Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) wrote a lot of music; most of it totally unknown. Classifying the music of this eccentric composer is no mean task. Hovhaness' draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including baroque music, as well as the ancient music of Armenia, India, Japan and elsewhere. Further, Hovhaness composes music in a style that is at home with many twentieth century modernist trends (minimalism, aleatoric music), but at the same time looks back to ancient chants or folk music from across the world. That said, Hovhaness' music is immediately accessible and has a uniform style that allows the listener to readily identify the music's composer.
The present release contains three concertante works:
Shambala - concerto for sitar, violin and orchestra
Janabar - five hymns for piano, violin, trumpet and string orchestra
Talin - concerto for viola and string orchestra
Also included on this release is a half hour of Hovhaness talking about his music. These conversations were interesting, but they were a bit random. It seems that these conversations were cobbled together from multiple interviews conducted at various points over the composer's life.
At 45 minutes, Shambala (1969) is the most substantial piece on the program. Hovhaness spent time in India studying its music and meeting with various Indian musicians. And it is from India where Hovhaness draws his inspiration in composing this concerto. There is a duality within this concerto: the writing for the violin and orchestra is primarily structured and is played in defined time, while the sitar part is often improvisatory, with much of the part left to the discretion of the performer. This piece will likely sound quite exotic to any Western ears. The exoticism is primarily added through the violin and sitar writing. Although the concerto takes the form of one long continuous movement, the work can be divided into several sub-movements, with the recurring appearance of a mysteriously ominous processional serving as a boundary, of sorts, around several extended solo passages. This processional and the presence of aleatoric pitched percussion / pizzicato passages (that is, several parts are played together in free time) is not completely different from that of Hovhaness' nineteenth symphony (the 'Vishnu' symphony). However, this mysitcal piece is unique among Hovhaness' compositions and is definitely worth checking out.
Talin (1951) is a brief concerto for viola and string orchestra. The first and third movements are solemn in nature, while the second movement takes the form of a dance containing themes from Persia. The colorful harmonies of this 'estampie' entice the listener; however, it is the noble chorales of this concerto that are truly memorable.
Composed in 1950, the five hymns of Janabar ('Journey') are real gems. As with Shambala, I hear duality within each movement. The hymns contain passages where only the solo piano or violin is heard, which are contrasted against passages scored for string orchestra and trumpet. Hovhaness, in describing his music, indicated that he used the trumpet as the 'voice of God'. And indeed, the trumpet part is truly majestic. There is a lot to like here. From the sparklingly serene piano opening of the 'Sharagan' movement, to the modal colorings of the 'Toccata' - all of this is beautiful.
My rating for this release is based solely on my opinion this music and the performance of it. The rating I gave does not include consideration of my frustration with the format of this recording. With this release, the purchaser receives one disc: one side of this disc is in DVD audio format, while the other side is in CD audio format. The CD audio side only contains Shambala and one movement each of Janabar and Talin (maybe you can consider this the 'best of' the DVD audio side). The CD audio side also contains a PDF file which details additional information about each of the three works (not included in the accompanying booklet). I find the DVD audio format to be a bit maddening as it must be played on a DVD payer, and it is terribly difficult to convert the tracks to MP3 files (I like to listen to music through my Ipod). I suspect this complicated format contributed to the high price of this release (too high in my opinion). I am sorry to get into all of these technicalities, but this was an important factor for me.
In conclusion, admirers of Hovhaness will want to acquire this. The three disparate pieces here are each beautiful in their own way and only further my belief that there is much more to Hovhaness than what the mainstream music listening public currently believes. Those that enjoy Hovhaness often refer to the spiritual, calming, healing or uplifting qualities of his music. I, too, would apply those adjectives to the three compositions here. Such terms are not typically applied to classical music, but then again, there is nobody quite like Hovhaness.
DVD audio: 126 minutes
CD: 59 minutes