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CD reviews

Hovhaness' admirers often tend to overlook the piano works in favour of his big orchestral statements. Nevertheless there's much to enjoy in these compact pieces which are here drawn from a wide time frame, spanning Op.36 to Op.390. The Twelve Armenian Folk Songs were composed around 1943 but not published until two decades later. The melodies are attractive in themselves but, more than that, they are most attractively played by Alessandra Pompili who shows a very strong affinity with all the music in this 52-minute disc. She plays the 'unfamiliar melodies' - in the composer's words - with simplicity and a real degree of affection in an acoustic that tends to the dry, though on balance I'd rather that than a billowing sound in these pieces.

Ghazal and Ghazal-Sufi date from 1938 and here the bass line underlies a weaving lyric right hand melody line. The former, which is the longer, has a tolling, melancholy-sounding motif whilst the latter is the more rarefied in expression. This is, it would seem the first ever recording of both pieces. Composed in 1959 whilst Hovhaness was in the Kashmir, Shalimar reflects his huge enthusiasm for Indian music. Formally, he introduced the idea of borders in this suite in an attempt to suggest the carpet-like designs of Moghul gardens. As much as rhythm drives this music, there is a huge amount of nature painting involved, the composer evoking the now-silent fountains through the memory of their music. Much is coolly flowing, beautifully expressive and often hypnotically rhythmic but there is also the Bachian element of the Third Interlude. Helpfully each incident - there are eight in all - is separately tracked.

The 'Cougar Mountain' Sonata, Op.390 dates from 1985 and returns to his love of nature - of vistas and expanse. As well as a slow opening movement there is a lament, a slumber song and, as finale, a dance. There are hints of Ravel in the early part of the sonata and the stomping dance with which the sonata ends certainly generates considerable dynamism. Its compact nature still allows a rich sense of characterisation to emerge. The Fantasy, Op.15 - again this is a first recording - was written in 1938 but was later re-worked and absorbed into the Blue Job Mountain Sonata, Op.340. It's an unusually alternating work for Hovhaness, in which lyricism and percussiveness sit on opposite sides of the equation. Finally there is Dark River and Distant Bell which, with its oriental mood, was originally intended for harpsichord or clavichord. This is its first appearance on disc in piano guise.

Pompili, then, is a splendid young exponent of Hovhaness' music. That dry sound does help to clarify and centralise the piano writing without sounding off-puttingly objectified. Liner notes are in Italian and English and worth a detour, as indeed is this disarmingly well-played disc.

Jonathan Woolf

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