March 2020 Hovhaness Cello Works CD features first recordings of Nagooran and Suite for Cello, plus Cello Sonata and Yakamochi
Hovhaness's vast chamber music output encompassed most of the standard concert ensembles, including solo strings with or without piano. Yet only now, two decades after his death, has a CD arrived dedicated to his output for cello.
In truth, Hovhaness's main publishers held between them only three cello works comprising just 35 minutes of music, so a debt of gratitude is owed to resourceful cellist Christina Gullans, who has managed to seek out two more obscure works (one for a decidedly non-standard ensemble) and so present an hour's-worth of the composer's contribution for the instrument — possibly everything there is bar the Cello Concerto (which, incidentally, is already recorded by her one-time teacher Janos Starker).
New Jersey-based Gullans, a former cellist of the Boston String Quartet, has a special interest in "musical semiology", so it seems no accident that for her debut CD — titled Across the Ages — she has chosen a composer whose evocative music, with its pointers to various epochs and traditions, can often be thought of as a highly personalised form of musical iconography. Spread over five decades of the composer's career, his cello works offer a fair snapshot of the diversity of locales from which Hovhaness took inspiration for creative renewal, from his childhood New Hampshire to as far afield as Japan and the Indian subcontinent.
The disc's opener is a solo cello suite entitled Yakamochi, named after the eminent 8th century Japanese poet. The five movements are stylistically diverse, including a ghostly Andante full of tremolos and a stormy Allegro (reminding this listener of the summer 'Presto' movement from Vivaldi's Four Seasons). Gullans's performance leaves one feeling what a fine showcase the piece is for the solo cellist.
Extract from Yakamochi
The Suite for Violoncello and Piano is a short 1934 work resurrected by Hovhaness at the time of Yakamochi's publication in the 1960s. Originally titled Crotchéd Hill (Fantasy in three parts) it is a fleeting portrayal of the harshness and beauty he found in the nature of New Hampshire's White Mountains. This is pure, fledgling Hovhaness — one may hear the ghost of Sibelius in its chromaticisms, but certainly no hues of the east.
Hovhaness 'Across the Ages'
Extract from Suite for Violoncello and Piano
The 1974 Fantasy is for either double bass or cello with piano accompaniment. As the title suggests, this is a free-form movement which throughout its 11 minutes traverses shifting moods and textures. The central section has the piano in a long pedal, while the cello intones a melody reminiscent of the composer's orchestral work Fra Angelico, but elsewhere the music is harmonically active and chromatic.
The attractive three-movement Sonata for Cello Op.255 here gets its first wholly persuasive performance on disc. Dated "1932-72", it is one of many Hovhaness works that is a hybrid of early and late periods. The two outer movements' main themes are amongst the earliest music of Hovhaness that we have, being taken from two piano movements (titled 'Majesty' and 'Solace') that made up his 1932 Mountain Saga. The contrasting central movement has two outer sections where a gamelan-like drone (what the composer termed jhala from Hindustani music) hovers above a long, graceful melody in the cello — a true moment of balm for the soul.
The final work on this disc is of some historical significance. The Hovhanesses were visiting musicians at the 1959-60 Madras Academy music festival, during which several of his works became the first Western music performed there, with Hovhaness conducting and his wife playing piano. Among these was Nagooran, named after a local saint, specially written for an orchestra of Carnatic musicians, and hailed as the first work written by an American composer for traditional Indian instruments. Hovhaness conducted the Indian musicians sitting cross-legged on the floor* and the performance was broadcast over All Indian Radio. What we get here though, in its first recording, is the composer's arrangement for cello, timpani and percussion ensemble. Hovhaness had learned to play the veena in Madras, and that may be the instrumental part he reassigned to the cello, which here seems to assume a narrative role of the revered sage rather as the trumpet is used like a church cantor in Hovhaness's overtly Armenian works. Carnatic (South Indian) scales and rhythmic devices abound in this work, although the prominent jhala figurations on tuned percussion here and there lend a familiar air of the Javanese gamelan found in so many other works of his from the 1960s onwards.
*Brian Q. Silver: 'Henry Cowell and Alan Hovhaness: Responses to the Music of Asia'. Contributions to Asian Studies 12 (1978) 54-79.
Extract from Nagooran
For all its surface appeal, the music on this disc does make technical and interpretative demands of the cellist, and all is handled persuasively and with relish by Gullans, as well as Jeremy Filsell, on piano, and the Sowne Ensemble in Nagooran. One small criticism of some tracks, which should not deter purchase, is that the bright acoustics of the church in which this was recorded can lead to the odd 'reverberant wash' here and there, such as in the Cello Sonata, where certain subtleties get lost. Most likely Gullans's choices as producer of the album were different here to (say) the Fantasy where everything sounds crystal clear.
Gullans's own booklet notes are generous and she has clearly analysed and understood this music to deliver such insightful commentaries that provide (especially for Nagooran) useful context.
Not only is this CD a much-needed and overdue addition to the American cello discography, but also an important act of rehabilitation for music that is almost unknown, and can now more readily be taken up by cellists in search of rewarding 'new' repertoire. Hovhaness fans should acquire as a matter of course.
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