Alan Hovhaness - Complete sonatas and sonatinas Vol.6 (Code: TAUKAY 147)


Nicola Giosmin - piano

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 Mt. Chocorua op. 335

This important piece is one of the longest sonatas Hovhaness has ever written. It shows great imagination, a huge work of proportion, a strong but personal link to tonality, and a complete fusion with eastern music. The first “moderato espressivo is in an odd sonata form: the development leads to three contrasting episodes, partially based on the first theme. The second is a jhala in two parts with a “vibration fugue” in the middle. The last “hymn” starts with a typically (for Hovhaness) noble episode, while in the second (a jhala like one) the pianist is also required to play a “tamtam sound”! Once again the use of piano in Hovhaness’ music is distinctive: it is only a means to achieve other results.

Sonata Poseidon op. 191
This sombre piece can be associated to the Bardo Sonata op. 192 (see volume two of the present edition). Free in form, free in harmony, free in rhythm (there are no barlines throughout), it comprises two movements. The first is a dark meditation in a low d with a climax in the middle section and a modal coda in a more conventional tempo. The second movement is a powerful and colossal fresco using the whole range of the keyboard. In the beginning Hovhaness uses harmonics and a particular way of writing melodies, not adding notes one after another, but removing notes from complex chords: like a negative of a melody (this technique is used by many contemporary composers and a excellent example can be found in “..... sofferte onde serene...” by Luigi Nono). After this inspiring preparation, the real climax starts with a series of alternated dissonant chords, sustained by long pedal lines. The end is quiet, allowing all the resonances to decay in a dissonant coda with occasional reminiscences of the previous telluric part. This work is a hard challenge for a pianist: the interpretation demands a deep insight into Hovhaness’ world and also a deep investigation in his own inner-self. 

Price: 16.90 EUR
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