiring about the rationale for this format. His reply, edited for concision: “This title was originally planned for release on Audio DVD only. Audio DVD allows for much higher audio quality [96kHz|24bit]—over 2 hours of high resolution audio on one disc. This has been our format of choice since 2004. It was suggested we should also issue content on CDs from time to time—a few consumers voiced an interest in purchasing Shambala on CD. So, for several reasons, we decided to press this title on one DualDisc instead of Audio DVD: 1) Our budget only allows for one pressing; 2) We would much rather press at the higher audio quality, if given a choice; 3) Those with CD players are encouraged to upgrade their equipment in the future and will have the whole program when they do so; 4) The CD side of a DualDisc only allows for 60 minutes of material, MAX. Does it make sense? The idea was to accommodate everyone, both audiophiles and everyday users, while at the same time demonstrating the clear advantage of Audio DVD, hopefully inspiring those who have only CD players to upgrade their equipment in the future.”

Well, does it make sense? I will leave it to you to arrive at your own answers. However, for me—and for what percentage of other “serious collectors” I do not know—this meant playing it through my TV, or on the computer; so much for “much higher audio quality.”

Turning now to the content of the release: There are three little-known works of Hovhaness, along with just under half-an-hour of commentary by Hovhaness (and a minute or two attributed to Antony Hopkins—not to be confused with Anthony Hopkins, of Hannibal Lecter fame). What proves to be the most outstanding aspect of the release is the work called Janabar, or “Five Hymns of Serenity.” Hovhaness enthusiasts who have become disillusioned by the shockingly high proportion of dross within the composer’s output, especially during the last three decades of his life, have cause to rejoice. Composed in 1950, during the period generally conceded to be his most fertile, with regard to quality, if not quantity, this extended (37 minutes) work is scored for trumpet, violin, piano, and string orchestra, and comprises five movements, each discrete enough that it could stand effectively on its own. Originally written for Anahid and Maro Ajemian, the violin/piano duo who were among the composer’s most vigorous champions during the 1940s and 50s, Janabar is a richly varied work that touches upon most of the musical devices and sub-styles that concerned Hovhaness during those years: using the piano to imitate Armenian dulcimer-like instruments and pitched water-bowls played percussively; modal, hymnlike string polyphony; pizzicato passages in which each instrument plays at its own rate; cantorial writing for the trumpet. All these techniques, familiar to all Hovhaness aficionados, appear here in some of their most inspired usages. Perhaps the work it resembles most closely is Khaldis—the concerto for four trumpets, piano, and percussion, written around the same time, and another one of the composer’s strongest works. Such pieces as the Prayer of Saint Gregory and the Symphony No. 6 are also called to mind. No admirer of Hovhaness will want to miss this piece; I am quite sure it has never been recorded before, and am amazed that it took this long to surface—it is definitely one of his greatest works. The performance is generally quite fine: pianist Paul Hersey is especially sensitive to the musical expression; Christina Fong handles her role ably; and Michael Bowman’s trumpet solos are on the mark; on the other hand, the last movement presses forward a little brusquely, as if the conductor were impatient and unmoved by the music.

Talin is a rather different story—a work composed shortly after Janabar, and recorded in 1957 by the well-known viola virtuoso of the period, Emmanuel Vardi, with a string orchestra conducted by Izler Solomon. This piece is revered among Hovhaness admirers as one of his most profoundly inspired works, and that performance still stands as one of the most fervently convincing renditions of the composer’s music ever to appear on recording (although it has long been out of print). Hovhaness approved a transcription of Talin for clarinet and strings, and that well-intentioned version appeared on recording during the 1970s, but the clarinet is simply incapable of the burnished intensity of a viola, well played. The concerto—less than 20 minutes long—comprises three movements: a short, wild Armenian dance with polytonal pizzicato accompaniment, sandwiched between two slow movements in which the doleful, throbbing cantillations of the soloist are answered by impassioned modal polyphony in the string orchestra—a familiar Hovhaness technique heard at its best in this work. Now, a half-century later, we have the second recording of Talin in its original version for viola. Christina Fong, one of the chief protagonists of the OgreOgress operation, recorded an attractive CD of violin and viola music by Hovhaness several years ago (see Fanfare 27:4). It pains me to say that this new recording falls far short of the Vardi/Solomon by a vast margin, although it is not so much that Fong/Štúr are bad, but that the older recording is so great! Perhaps what is most dismaying is that Rastislav Štúr conducts this music as if it meant absolutely nothing to him, or as if his mind were elsewhere during the recording. The tempos seem purely arbitrary, are consistently too fast, and once set, never change. There is no contour to the phrasing; it is like someone reading aloud in a monotone, in a language he doesn’t understand. And violist Fong matches this conductorial indifference with a lack of intensity, precarious intonation, and insufficient technical ease to play the floridly melismatic passages of the third movement with abandon. Why this work has not attracted more violists—given the instrument’s meager repertoire—is beyond me.

