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Contemporary Music, Music, World Music Media Review Print

Newly Available Music by an Important and Prolific Armenian-American Composer

July 6, 2021 - Easthampton, MA:

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), Selected Piano Compositions, Şahan Arzruni [Sha-HAN Ardz-rou-NEE], piano (Steinway); Kalan 773, © 2019 (recorded in 2015, 2017, & 2018; available in Europe since then), TT 78:46; available from Amazon, $18.59. The recording was made thanks to a partial grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation.

Pianist Sahan Arzruni's 2019 CD, selected recordings of Alan Hovhaness, was only recently released in the United States on March 15, 2021. This release is significant because the pianist knew the composer and consulted him about the music recorded, most of which is available in manuscript form only; the first piece on the CD, Invocations to Vahakn, is the sole published one. Indeed, I was not aware that Hovhaness had composed any music for piano among his over 500 works.

Hovhaness was born in Somerville, MA, to Haroutioun Hovanes Chakmakjian, an Armenian Turk, a chemistry professor at Tufts University and a lexicographer who compiled an Armenian-English dictionary, and an American amateur musician of Scottish descent, Madeleine Scott. After his mother passed in 1930, Hovhaness became more attached to his Armenian ancestry and its culture, and changed his name to his father’s middle one, re-spelling it the way we know it. He composed his first piece, a work for organ, at age 4.

Hovhaness's piano music uses Western classical forms and patterns, such as arpeggiated chords, bell-like sounds, and widely varied rhythms, and links them to the transcendental realm. He was a philosophical mystic, but although he is often said to be the ‘father’ of it, his music is in no way “New Age” in style. It is the fruit of ethnological music studies, featuring Armenian, other Middle Eastern, African, Indian, and Japanese musical traditions and their traditional instruments. It exploits all the registers of the keyboard, from deep bass to shrill soprano.

The first piece on the album, Invocations to Vahakn, is a set of five invocations. The six movements of the following suite, Yenovk, intersperses standard Baroque names with Armenian traditional ones: Fantasy, Canzona, Jhala, Canzona, Ballata, and Fugue. Single, shorter works on the CD include "Lalezar," "Mystic Flute," "Laona," and "Vijag." Journey Into Dawn is a five-movement suite: Hymn, Fugue, Jhala, Aria, and Alleluia. Lake of Van Sonata features three movements: Allegro, Allegro, and Rubato. Hakhpat, a seven-movement sonata, with mixed standard and Armenian titles, closes the program.

This CD is one hour and thirteen minutes of varied music, with elements of minimalism, modernism, mixed tones, and modes. Its effect is contemplative, enrapturing, fascinating, hypnotizing, magical, magnetic, meditative, mesmerizing, and mystical. It speaks to the mind and to the soul. Hovhaness' music is unlike that of any other composer I’ve ever heard, both captivating and enthralling.

The un-numbered 72-page booklet’s text is in both Armenian and English, in two forms: transliterated and script. It has copious illustrations of the composer, some of his music scores, and photos of the pianist, including one of the two principals together in 1984 and the percussionist who participates in 13 works (tracks 1-5; 27-34).

I was so enthralled with this CD and its music that I searched on Amazon for other CDs of this pianist. I found one of other music by Hovhaness called Visionary Landscapes that was recorded in 1986 and released in 1987 on an obscure label: Positively Armenian. It was reissued for the 80th birthday of the composer in 1991, on yet another such label: Hearts of Space. Visionary Landscapes, TT 47:13, has music dating from as early as 1948 (long before New Age music even existed). It includes two transcriptions by Arzruni from orchestral works, and a brief (1:40) duet with the composer joining him at the keyboard. The album ends with the title work in five movements. It is as equally enthralling as Arzruni's 2019 work, although some of its music is perhaps more ethnological, especially with the inclusion of the traditional Twelve Armenian Folk Songs. Its gorgeous three-fold accompanying flyer features a reproduction of an illustration in a Middle Eastern manuscript from c. 1560, and the best brief biography of the Hovhaness I’ve ever seen on its back panel. I view these albums as important, significant, and unique additions to my large collection. Perhaps you should add them to yours, too?

P.S. December 3, 2021

I recently acquired from BRO, which sells remaindered and overstocked CDs, another recent CD of music by Hovhaness that is a great companion for the above one, or investment if you love 'cello music, or don't like solo piano music:

Alan Hovhaness, Across the Ages, Suite for Violoncello and Piano, Op. 193, No. 1, Yakamochi for Violoncello Solo, Op. 193, No. 2, Nagooran for Violoncello, Timpani, & 4 Percussion, Op. 237, Sonata for Violoncello and Piano, Op. 255, Fantasy for Double Bass (or Violoncello), Op. 277; Christina Cullens, 'cello, Jeremy Filsell, piano, Sowne Ensemble, Albany Records, Troy 1805, © 2020, TT: 57:55, $7.99; it is also available from Amazon.com at higher prices. [Listings in publication/Op., not performance order].

It gives a broader picture of the range, reach, and variety of Hovhaness' output in the chamber-music (vs. orchestral) genre/realm that are the fruits of his ancestry, culture, experiences, interests, knowledge, beliefs, and philosophy. Cullen's program notes in its accompanying booklet are superb, and will help you understand him and his music better/more; the performances are all outstanding.

Fyi: The back story for me is that I have met the owners of both of these fine businesses, founded a decade apart (late 1970s and late 1980s), that now share the same office and warehouse spaces in Albany, NY, where I lived for many years, and with which I've had connections all my life. (My mother's sister and my grandmother lived there until their deaths.) I was taken there as an infant, though I have no memory of that; BRO was originally based in Lee, MA.