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CD reviews

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The last decade has witnessed a surprising renaissance — at least on disc — for the many piano works of Hovhaness still not commercially recorded (or published) at the time of his death in 2000. The 'heavy lifting' has come from Nicola Giosmin's 7-CD survey of Piano Sonatas and Sonatinas, but there have also been discs featuring 'lost' repertoire from the label OgreOgress, from pianist Sahan Arzruni, and two from Alessandra Pompili, the second of which has just appeared.

Of course, it never helped that several early works failed to reach Hovhaness's main publishers (CF Peters and Peer) or that later, self-published ones were obtainable only after some detective work in tracking down the composer's publishing company. But as each new disc blows away more cobwebs, a near-complete picture emerges of a huge body of work, putting listeners and scholars alike in a much better position to chart the composer's trajectory in this medium, every bit as multi-faceted and uniquely recognisable as his chamber and orchestral music.

Pompili's second Hovhaness disc, like her first, happily adds a couple more first recordings to the catalogue, and she has subtitled it "Journeying Over Land and Through Space" since the title of each of the five recorded pieces references a foreign land or heavenly body.

The disc opens with Fantasy On an Ossetin Tune (1951), a gem of a piece dating from a period when Hovhaness, newly arrived in New York from Boston, was writing arguably some of his most compelling piano works. These comprised mostly pithy vignettes, characterised by sparseness of texture, great melodic and rhythmic vitality, and flirtations with unorthodox procedures, such as playing inside the piano. Such works mostly rejected European models and mined a rich seam of Near Eastern and Asian idioms. As its title suggests, the Fantasy is spun from pre-existing folk melody, here freely developed through shifting, idiomatic writing that makes for a perfectly-formed miniature. Pompili's sympathetic reading achieves the dynamic and rhythmic agility required to convey the music's charm and sprightliness.

Next comes Hermes Stella (1971), appearing in its first recording half a century after its composition, likely because it was self-published and in the pre-internet age thus denied the visibility afforded by a large publisher. The Latin title — translating as 'Star of Hermes' — alludes to the "secret writings" of Francis Bacon, the composer's lifelong favourite "poet-philosopher-mystic". Musically there is little sense of journeying ad astra — we are there from the outset. The entire work — even sections composed in a "vibration style" of rapidly repeated melodic tones — is one of complete stasis, sitting on an F 'tonic' drone. Above this float various figurations in the Indian Purvi raga, a Hindustani classical scale employing sharpened 4th and flattened 2nd and 6th tones. The drone, choice of mode, and sparse textures with wide piano registration make for an effective evocation of vastness, mystery and serenity.

The suite entitled Komachi comprises "seven miniature tone poems inspired by nature" and references the 9th century Japanese poetess whose name today in Japan is synonymous with feminine beauty. Fleeting movements of 1 to 2 minutes depict picturesque snapshots of things such as mountain rain, birdsong and rippling harps, all material that a capable young pianist could handle. Hovhaness himself made the first recording of Komachi in a 1987 collection of his pieces — a debut recital recording at the age of 76! Given that some of Pompili's tempi are faster than indicated, and Hovhaness's own tempi occasionally faster still, it would seem that those originally indicated in the score by the composer are inappropriate.

Journey to Arcturus (1981) is one of several works titled 'piano sonata' by the composer which are really free-form multi-movement suites. At 21 minutes this is the most substantial work on the disc and comprises a sequence of six movements incorporating several of the composer's trademark piano idioms. These include two jhala movements, imitation of the kanoon (Nocturne), polymodal canons and dissonance (Jhala for Star Journey), tala rhythmic structures (Jhala for Star Journey) and, possibly unique to this work, application of the aforementioned "vibration style" to a Fugue movement. Here, unrelenting eighth (or is it sixteenth?) notes begin monophonically stating the opening subject, and continue over 3 minutes fanning out into dense two-hand chords at the extremes of the keyboard. Heard blindly, one might mistake such persistent pounding of the keyboard as the work of a Minimalist such as Philip Glass or John Adams. Pompili makes judicious use of the sustain pedal here, beginning the movement dryly but later employing it to add some much-needed timbral contrast. The Love Song fifth movement adds some harmonic interest to the work with Hovhaness's stock 1970s technique for conveying the amorous in music — highly chromatic sequences of half-diminished seventh chords. Perhaps it is because of the sincerity and directness with which Hovhaness writes that all the disparate idioms at play here somehow gel into a cohesive larger entity. Pompili takes it all in her stride admirably, leaving one feeling that despite the 20-plus minutes duration, nothing in this work sounds superfluous.

In the 1930s and early 1940s Hovhaness found much-needed employment as piano accompanist at social gatherings and musical soirées of Boston's ethnic communities, which included Armenians, Turks and Greeks. The resulting assimilation of Near-Eastern folk styles inevitably gave rise to arrangements and elaborations of such music, of which the disc's closing work Greek Rhapsody No.1 (1944) is a good example. This is the CD's second premiere recording and of all the works here, the Rhapsody is the most conventionally Western in its piano writing. Whilst the central movement betrays a kanoon-like repeated note idiom, the outer movements are broadly tonal with thicker, more chordal writing. The finale has a drunken sing-along feel to it, not something one normally associates with Hovhaness, but not out of place at a gathering of Greeks in 1940s Boston.

Ms. Pompili has again done a great service bringing undeservedly obscure (or hitherto unknown) repertoire to a wide audience. We get Hovhaness as ethnomusicologist, contrapuntist, visionary and mystic, providing a broad overview of the 'box of tools' — a sort of personal pianistic iconography — that Hovhaness drew upon for his considerable oeuvre of piano works. Both admirers of the composer and the curious needn't hesitate — and equally so with Pompili's first volume of Hovhaness from 2014.

Marco Shirodkar

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