However, what appears to be the principal work on this new release is Shambala, a 45-minute “concerto” for violin, sitar, and orchestra, in one single movement, composed in 1969, on commission from Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin intended to perform the work with sitarist Ravi Shankar, but such a performance never materialized “for reasons unclear,” and Shambala has lain dormant ever since—until now. 

(For the benefit of our younger readers, let me recount a strange confluence of circumstances during the late 1960s: At that time the Beatles were at the height of their sensational international popularity, which enabled them to explore musical possibilities beyond the limited vocabulary of the rock idiom. And anything they explored became world-famous virtually overnight. As they delved into “alternative forms of consciousness,” aided by psychedelic pharmacopoeia, the Beatles became fascinated with Asian cultures—especially that of India. Beatle George Harrison traveled to India to study with Ravi Shankar, a sitarist with a devoted following in that country—and elsewhere, among those attracted to this exotic and highly evolved musical tradition. Harrison’s association with Shankar catapulted the latter to international celebrity, and his concerts—previously enjoyed by only small, specialized audiences outside India—were now attended by thousands of college-age youth in America and elsewhere in the West. To a much lesser extent, this celebrity even generalized to Hovhaness, as his decades of experimentation with fusing Western musical forms and Asian musical techniques now drew the attention of the more musically sophisticated members of this huge audience. Hovhaness had met Shankar in 1959, while on a Fulbright Fellowship to India. Yehudi Menuhin already had an abiding interest in Indian culture; now, during this period he gave performances and made recordings together with Shankar [“East Meets West”—that sort of thing]. However, this widespread fascination with Indian music was short-lived, and by 1969 had probably peaked. But the association of Menuhin, Shankar, and Hovhaness was a clear outgrowth of this fad.)

Shambala is said to be the first orchestral work to incorporate the sitar, although the following year Shankar composed his own “Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra,” which I heard at the time and recall as abysmally bad. Hovhaness’s composition, however, is not abysmally bad. But, as with many of his later pieces, it is needlessly long and overly simple. According to Shirodkar, if I understand correctly, the sitar part is not specifically notated, beyond indicating the Indian modes which the soloist is to follow while improvising his part. The violinist’s role, however, is largely notated, but quite primitive in style. The musical vocabulary does not adhere exclusively to Indian-based usages, but includes in addition the “sliding tones,” “giant melodies” accompanied by ceremonial bells, dissonant canons at the unison, and cluster-chords that Hovhaness adopted from his study of Korean music, as well as some of his own longstanding devices (such as melodies with the Al-an Hov-HA-NESS rhythmic signature). The role of the orchestra is limited, and the interaction between the two solo instruments is mostly quite rudimentary, although some of their duo passages create heterophonic modal complexities. But 45 minutes is an awfully long time for a single stretch of music. True, there are subsections, but there is very little contrast in mood, character, or energy level among them. Unlike the case with authentic Indian ragas, there isn’t that gradual increase in energy as the music progresses from a rather static, reflective opening, through a more actively rhythmic phase, finally culminating in almost frenzied virtuosic elaboration. Yes, there are some opportunities for more rapid sitar passages, but they do not really change the overall level of intensity. Christina Fong handles the violin contribution with conviction, while Gaurav Mazumdar, a student of Shankar’s, fulfills his role with ease. Although the quality of the recorded sound on the CD track—for this as well as the other works—is very good, there is something about the recording of Shambala that leaves me with the impression that not all the elements were recorded at the same time and place. Perhaps the sitar was recorded separately, and then mixed in—not that there’s anything wrong with this, although we, the listeners, should not notice it. 

Enthusiasts who have discovered Hovhaness since his death in 2000 are likely to find the half-hour of the composer’s own commentary—subdivided into twelve snippets—quite revelatory. However, the interviewers’ questions have been edited out, and the dates and sources of these commentaries are not provided (although I can tell you with certainty that several of them came from an interview done by yours truly, in 1971. It would have been nice if I’d been asked for permission, or at least credited appropriately.) These commentaries touch upon the composer’s feelings about religion, about long mountain walks, about tuning systems, his sources of inspiration, use of aleatoric devices, his “visions,” his playing of Asian instruments, and the basis of his interest in the music of Eastern cultures. But including the dates and sources would have provided a more informative context. In conclusion, readers will have to weigh the pros and cons of this unusual release, and decide individually on its relevance to their musical and technological interests.