Alan Hovhaness - Complete sonatas and sonatinas Vol.1 (Code: TAUKAY 142)


Nicola Giosmin - pianoforte

Alan Hovhaness
 (1911-2000) is unique in the history of western music. An American-born composer, of an Armenian father and a Scottish mother, an author of more than 500 pieces of music (including 70 symphonies), a friend of musicians and dancers such as John Cage and Martha Graham, and a teacher to composers such as Dominique Argento and John S. Hilliard, his music blends a tremendous variety of styles: western tonality, aleatoric music, renaissance polyphony, Armenian folklore, carnatic and hindustani music, Japanese traditional music, etc without drifting into pure eclecticism or trivial orientalism. This curious personality, Eastern influenced and extremely prolific, is tempered by an unprecedented harshness. It often happens that composers destroy their own music if they consider it not good enough: Hovhaness had these cathartic moments at least three times in his life and eliminated almost one hundred opus numbers (including two operas, seven symphonies and innumerable chamber pieces).
Hovhaness was fundamentally a contemplative composer with no concern for his own “career”. After a promising debut, an early “romantic period” (in which he was compared to Sibelius), and a strong training (especially in counterpoint) with Frederick Converse, he refused a scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Revealingly, he wrote for a survey about American composers for the American Music Center in 1949: “It is best that no mention be made of my scholarships or education because my direction is completely away from the approved path of any of my teachers - thus the responsibility [for attitudes towards my music] will be inflicted to no one but myself”. Up until his forties, he was known as a “composer without performances” but at 41 the great Stokowsky decided to conduct his Symphony n. 2. It would be the beginning of a career, strongly protective of his artistic integrity: an attitude that he kept throughout his life. In the Sixties he began a series of trips to the East in order to study musical practices and to learn to play traditional instruments: all these experiences are strongly present in his scores.
His peculiar musical attributes, the originality of his writing, his deep love for Nature, his pure spirituality, his complete detachment from the Avant-gardes, and his isolation in his search for “his own” music make Alan Hovhaness one of the most important outsiders of 20th century: in a period of academicism and institutionalisation of contemporary music, he is vital.

Piano sonatas and sonatinas
A pianist facing Hovhaness’ works risks losing himself among sonatas, sonatinas, suites and other pieces. In this huge body of music we can find classical sonatas forms, aleatoric pieces, suites in ancient style, and ancient forms (like fugues or canons) completely revisited in an eastern style. Any performer wishing to expand his repertoire and to promote Hovhaness music has many different choices: to play some works taken from a specific period, to select only some compositions following their music features, or to study only certain kinds of compositions. We followed the latter path, even though, as Wayne David Johnson points out in his thesis (see bibliography), Hovhaness’ choice of titles like “sonata” or “sonatina” can be “rather puzzling”. The reasons for this choice are:

Many recordings of piano music are available but not as an organic set. The simplest thing is to select a particular example representative of a particular type of composition. 

Choosing the “sonata” form, we can show a broad chronological span of Hovhaness’ output, from the first sonata (Ricercare) dating 1935, to the last (Katahdin) dating 1987.

This chronological span also reflects Hovhaness’ attitude towards styles. In this way a complete recording of his sonatas can give a full overview of Hovhaness’ stylistic featuresWe hope that this work will bring Hovhaness to his rightful place in the piano’s repertoire.

In this CD

Sonata Ricercare op. 12
This sonata in three movements shows Hovhaness’ ability with counterpoint: the whole sonata is built up from a unique modal theme. The first movement is a Passacaglia in canon; that is a passacaglia of fourteen interval changing canons. The second is a two voices mirror fugue: after a first fugue, the second one mirrors the first exactly. The third movement is a four voice fugue in the ancient style: the stretto at the end is particularly interesting, with a theme of rhythmical diminution followed by a re-exposition. A harsh composition which marks Hovhaness’ attempt to apply the old rules in a new spirit.

Sonata Catamount op. 345
A typical example of sonata-suite. It consists of six movements. After an introduction marked in the score “in the spirit of Alap” (a north Indian musical opening session) accompanied only by a simple drone (“in the spirit of a Tambura”) two jhala (another
typical Indian middle-ending, fast, and note-repeated session) follow: in between a majestic and brief Grand view farm episode. Then a Love song and a light allegro end this peculiar composition. In Hovhaness’ words: “Catamount (shaped like a cat) is near Pittsfield, N. H. An old farmer and sage lived near the top of Catamount and used to look through his field glasses at the magnificent view of the distant white mountains. I used to climb Catamount many times in childhood”.

Sonata op. 399
This late piece (1986) uses material from previous sonatas. The first movement (Elegy) is an almost perfect transposition of the Love song in op. 354, while the third movement (Con amore) uses a portion of the first movement op. 367. The second movement comprises a chorale section and a fugato, while the final movement is a jhala style short piece.

Sonata Cougar Mountain op. 390
Another “mountain” sonata. Dated 1985, it starts with a Satie-like adagio (see the constant change of tonality in the left hand with a solid ground of c major base). The following Mountain lament alternates strong percussive chords sections with free recitatives. After a Mountain slumber song the sonata ends with the interesting Cougar mountain dance: a fast arpeggios section, a dance rhythm in 5/8, and a cantabile episode which lead to the powerful ending.

Sonatina op. 120
Composed in 1962 and published in 1964 this enigmatic composition consists of three movements and it is entirely built on a seven tone scale based probably on a raga (it consists of two identical scales of four tones with an overlapping end-beginning: e - f - a - b flat - b - d - d sharp). The first movement simply introduces the material starting from different points with large sustained chords. The second, after a short introduction in which the scale literally “generates” from one note, starts a hypnotic ostinato in the left hand with an unmetered mysterious melody at the right hand: an episode enlarging the gap between the two registers follows, but the ostinato restarts and ends the piece. The third movement recovers the mysterious atmosphere of the beginning, while the musical tissue is more and more slow, strained, and lost in a questioning harmonic zone.

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