Hovhaness piano MS1796

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)
Mountain Fantasies for Piano
Blue Job Mountain Sonata
Prospect Hill Sonata (1980)
Mt. Katahdin sonata (1987)
Pastoral No.1 (1952)
Hymn for Mt. Chocorua (1982)
Twelve Armenian Folk Songs (1943)
Farewell to the Mountains (1946)
Haskell Small (piano)
rec. 2013-14, Bethesda, USA
MSR Classics MS1796 [59]

Alan Hovhaness, who lived to be nearly ninety, wrote profuse swathes of music, including 67 numbered symphonies (1936-1992). His catalogue runs to upwards of 420 opus numbers spanning in all formats. This is aside from the pyre he made of the teeming scores he disowned as derivative in the early 1940s. Naxos, Delos, Unicorn (in days of vinyl) and Crystal/Poseidon have stepped in so that we can hear some of his symphonies; only a few. His piano music, unburdened of the skill/expense of orchestral finery, has also had its good angels: Marvin Rosen, Wayne Johnson, Sahan Arzruni, Alessandro Pompili on Dynamic and François Mardirossian on Ad Vitam. The complete (or as near as damn-it) sonatas have been recorded by Nicola Giosmin on Taukay across seven CDs.

MSR and Haskell Small here unleash three sonatas from the 1980s. Their connective tissue is linked tightly or loosely to the mountains. By the sound of things these are either borne in on the listener as isolated in towering splendour or prone to meditative fantasy. The music of the Blue Job Mountain Sonata is slow, flows with rapid pearlescent torrents or is propelled by hypnotic rills. Also in three movements is the Prospect Hill Sonata. This is full of movement almost suggestive of the harpsichord but with a dash of those wild-eyed misfits, Percy Grainger and Conlon Nancarrow. The four-movement Mt. Katahdin Sonata is from towards the end of the 1980s. Its pensive power is gem-like, oriental and thunderous. It seems to imply that man is a thing of ephemera and that dark forces are pulling the levers. Yet the second movement – a lullaby – coolly consoles and lulls … well, almost.

The Pastoral No.1 makes harrowing use of the bass end of the nine-foot Bluthner grand piano played with such sustained gong-like composure by Haskell Small. Small is also a composer (with two MSR discs to his reputation). The excellent liner notes, which are by Robert Aubry Davis, indicate that the sepulchral sounds of the Pastoral are derived from the pianist delving into the internal mechanics of the Bluthner. The Hymn for Mount Chocorua is a pugnacious paean and radiates a pitiless confidence. The brevities that comprise the Twelve Armenian Folk Songs trill, muse and disorientate as you might expect. They belong, with utmost happiness, in the folksy company. The instances I have in mind are the “Këngë” and “Rapsodi” championed by Kirsten Johnson on Guild and the wonderful ballet Harnasie by Szymanowski.

The disc ends with a piece that bids adieu to the mountains that tower over Hovhaness’s spiritual world. The hypnotic, brisk-pulsed Farewell to the Mountains is from the same early years as the Twelve Armenian Folk Songs. It is fitting that the disc refers to the mountains and starts and ends with music seemingly inspired by those regions, as were at least five of his symphonies including both the second and the last.

The piano sound from a nine-foot Bluthner Grand is frank, forthright and full-on potent.

Rob Barnett

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music