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 Blue Job Mountain op. 340
This important sonata revolves around the wonderful second movement (“Fantasy”). After an “andante” based on an ostinato figure, the Fantasy, with large arpeggios, fast movements, more meditative parenthesis, and strong passages in octaves leads the sonata to a climax: technically challenging, beautiful and well conceived, this Fantasy ranks amongst Hovhaness’ best piano works. The sonata ends with a peaceful “Jhala for Blue Job Mountain”, in the typical jhala style of most of Hovhaness’ piano music.

Sonata On the long total eclipse of the moon - July 6, 1982 op. 367
This long sonata opens with an impressive quotation of the quintessence of the romantic repertoire: Beethoven’s Clair de lune. The first “adagio misterioso” alternates melodic sections with more gloomy passages in the low register: the length and uniformity of this movement make it very difficult to play. A long “vibration fugue” follows: it is a composition in which Hovhaness tries to get over the difficulty of a true “sustained” sound with a piano: that is why the subject and the countersubject are written in repeated notes, creating a sort of
“moving harmony”. The third movement, as his title suggests (“Darkness”) is one of the most sombre Hovhaness compositions: large dissonant chords are interrupted by more melodic lines. The following “Vibration Hymn” and “Moon nocturne” lead directly to the jhala (“Full moon jhala”) ending this dark sonata with mystery and intrigue.

Sonata op. 145
A classical sonata. The first movement is in sonata form but with a special eastern taste. The next “Andante” plays with harmony and ancient counterpoint (in the second part) while the ending, “Presto”, shows Hovhaness’ ability to build a solid composition in sonata form using non-western material.

Sonata Lake of Van op. 175
This enigmatic sonata opens with a two-part movement: after a “rubato” section, an odd “allegro” follows with constantly changing meters, a simple melody expanded and reduced in a continuous relentless flood, a real tour de force for the player and for the listener. The second “Solenne” is also in binary form, using tonal pedal for the first section and a more bright, staccato touch for the second one. The last “Rubato” movement is marked “espressivo lamentoso” on the score: a grave and irregular bass melody turning on the low e is embroided by some little hypnotic figures.


09 Gennaio 2012


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