by Walter Simmons
HOVHANESS Piano Trio No. 1. Sonata Ricercare. Artinis, “Urardüan Sun God. Suite for Oboe and Bassoon. Poseidon Sonata. Bardo Sonata. Piano Sonatina. String Trio. Three Haikus. Night of a White Cat. Sonata for Two Bassoons. Sonata for Two Clarinets. Sonata for Oboe and Bassoon. Sonata for Viola Solo ● Paul Hersey (pn); Jiří Šesták (ob) Michael Kornacki, John Varineau (cl), Libor Soukal, Radek Dostál (bas); Christina Fong (vn, va); Christopher Martin (va); Karen Krummel (vc) ● OGREOGRESS 884502299595 (DVD; 2:06:08)
Listening to this collection of 14 rarely heard works of Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)—a total of more than two hours drawn from the years 1935-1992—got me thinking of the very different types of listeners who are drawn to the enormous output of this unusual composer. There are really three large groups, each of which sees the composer according to its own preferred orientation. Some view Hovhaness as a member of the conservative wing of 20th-century American composers, a defender of both beauty and tonality; others view him as an innovative musical thinker, who, along with such explorers of the exotic as Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Lou Harrison, laid the groundwork for the notion of “world music;” still others regard him as a mystic, a visionary, a pioneer of the New Age aesthetic, who renounced intellectual approaches in favor of an appeal to the magical, the intuitive, and the spiritual, and who used his music to advocate pacifism and universal brotherhood. This trichotomy has made for some strange alliances within the pro-Hovhaness camp, and is reflected on this recording.
Here is a wealth of Hovhanessiana drawn from virtually his entire creative career, from his early 20s until his early 80s, brought to us on one of OgreOgress’s provocatively ornery audio-only DVDs. Yes, that’s right—an audio-only DVD, designed for those with DVD players connected to their audio systems; there is no visual component other than track numbers. I will refer those interested in my thoughts about releasing recordings for this medium to my review of the Ogre’s previous Hovhaness release in Fanfare 32:1 or on my website (www.Walter-Simmons.com). And rather than discuss each little work specifically, I will limit myself to more general comments.
First of all, with only one or two exceptions, the performances offered here are consistently superb, placing the music in the best possible light. This is especially advantageous to the pieces for woodwinds, as they fall under the heading of Gebrauchsmusik, and hence are the types of pieces that are played a good deal more than they are heard. Such attractive performances make listening to them more pleasurable, although some are pedestrian enough to have been composed by almost anyone. I don’t think even the most infatuated Hovhaness acolyte would deny that a sizable proportion of his music from each of his style-periods amounts to no more than mere tidbits—trirfles of no consequence. The recordings, judging from the impression gleaned from listening to them through my television, are also superb, while the highly informative annotations are written by Marco Shirodkar, curator of the excellent website at www.Hovhaness.com—truly a model among composer-websites.
Then there is the perspective inferred from the chronological overview (the contents are listed chronologically in the headnote above, and are presented in that sequence on the recording as well). The first two pieces date from the 1930s—before 1942, when the composer supposedly destroyed all the work he had composed up until that time. The Piano Trio was dedicated to Sibelius, with whom the young composer was then in contact. These early pieces tend to be modal and diatonic but not notably “oriental,” and often subjected their extremely simple materials to stringent contrapuntal disciplines. The pieces from the 1940s (represented here by Artinis) reflect Hovhaness’s immersion in his Armenian roots, with piano pieces that imitate zither-like instruments characteristic of the Middle East. (Mihr, Fantasy, Op. 16, and, of course, Lousadzak—none of which is represented on this recording—are the apotheoses of this period.) The pieces from the 1950s (starting on this recording with the Poseidon Sonata)attempt to expand and apply these techniques in a more abstract, less purely ethnomusicological way. Some of them even embrace more dissonant harmonic usages. (It was during the 1940s and 50s, most Hovhaness experts agree, when his greatest works appeared.) The Poseidon Sonata itself was created in a public improvisation, then notated from a recording. During the 1960s (represented here first by the Piano Sonatina) the composer began to fuse sounds derived from the music of Japan, India, and Korea together with some ideas that were circulating among more avant-gardecomposers. These, such as the String Trio offered here, are some of his least readily accessible pieces. Then, from around 1970 on (starting here with Night of a White Cat) he seemed to return to all the techniques he had used in the past, presenting them in their simplest, most extended guises.
The recording as a whole is probably of greatest value to casual listeners of New Age background music (who happen to do their listening on a DVD player). They might play the disc through from beginning to end without paying great attention to any one item. For such a listener the varied instrumentation, stylistic shifts, and excellent performances together evoke a pleasantly exotic mood for reflection. However, sad to say, there are no great discoveries of Hovhanessiana here, no previously hidden masterpieces.
Perhaps the most ambitious piece of all is the very late Sonata for Viola Solo, written in 1992 for the distinguished violist David L. Sills. Its nine movements add up to some 18 minutes. Although I am generally immune to the charms of pieces for unaccompanied string instruments (the sole exceptions being Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas), I would have to say this is not the worst of the genre, although much of its melodic material is indistinguishable from dozens of Hovhaness melodies one has encountered over the years. But some portions of the piece are quite challenging for the player—especially passages with sustained two-voice counterpoint. I regret having to report that these passages tax Christina Fong’s technique past her ability to maintain proper intonation, producing some unfortunate results.