HOVHANESS: Selected Piano Compositions – Sahan Arzruni – KALAN

by | Apr 29, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

HOVHANESS: Invocations to Vakahn; Yenovk; Lalezar; Suite on Greek Tunes; Mystic Flute; Journey into Dawn;Vijag; Laona; Lake of Van Sonata; Hakhpat – Sahan Arzruni, piano/ Adam Rosenblatt, perkuesynon – KALAN 773 (11/13/19)  (73:46) ****

Turkish piano pedagogue and virtuoso Sahan Arzuni (b. 1943) maintains an ongoing connection with his Armenian roots, and what better way than to celebrate— through his personal manuscripts of the composer—the music of Alan Hovhaness? Hovhaness (1911-2000) created a prolific, eclectic body of work, of which the years 1940-1960 produced disitnctive compositions of Armenian character, most of which remained in unpublished manuscript until the advent of this recording of premieres, 2017-2018. Besides the music for solo piano, the recording sessions include two compositions for piano and percussion, and the piece Vijag, scored for two pianos. For those who seek authenticity in performance, we have the composer’s own testimonial: “Pianist Sahan Arzuni projects an impassioned lyricism with enormous authority and skill. He resurrects my compositions.”

Azruni begins with a five-movement cycle for piano and percussion, Invocations to Vahakn, the Armenian god of bravery and heroic power. Brief, declamatory, and often set in pounding and repetitive rhythms, the pieces exploit various (often staccato) timbres in the piano, while the addition of the diverse percussion instruments adds a decidedly “Eastern,” dramatic flavor to the pulse. The pieces convey both the dance and the bardic, incantatory elements, at once. The influence of India emerges as well in Mystic Flute (1937; rev. 1941), in which the left hand plays a simple tala against a weaving, right hand melody. 

The six-movement homage, Yenovk (1951), pays tribute to one Yenovk Der Hagopian, a painter, sculptor and folk singer from Van who had introduced Hovhaness to Armenian folk music in the 1940’s. Yenovk’s singing style left an indelible impression on the young composer. The six sections of this homage range from the flowing Fantasy with its evocations of the sound of the lute-equivalent oud, to the tightly structured Fugue. The Fantasy no less injects the sound of the tmpoug, or drum, in the left hand. There are two Canzones that share the same material in polyphonic treatment. Along with the Baroque Fugue, Hovhaness inserts a Ballata, of Medieval Italian designation.

Portrait Alan Hovhaness

Alan Hovhaness

A solo work from 1947, Lalezar is a girl’s name, and she becomes synonymous with the tulip fields in Farsi. The solo has been extracted from a song cycle, Flute Player of the Armenian Mountains, meant for the bass opera singer Ara Berberian. The monophonic line develops and extends into a dance portion. Repeated notes, ostinato melodic riffs and rhythms predominate. Arzuni gives us a first recording of Laona, a distinct piece from the composer’s tenure at the Eastman School that utilizes rolling chords rather than consonant, repeated harmonies in small units. Laona was known in the 19th Century as a meeting place for those Spiritualists who firmly believed in.reincarnation, as did Hovhaness.

The Suite on Greek Themes (1949) Hovhaness dedicated to William Masselos, a pianist whose career had early encouragement from Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos. In three movements – Wedding Song, Grape-yard Song and Dance in Seven Tala – the music combines the monophonic aspects of folk idioms and the influence of Indian music, influenced by Hovhaness’ meeting with dancer Uday Shakar, brother of the famous sitar virtuoso, Ravi Sankar. 

Journey into Dawn (1954) has five movements of exotic, ghostly character. The three-voice “Fugue” proves academically rigorous but without bar lines. The “Jhala” movement provides the fulcrum of the suite, in a faster tempo. The last movement, “Alleluia,” begins in modal tones but ends in a clear A Major. The Lake of Van Sonata pays tribute to the large body of water in Anatolia, the heartland of Armenian civilization. The Armenian Genocide—now officially recognized by the USA—of 1915 destroyed the population. In three movements, the Sonata offers two stately songs followed by a lively dance, marked Rubato. In the second movement, Arzruni supplies gong-like bass tones of some resounding eminence.

Vijag was conceived for two pianos, based on the notion of vijagi yerker, the songs by young maidens concerning the role of chance and destiny. In perpetual 16th notes, the piece sings out cheerful optimism about love, happiness, and good fortune. Pianist Arzruni provides an affectionate, personal reminiscence on this upbeat piece.

The final suite Hakhpat Hovhaness calls a Sonata in several movements. Armenian ecclesiastical music has eight modes or melodic paradigms from which Hovhaness draws his colors and melodic contours. A Byzantine influence is no less traceable in this music. The combination of fast runs in the piano and the heavy tread of the percussion proves effective. The “Pastoral” movement has the piano and the kettledrum fixed on G. While undeniably repetitive, much of this music achieves a kind of rarified mesmerism in effect, a journey perhaps best undertaken in small but memorable doses. 

–Gary Lemco

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