This is a special Alan Hovhaness disc indeed. Firstly, delving into his chamber music is always exciting, particularly as there is a relatively small amount available (he wrote so much, and thus so much remains unrecorded and unperformed-this is especially true concerning his chamber oeuvre) and secondly, most people tend to think of Hovhaness as a highly original, prolific symphonist above all else (and rightly so, considering the recordings and information available) yet within his chamber music, such as these remarkably beautiful and fine String Quartets as well as the Four Bagatelles, there are also journeys to take that blissfully sweep us away. The compass simply swings and gently directs us away from the symphonic and orchestral traveling on to a terrain that is also extremely magical and steeped in the spiritual world that only Hovhaness can create. These quartets are, for me, immediately recognizable as being pure Hovhaness (the obvious incorporation of certain themes from prior works aside..), I hear it in my mind, entering through my ears-yet also in my 'gut', within my veins.. Hovhaness is one of the very few composers whose art is so sublime that it affects me on every possible level-including the physiological.
The Bagatelles Op. 30 Nos. 1-4, are short, simple pieces, and the name recalls Beethoven's use of the same term for his piano pieces. Written during a time in which Hovhaness was composer in residence with the Seattle Symphony, these fragile pearls create a hypnotic mood, often melodic with waves of gossamer flutterings.
The other quartets, by and large, were written for a group of Hovhaness's friends who met regularly at his home for chamber music readings, readings which also included works by Haydn and Mozart. Composed in the 1930s, String Quartet No. 1, Op. 8 derives its subtitle "Jupiter" from Mozart's symphony of the same name, which also contains a four-voiced fugue on considerable seriousness. "I think of myself as an American Haydn" quips the composer, referring to is study of the classical composers. But it was the Baroque period that prompted his interest in counterpoint. "Fugue form I use strictly" he once remarked. "I apply it to the modes. I like to develop these principles because I feel they are universal. I have always been particularly fond of Bach and Handel". This particular fugue appears on this recording in its original version. It was reworked for orchestra in 1954-1955, at the request of Howard Hanson, into the "Prelude and Quadruple Fugue" which most fans AH will recognize instantly. (and the fourth moment "Fugue", while not identical to "___ ___", should prove to be extremely familiar!
Originally consisting of seven short movements, String Quartet No. 2 was complete in June of 1952. The portions included here as the "Suite from Quartet No. 2" bear the titles "Gamelan in Sosi Style" (originally the 5th movement), "Spirit Murmur" (originally the 1st movement), and "Hymn" (originally the 7th movement). The elements of style include pentatonic melodies (Gamelan in Sosi Style), pizzicato ostinato under a free and plaintive melody (Spirit Murmur), and homophony (Hymn).
Dedicated to Gregory and May Kadjrerooni, String Quartet No. 3, 'Reflections on my Childhood' is subtitled "Childhood Fantasia in New England" and is the composer's musical representation of his childhood. It is a lushly lyrical and contemplative work that alternates between episodes of homophony and those marked 'sensa misura' (meaning "without measure"). The beginning of the second movement might bring to mind the beginning/theme of a certain gorgeous and well-known work by Vaughan Williams ;)
Similarly, String Quartet No. 4, 'The Ancient Tree' subtitled "Under the Ancient Maple Tree", is a musical representation of childhood visits to the country. There grew a "marvelous tree" remarked the composer, "on my uncle's farm in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, where I had many happy times. From under its branches were spectacular views in every direction. Later, lightening struck the tree and destroyed it. This piece is is my memorial to that beautiful tree". Indeed, a certain melancholy permeates the first and third movements, although the third movement is a wonderful, lively dance-like fugue. The work was published by C.F. Peters in 1970.
Composer Zhou Long's "Song of the Ch'in" for string quartet was composed in 1982, and won the first prize in the Chinese National Composition Competition (say it 10 times fast, everyone) in 1985.
-More on this piece later, have to run to work...