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CD reviews

From Italian label Dynamic comes a new disc of Hovhaness piano works… it appears as the debut release of a young Italian pianist and with some welcome premiere recordings.


That pianist is Alessandra Pompili, a student of the renowned Argentinian pianist and composer Sergio Calligaris. Based in England for some time, her performances, particularly of Liszt's music, have been broadcast all over Europe and as far afield as Korea and Australia.


Her chosen recital spans almost half a century of Hovhaness's piano music, covering a wide range of the musical sources from which Hovhaness forged his highly personal style — or more accurately, styles — and shining a light on some early rarities. Pompili takes it all in her stride intelligently and sympathetically, whether Hovhaness is speaking to us as contrapuntist, Eastern impressionist, ethnomusicologist, or transcendental musical alchemist.


The opening Twelve Armenian Folk Songs is one of the few works where Hovhaness acknowledged usage of pre-existing melody and dates from the mid-1940s, when Armenian folk elements were integral to his musical thinking. Here Pompili plays with admiral restraint, foregoing the tempting affectations of rhythm and dynamics that some pianists smother folk tune arrangements with. In her hands their charm and piquancy speak for themselves, leaving one with the thought that these should be as widely enjoyed as similar arrangements by Bartók or Kodály.


Appearing here in their first recordings, the Two Ghazals Op.36a/36b date from 1938, so are not the same works as the Ghazals Op.36 recorded elsewhere. When publishing two completely new Ghazals in 1962, Hovhaness used the same early opus number, evidently wanting to exorcise this earlier published pair from his catalogue. Whether or not Hovhaness would have welcomed their inclusion here, the curious will doubtless be grateful for the acquaintance. They are broadly ABA-structured works supposedly modelled by the composer on the Middle Eastern poetic form, which traditionally invoked melancholy, love, longing, and metaphysical matters.


The Ghazal Op.36a is a simple but exquisitely wrought piece shimmering with exotic hues, replete with pentatonic melody and Middle Eastern arabesque flourishes. With its parallel fifths and widely-spaced, often undulating chords, the Debussy of Pagodes and La Cathédrale Engloutie never seems far away. The Ghazal Op.36b has a raga-like melody, but retains the undulating buoyancy. Pompili's performances are nicely judged throughout.


The Fantasy Op.15 dates from 1938 and is not to be confused with the already-recorded Fantasy for Piano Op.16, (which actually dates from 1952). It is a meandering tension-and-release movement in which the 25 year-old composer mostly juxtaposes restrained low-register material with somewhat Lisztian double-octave surges. His suppression of the work seems more understandable than with the 1938 Ghazals; it was originally published in 1939 by Whitney Blake, but intentionally buried in 1948 when 'opus 15' was re-assigned to Suite for Band. Ironically, both the 1938 Ghazal Op.36a and this Fantasy were much later resurrected back into the Hovhaness catalogue as distinct movements of his Blue Job Mountain piano sonata Op.340, which is why they will sound familiar to some. Even so, Pompili's renditions of these works are still premiere recordings, presenting them under their original designations and before Hovhaness made revisions to both for the Op.340 work.


The 1959 suite Shalimar Op.177 was the composer's "musical tribute to the Kashmir region", following his visits to the Mogul gardens and Himalayan region. This new recording may invite comparisons with the only other commercially available one, the composer's own made when he was 76. Arguably past his peak as a pianist, Hovhaness opted for slower tempi than some of the musical moods might suggest. Pompili's younger and decidedly more agile fingers imbue the work with much-needed fluidity and vigour, and she clocks in at about two minutes faster than the composer. The sinuous opening Fantasy unfolds like a scroll, as if revealing some long-forgotten wisdom, and Pompili nicely captures the kanun-like style of the writing. The work's three Jhala movements show the biggest departure from the Hovhaness recording: they are sufficiently energised with the momentum, lightness of touch and subtle rubato that the quasi-improvisatory Indian jhala idiom calls for.


The Cougar Mountain Sonata Op.390, like many late sonatas of Hovhaness, is more a multi-movement suite than a through-composed sonata. Dated 1985, it is the latest work on the disc, but some of its material and building blocks recall Hovhaness's 1930s piano music. The 2nd movement Mountain Lament alternates similarly contrasting keyboard gestures as the 1938 Fantasy, and the Mountain Dance finale contains a middle-eastern dance immediately recalling the 1937 piano piece Mystic Flute. Even so, it's a charming work, played sympathetically by Ms. Pompili who, incidentally, gave the European premiere in 2009.


Dark River and Distant Bell Op.212 makes a wonderfully meditative closer for this recital. Hovhaness specified it as for "Harpsichord, (Clavichord or Piano)". He penned several harpsichord works for his harpsichord-playing daughter (though not this one), but they "never agreed on what makes a good harpsichord piece", and it's unclear what makes this work particularly suitable for harpsichord. Pompili here presents the work in its first piano recording, and the piano's inherent sustaining qualities probably do better justice to the work's ample supply of resonant, slow-moving harmonies than a harpsichord might, and certainly make for a more convincing 'distant bell' in the work's closing bars. The final movement's sinuous melody may be familiar to some as the main theme of the composer's cataclysmic symphonic poem Floating World composed at around the same time.


After the 1930s, deliberately showy writing is virtually absent from Hovhaness's rather chaste piano writing, and throughout this recital Pompili never adopts a self-serving attitude of 'what can I do with this?' — an approach of many performers (and conductors) which annoyed Hovhaness. Always at the service of the music, she captures the spirit of each work admirably; her enthusiasm and commitment to these works is never in doubt, making for an attractive and highly recommendable disc.


Marco Shirodkar

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