Armernian pianist Şahan Arzruni (credit: Berge Arabian)

CD Review: Şahan Arzruni plays music of Alan Hovhaness

Giorgio Koukl | 03 MAY 2021

Common characteristics of both composer and pianist on this CD, beyond being both of Armenian origins, are an incredible versatility, a capacity to emerge in many different fields and a prolific production in almost everything they have done. The vitality they display in all of their actions is remarkable.

Alan Hovhaness - selected piano compositions (CD)

Alan Hovhaness – selected piano compositions
Sahan Arzruni, piano
Adam Rosenblatt, percussion
Format: Audio CD
Release: November 2019
Label : Kalan Müzik Yapım

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), born as Alan Vaness Chakmakjian, retains surely one of the most eclectic positions among American composers. A long-time neglected musician, he is only in the recent past slowly returning to the surface, thanks to many excellent recordings now available.

He is generally seen as the most prolific composer of the 20th century despite his recurrent phases of self-destructive critical reconsideration of own work. He has burnt “thousands of works,” to cite his own words.

His interest in Far East mystical tradition, combined with a profound research made on Armenian historical sources, led to a personal style which did not change much over the course of decades.

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His opinions are fairly well reflected by the enormous work his family made to preserve from oblivion every single note of his work and of his declarations.

Mr. Hovhaness intended his primary task in life to be and act as a mystic and through his uplifting work for other people trying to help them to reach the same heights. This idea explains mostly all his choices from the high-flying titles of the compositions to the selection of means to compose.

It was certainly not an easy task choosing music to be present on this CD. As the excellent liner notes inform us, most of the works were available as autographs only. Probably a profound knowledge Mr. Arzruni had of the composer, whom he personally knew, helped a lot in this difficult task.

Sahan Arzruni and Alan Hovhaness in 1986 (credit Tom Lazarus)

Sahan Arzruni and Alan Hovhaness in 1986 (credit Tom Lazarus)

Some of the works are accompanied with a suggestive sound of percussive instruments, ranging from Far Eastern to Indian instruments, here played by Adam Rosenblatt. Sometimes this is a tasteful solution, but most of the time it gives us a strange byproduct of “kitch,” difficult to get rid of. Such a phenomena can be observed in some of the composer’s orchestral works, too, where too many cheap instrumental solutions can scare the listener.

None of the 34 tracks is very long, usually between three and five minutes only. The main structure of the music, in some ways very similar, uses repetitive, hypnotic sounds of one chord, extensive oriental material and in reality practically no harmony at all. No wonder such a sort of music created a lot of aversion among fellow composers of his time. Such as it is, there are no visible links to any 20th century tradition, his voice being far too individual and maybe even ahead of his time. Minimalists were still not born. Hence the famous outcry of Leonard Bernstein: “filthy ghetto music” or, a critic: “…garbage, 75 minutes worth.”

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While it is certainly true that the differences between the compositions on this CD are minimal, the structure is extremely simple and there is no development at all, all this is nevertheless a mind boggling task for an interpreter. Here, I have to say, Mr. Arzruni delivered results that imply pondering and studying time of giant proportions.

Trying to be the best imaginable interpreter for this music he arrives at great heights dealing with literally few or no inputs from the composer. In my eyes, for this he deserves the highest plaud. It is usually never easy to deal with scores containing a minimum information. Maybe we are all spoiled with the different Urtext editions where every hint is reported, making the life of an interpreter equally difficult as easy, where everything has been made to make the intentions of the author comprehensive. But there are composers doing really the basics to make clear how to interpret their ideas. This is the point a specialist enters to the scene, after digesting hundreds of hours of „his“ composer, he or she can deliver a first idea how things should be conceived.

Composers like Aarvo Pärt, Lutoslawski or Keith Jarrett have extensively used many of the techniques invented by Hovhaness. Some of them maybe disposed of more musical ideas, inventiveness and material to be used in the imaginary carpet to be woven for the public, and so they obtained musically better results, but this is not diminishing at all the precursor role he had in history.

Without seeing the necessity to enter in details of the single works, all of them playing with high-flying symbols, Armenian narrative of the past and New Age philosophy, this disc represents a well recorded, extremely well played and gap-filling project. For those interested in this it’s an easy recommendation. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.