Although Alan Hovhaness earned a place in the pantheon with his mystical, often haunting, Armenian-inspired orchestral works, he was a fine organist and pianist. His piano music is lesser known, and while it often shares those same qualities, it’s often delivishly rhythmic…and challenging to play. One would think that the complete works of the greatest American classical composer would have seen the light of day by now, but as pianist Sahan Arzruni reveals on his new album Alan Hovhaness: Select Piano Compositions – streaming at Spotify – there was more in the archive. And the quality is astonishing, consistent with the rest of the composer’s iconic repertoire.
How was this material discovered? Arzruni worked closely with Hovhaness and has continued to be a leading advocate for his music, and as a result was given unprecedented access. Most of these newly unearthed compositions are on the short side, interspersed among some of Hovhaness’ better-known piano pieces.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was an early champion of Hovhaness, and would play his lively, broodingly Indian-tinged miniature, Mystic Flute, as a concert encore. Here, Arzruni gives it equal parts opulence and fire. He rolls with the wave motion in Laona, a river tableau. In the 68-page album booklet – in Armenian, Turkish and English – Arzruni mentions that Laona, in upstate New York, was a summer home to the 19th century spiritualist movement. It’s hardly a surprise that Hovhaness, who believed himself to be the reincarnation of a medieval Armenian composer, would make a point to spend time in that area.
The six-part suite Yenovk – which the composer dedicated to his colleague, Armenian traditional singer Yenovk Der Hagopian – is an early version of Hovhaness’ Madras Sonata. Arzruni plays with detail and dynamism through the percussive modal minimalism of the Fantasy and Ballata, the gorgeously glittering, carnatic-flavored Jhala, a couple of enigmatic songs without words and the concluding fugue, a playful mashup akin to what Bach would have done if he’d gone to the Paris Expo with Debussy.
Persistently rhythmic, oud-like voicings recur throughout this music, as in Arzruni’s bracingly crescendoing take of Lalezar, a magically ringing, chromatic love theme. The Lake of Van Sonata, an Anatolian waterside portrait, is similarly sparkling but more vast and somber in places. The Suite on Greek Tunes, by contrast, is a much simpler, bouncier, catchy little triptych.
Now for the world premieres! Arzruni reaches for gravitas and majesty along with sharp-fanged pointillisms in Invocation to Vahakn (the Armenian god of war), an otherworldly lyrical 1946 suite of miniatures that’s on the minimal side and way ahead of its time. Percussionist Adam Rosenblatt kicks in a boomy beat in places.
Journey Into Dawn, a 1954 partita, opens with bell-like, Mompou-esque mystery, invokes Bach, romps into India for a bit, then Arzruni shifts to the album’s most fascinatingly allusive harmonies, thisclose to twelve-tone acidity.
Vijag is a capsule Armenian rite of spring – the countermelodies are phantasmagorically exquisite, and Arzruni makes short work of them. The final world premiere recording here is the 1946 Hakhpat Sonata, inspired by an ancient Armenian monastery complex dating to the tenth century. In eight parts, it runs from sober contemplation to precise, dancing figures, concise rainy-day sonics, Indian and Balkan-tinged circularity, Rosenblatt employing his ominous, gong-like thunder sheet and kettledrums. Arzruni has done a great service bringing this magical, undeservedly obscure repertoire to a global audience.