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CD reviews

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This disc follows Volume 1 which was reviewed here by Jonathan Woolf in 2015. Hovhaness remains something of a cult figure. He now has a catalogue befitting a prolific 20th century composer with an outré ‘rep’ that has come in from the tundra since the 1980s. Pianist Alessandra Pompili is not the first to launch such a project and her rate of volume issue has a reassuringly long stride. The attentive and accessible liner-note is by Pompili and Danilo Prefumo and is in Italian and English.

The plangently chiming Hermes stella was composed at around the same time as Hovhaness’s densely complicated Symphony No 23 Ani for large wind band. The latter was recorded a little primitively as one of the Poseidon/Crystal series and more recently on Naxos. Hermes stella is a glittering stellar piece the first panel of which would suit any meditation. The porcupine bombardment of its Allegro stands in contrast of both sonority and dynamic.

Komachi - a score in seven miniature tone poems and 12 minutes - dates from 1970 as does Symphony No 22 "City of Light" and Saturn for soprano, clarinet and piano. Writing about City of Light in 2004, Ian Lace recalled that the work was said by the composer to be rooted in thoughts of "a million lights – an imaginary city. …The outer movements have long-spanned majestic melodies and a grand spirit of exultation.” The very short movements of Komachi are resonantly and characteristically entitled: I. Spirit of a Willow Tree; II. The Sage of Celestial Mountain; III. Rain Harp; IV. Sage Ascending the Mountain; V. Flight of Dawn Birds; VI. Rain on Blue Mountain and VII. Moon Harp. All are intensely atmospheric, mystical and represent a clear fissure away from the long paragraphs of Symphony No 22.

The Fantasy on an Ossetin Tune is an awkward little piece - lumpen even - and slightly dissonant in oriental accents. It resembles something with ideas that emerge without softening or removal of granite hard edges. It is from 1951 - earlyish then - when works such as Hymn to Yerevan were being premiered, as also Concerto No 1 Arevakal (Season of the Sun) for orchestra.

Greek Rhapsody No 1 was completed in 1944 and is in three little movements: I. untitled; II. Senza Misura - Farewell Song of a Boy who Must go to War and III. Revolution. I is an icy stellar essay evoking strange night skies and is of a generally Arabian caste. The second movement scurries along, being downbeat and, despite its title, with no vainglory whatsoever. The ‘finale’ Revolution is in deadly earnest and is part-statement and part-celebration of heroism. In the seething Hovhaness catalogue it rubs contemporary shoulders with the opera Etchmiadzin and other works that have been recorded: Prayer of Saint Gregory for trumpet and strings or band and Avak the Healer for soprano, trumpet and strings.

Piano Sonata "Journey to Arcturus" is from 1981 which was notably fruitful year. At the same time he completed his Symphonies 48-50 and a little piano essay simply entitled Corruption in Office. As for Arcturus it’s not a sonata in any Beethovenian sense. It lasts 21 minutes across six short movements. I. Lullaby is memorable for its sweet innocence and trickling notes. II. Fugue breaks the spell with a Bachian echo of ‘chopsticks’. III. Nocturne takes us back to the placid swirls of Lullaby and is a choice track if you wanted to ‘size up’ Pompili’s playing and Hovhaness’s ‘mood signature’. IV. Jhala for Star Journey - is hypnotic yet with winged heels and contrasts with V. Love Song which is unrushed and tender. The final VI. Jhala for Arcturus spins along untiringly until finally it draws breath.

Alessandra Pompili and Dynamic are to be applauded for side-stepping duplication with other Hovhaness CDs (try searching for earlier reviews; there are a few) and for persisting with what must, at times, seem a lonely and even isolating quest. Mystery is all and if you need reference points for Hovhaness’s style as evidenced here then try Griffes’ Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan and the ‘star scores’ by Sumera and Sisask.
A lonely and even isolated quest in a forest of tonal music at the extreme boundaries.

Rob Barnett

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