HOVHANESS: Piano Music.

HOVHANESS: Piano Music. Marvin Rosen, piano. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7195-2H1 DDDI; 71:21. Produced by Marvin Rosen.

Dance Ghazal (1937). Slumber Song 1938). Macedonian Mountain Dance 1938).Mountain Dance No. 2 (1941). Achtamar (1948). Fantasy on an Ossetin Tune (1952).Orbit No. 2 (1952). Sonata Mt. Ossipee 1977). Sonata Fred the Cat 1977). Sonata Prospect Hill (1980 . Sonata Mt. Chocorua (1982)

HOVHANESS: Piano Music. Wayne Johnson, piano. CRYSTAL CD813 [DDD]; 66:32. Produced by Kearney Barton.

Mystic Flute (1937). Dance Ghazal 1937). Macedonian Mountain Dance (1938) Mountain Dance No. 2 (1941). Fantasy (1952). Sonata Ananda (1977). Love Song Vanishing into Sounds of Crickets (1979). Blue Job Mountain Sonata (1986).

“The first time I heard Hovhaness’s music was on the radio. As soon as it began, I stopped what I was doing and listened, not having any idea who wrote it. This was truly the most beautiful piece that I had ever heard in my life. Hearing his music…was for me a profoundly moving, even spiritual experience.”  This is how pianist Marvin Rosen recounts his discovery of the music of Alan Hovhaness. It is interesting to me that his exact words describe my own discovery of Hovhaness. Over the years I have met a surprising number of musicians and listeners who report the same sort of conversion experience around Hovhaness’ music — usually during their early teens.  I was 13 at the time; I wonder how old Rosen was. For me, Hovhaness revealed realms of musical experience I had never imagined: direct access to an ecstatic spiritual state where no music had ever led me. I realized that the emotional experience of concert music was not limited to the conventional platitudes and pieties represented by classical tonality and its finite canon of masterpieces; I realized that great music was still alive and being created right now by living people. 1n these ways Hovhaness’ music changed my life forever. So when the program notes state, “The music of Alan Hovhaness has influenced every aspect of pianist Marvin Rosen’s life,” I think I know what that means.

Because of Hovhaness’ importance to me during my formative years, I have always retained a great affection for his music, and I suppose I always will. However, I see the early attraction to Hovhaness from different perspectives as well: the simplicity and directness of his music makes it immediately accessible to an inexperienced listener and a natural point for a radical departure from conventional musical expression. Also, I had never heard the music of Josquin, for example, or middle-Eastern or Indian traditional music, or other 20th-century styles — music that might have reduced the impression of utter novelty in Hovhaness’ work. As the years went by, my devotion to Hovhaness weakened and became tinged with cynicism: I discovered other music that revealed profound spiritual realms, some more profound than Hovhaness; I realized that many of his compositions recycled the same material over and over, and that when it wasn’t identical material, it was so similar that it might just as well have been identical; I grew to discover that their simplicity of structure caused once-beloved pieces to pall after a while; I admitted that much of it was just plain boring — especially the music he composed after about 1970. I don’t know how many other youthful Hovhanessians became similarly disenchanted, but I have met some.

So, today I :Listen to Hovhaness’ music with a mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment, affection and impatience, approaching a new recording with the hope that some of it will ignite a sense of excitement — which brings us to the two CDs at hand. First, however, I should remind the reader that there is a previous all-Hovhaness piano CD: Hearts of SpaceHS11O24-2, featuring pianist Sahan Arzruni (see Fanfare 15:1, p. 241).  That one is probably better, on balance, than either of these, from the standpoint of musical and performance quality. I have listed the complete programs — with composition dates — of these new CDs, so that the reader can see the way the programs are distributed with regard to compositional periods, which can be quie revealing with Hovhaness, and also that there is some slight overlap between the two programs.

Basically, each disc consists of some short early pieces and some lengthier pieces of more recent vintage. It should be stated here that although he has composed reams of it, piano music does not represent Hovhaness` most inspired work. Although there are exceptions, most of it is pretty poor, sounding like the kind of pseudo-exotic trifles that turn up at children’s piano recitals. In fact, much of this music is capable of being played by beginning pianists, although Mystic Flute is said to have been used as an encore by Rachmaninoff. Of the shorter pieces, Achtamar and Orbit No. 2 show same real sparks of originality and inspiration.   (Incidentally, Sonata Fred the Cat was commissioned by radio personality and former Fanfare columnist Jurgen Goths, on behalf of his recently departed pet.) The later pieces use essentially the same devices as the earlier pieces — modal and/or pentatonic melodies, often in a 7/4 rhythmic pattern that fits the syllables Al-an Hov-ha-ness, imitation-dulcimer effects, the familiar “jhala”-style, simple polyphony — but in some cases drawn out to much greater length. The chief musical innovation in the later pieces is the use of half-diminished seventh-chords, treated in a nontonal manner. One has the impression that Hovhaness exuded this music, like a biological product, rather than composing it: there is little sense of conscious intervention; the pieces are generally interchangeable in effect; titles seem chosen simply as means of identification; three of the shorter pieces might just as easily be one longer piece, or vice versa. There is very little to this music that cannot be grasped in a single hearing.

Here are some exceptions to the generalizations above: the nearly half-hour Sonata Mt. Chocorua resembles Hovhaness’ recent symphonies more than his other piano pieces. In fact, it sounds like a piano reduction of an orchestral work, with full block-chord passages that are rather ineffective on the piano. Blue Job Mountain Sonata is probably the most musically interesting of the six pieces labeled sonatas on these discs, with some uncharacteristic figurations and some harmonic exploration. Probably the most interesting piece of all is the 20-minute Fantasy. This is a sort of apotheosis of Hovhaness’ piano music from the late 1940s and early 50s, a kind of abstraction and summation of the various techniques he developed during this period to transform the piano into a giant middle-Eastern zither. If one attempts to cull the works of more enduring value from all this music that is so similar in effect, the Fantasy  and Blue Job Mountain Sonata, along with the shorter Achtamar, would be the likely choices.

From the standpoint of piano performance, I would have to give the edge to Wayne Johnson, whose playing is a bit more polished. Crystal’s sonic ambience is more appealing as well. Rosen’s playing seems restricted to an awfully narrow dynamic range and is expressively restrained as well, contributing to a very monotonous effect. In view of Johnson’s somewhat more interesting selection of pieces, I would recommend the Crystal to the collector who wants to choose only one of these two new releases.