HOVHANESS Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Lousadzak. Mihr. Vijag. Ko-ola-u • Konstantin Krimets, cond; Globalis SO; Martin Berkofsky (pn); Atakan Sari (pn); Sergei Podobedov (pn) • BLACK BOX BBM1103 (55:21)

I expect that this new release will be welcomed by enthusiasts of the music of Hovhaness, while providing hitherto disdainful listeners with evidence that may change their minds—or at least may offer a plausible explanation for the music’s appeal for those enthusiasts. Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was one of those composers—like Milhaud, Martinu, and Villa-Lobos—who produced huge bodies of work (more than 500 opus numbers in Hovhaness’s case) much of which is routine at best and abysmally bad at worst. But scattered among them are also some real gems—in Hovhaness’s case, glorious creations that evoke a mysterious sense of timelessness, and inspire in listeners feelings of awe and exaltation. However, since such masterpieces are relatively few in number, and not even the enthusiasts are familiar with more than a small proportion of the composer’s output, the majority of recordings either recycle the same few favorites or venture into unknown territory that often proves disappointing. Therefore, it is gratifying to announce that this disc is a real winner.

The hero of this CD—and the force behind it—is Martin Berkofsky, a veteran pianist who deserves far more attention than he has thus far been accorded. I happened to attend his New York debut recital some forty years ago, at which he performed Hovhaness’s elaborate Fantasy, Op. 16, for piano—a recital that also included Liszt’s B-minor Sonata. I knew then that he was a major talent (although to this day I have never met him), and he has been championing Hovhaness’s music ever since. Well acquainted with the composer personally, he displays a deep insight into the music, and performs it with great sensitivity, and a real understanding of its sources of inspiration.

In finding his creative voice, Hovhaness repudiated most of the development of western music, delving into to the practices of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and combining them with usages drawn from the traditional music of his ancestral Armenia, as well as that of India, Japan, and Korea. This highly idiosyncratic approach resulted in a style that was totally unique, marked by a striking sense of spiritual purity utterly alien to the various isms that competed on the battlefield of 20th-century music (although for a time he was associated with such company as Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and John Cage). More recent composers, most notably Henryk Górecki in his dreary Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and, to a lesser extent, Arvo Pärt have been adduced as latter-day spiritual progeny of Hovhaness. Although he continued composing prolifically until a few years before his death, after the mid-1960s---unfortunately and inexplicably (to me, anyway)---the quality of his work plummeted into depths of mind-numbing banality. Of the hundreds of pieces that poured from his pen during those years, virtually none approaches the freshness and incandescence of his best work.

Aside from a two-minute trifle, the program at hand, recorded in Moscow, is drawn from the years 1944-54, the period during which Hovhaness created his greatest music. The earliest is Lousadzak, meaning “the coming of light” (Hovhaness loved titles drawn from Armenian culture). Subtitled “Concerto for Piano and Strings,” the work is unlike any other piano concerto in the repertoire. There is not a single chord, not a single passage of octaves in this one-movement work. The piano is employed to emulate various Armenian and middle-eastern instruments of the dulcimer and zither families, and the music is composed very much along the lines of what those instruments typically play, which includes striking the same key repeatedly to simulate sustained notes, and playing a melody off against a drone-note, often in rapid, irregular rhythmic patterns. (Berkofsky plays this work in a way that reveals his familiarity with the sources that inspired Hovhaness in the first place.) The strings provide a largely accompanimental backdrop like a small folk orchestra, in simple, almost improvisatory modal polyphony. The effect is truly unforgettable. The result is a highly exotic work, suggesting an ancient pagan rite of unearthly, primitivistic fire and passion, as well as, at times, tender tranquility. One of Hovhaness’s greatest works, Lousadzak has been recorded several times before, most notably during the mid 1950s by Maro Ajemian, a pianist closely associated with the composer, with an orchestra conducted by Carlos Surinach—a performance that might be regarded as “authoritative;” and, more recently, in a smoothly virtuosic reading by Keith Jarrett, with the American Composers Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies. But as fine as both these performances are, neither matches the exquisite sensitivity and total commitment of Berkofsky’s reading. Unfortunately, the strings of the Globalis orchestra fall somewhat short of the precision and artistry displayed by the pianist.

Hovhaness composed many shorter piano pieces of this kind during the 1940s, of widely variable quality. Nothing specific distinguishes the most interesting from the least, aside from that ineffable factor, “inspiration.” Nonetheless, two of the pieces for two pianos chosen by Berkofsky—Mihr (1945) and Vijag (1946)—are among the very best. The former, almost ten minutes in duration, is deeper and more elaborate than most, while the latter, at barely four minutes, is a captivating perpetual-motion gem, as the two pianos imitate two of those exotic instruments in primitive, but irresistibly infectious polyphony. I would cite all three of these pieces—Lousadzak, Mihr, and Vijag—as among the composer’s twenty-or-so greatest works.

Ko-ola-u is that two-minute trifle from 1962 noted earlier. Named after a Hawaiian mountain range, it is based on a pentatonic lullaby melody that Hovhanessians will immediately recognize from the better-known And God Created Great Whales. Here it is played delicately, against a simple, undulating accompaniment, occasionally interrupted by violent interjections from the second piano.

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, composed in 1954, had to wait fifty years for its first performance, by the same performers heard here. In three movements, the Concerto is shaped along the lines of contemporaneous works by the composer, such as Vision from High Rock, Khaldis, and the Suite for Violin, Piano, and Percussion, in which the Medieval and Renaissance practices, and the Armenian and other middle-eastern influences are joined by jarring and seemingly incongruous extratonal and polytonal dissonances and tone clusters. Although the work reveals many of the composer’s familiar devices, there are also moments that are strikingly fresh and unexpected.

This release earns a place alongside the five or so Hovhaness CDs that are truly indispensable.

Walter Simmons
© Fanfare 2006