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 Prospect Hill op. 346
This is a classical sonata in style. The first and third movement, in sonata form, show a simple development of modal material, while the second alternates contrary motion, ancient counterpoint, and choral episodes, like an antiphon.

Sonata Fred the Cat op. 301
This is the first of three “Cat sonatas”. The construction of the whole piece is a description, a set of pictures of Fred, a cat. In the first movement, entitled “Give a cat a twig and he takes a tree”, Hovhaness combines an accompaniment with a meter of five, with a melody in six. In the following “Purr dance”, Hovhaness continues this technique with meters of five and four. After a contemplative chorale-like episode (“Fred the cat and distant mountain”), the last movement describes Fred’s journey to Heaven like a poetic lullaby (“Fred the cat flies to heaven”).

Sonata To Hiroshige’s cat op. 366
The second sonata of the “Cat sonatas” group shows a more expanded structure and engagement. After a “lento cantabile” with an inner “religioso” episode we find a “vibration fugue”. In this composition, Hovhaness tries to expand the possibilities of a “sustained” piano sound: the technique consists of the continued usage of repeated notes both for the subject and for the countersubject: the result is a constantly changing harmony, far from the common “fugue” sound. Finally, three jhala follow (jhala - a typical composition in Indian music with fast repeated notes alternated) with a gloomy epitaph “In memory of a great cat”.

Sonata Tsougouharu Fujita’s sleeping cat op. 368
The third and last “Cat sonata”, this composition opens with a largo full of large arpeggios and a fugato in “vibration” style. The following jhala is one of the most long jhala Hovhaness has ever written, with continuous time changes and a almost constant “tala”(meter) of sixteen. After a “vibration” episode the sonata ends with a Satie-like andante describing the cat’s dreams.


Sonatina Meditation on Mt. Monadnok op. 288
This short sonatina is one of Hovhaness most successful pieces. It is in two movements: the first an “andante solenne” developing the main theme in three sections, the second a more meditative “adagio” with a strong sense of longing.


09 Gennaio 2012


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