Alessandra Pompili Is on Astral Journey with Alan Hovhaness

by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
AUGUST 11, 2022 — “My purpose is to create music not for snobs but for all people, music which is beautiful and healing.” These words of composer Alan Hovhaness appear in a short presentation of a recently released CD. It is the second recording that pianist Alessandra Pompili has produced of his piano works and it is clear that she shares the composer’s approach to music.

In her introduction, she explains that she had always incorporated contemporary music into her recitals, but Hovhaness appealed to her in particular because of her interest in the “relationship between music and silence.” His works, she finds, are conducive to this approach. “Performing, for me,” she explains, “is not only enjoying wonderful music but also presenting something that will make the audience want to go back to that experience again and again.”

It was Martin Berkofsky, an “advocate of Hovhaness’s music,” who introduced her to the Armenian composer. He would send her scores of the works from his home in Virginia, and she started incorporating them into her performances. Then, like Berkofsky, she too began premiering some of his compositions in Europe. Her first CD, “Alan Hovhaness: Piano Works,” appeared in 2014, and included Shalimar and Cougar Mountain Sonata.

The new recording is titled, “Alan Hovhaness, Piano Works vol. 2 – Journeying over Land and Through Space.” The five selections reflect, in fact, three countries (Ossetia, Japan, and Greece) and two spatial dimensions; the former include Fantasy on an Ossetin Tune Op. 85, Komachi Op. 240, No. 1-7, and Greek Rhapsody No. 1 Op. 63. In the voyage through conceptual/astronomical space the music takes us to Hermes Stella Op. 247 I, II, and on a Journey to Arcturus Op. 354 I-VI. “So this is a journey to very uncommon destinations,” the pianist noted in an understatement.

A Multilingual Musical Universe

Even for the non-specialist listener (like this writer), it becomes clear that we are moving from one musical culture to another, when, after hearing the Fantasy inspired by Ossetia, we know that with Kamachi we have entered a Japanese cultural realm, with its ancient sages ascending steep mountains. The seven short pieces in this section, ranging from one to two minutes each, are sound images, distinct vignettes or cameos, reminiscent (like many of Hovhaness’s compositions) of the works of Komitas. Though uttered by the same compositional voice, the Greek Rhapsody that concludes the recording speaks another, different language. It moves from treble melodies and accelerating rhythms to the poignant, emotionally diverse “Farewell song of a boy who must go to war,” to a brief march-like conclusion, Revolution. As Kansas State University professor Dr. Craig Parker has put it, Hovhaness was “a musical polyglot,” who was capable of composing in a wide variety of idioms, having become intimately familiar with the musical traditions (and instruments) of numerous countries.

The Journey to Arcturus takes the listener truly to a new universe, as if travelling from one celestial sphere to another. With an extraordinary economy of means, Hovhaness moves from the rhythms of Lullaby to an energetic Fugue, with penetrating, almost obsessive (and yet, perhaps, humorous) rhythms; a Nocturne with echoes of traditional Armenian folk themes, highly abstracted, leads to harmonic dissonances of Jhala for Star Journey, hammered out in insistent rhythms.

An International Artist

Alessandra Pompili’s profound study of the works of Hovhaness over years has rendered her fluent in the manifold musical languages in which he composed. With fine articulation and a technical mastery, she communicates the artistic diversity with insight and sensitivity. Pianist and composer Sergio Calligaris, with whom she studied for 15 years, has said, “Miss Pompili is gifted with a notable technique, a fine sense for the structure of the works she performs and a fine musicianship which communicates with the audience successfully. She certainly deserves the highest attention.” Pompili graduated from L’Aquila Conservatoire and also studied with Amadeo Graziosi and Marcella Crudele at the École Normale de Musique de Paris A. Cortot. She has performed in many European countries and the USA, and since 2006 has been a recording artist at Vatican Radio. For Martin Berkofsky, who supplied her with the scores of Hovhaness, she “is a pianist of eloquence and abiding honesty. Her playing speaks directly from the heart and touches me deeply. I confess that her music has brought me to tears.”

On April 17, 2021, Pompili was among the sponsors of a symposium held at the Armenian Cultural Foundation in Arlington, Mass., and performed there the first movement of the Greek Rhapsody included on this new CD. In her remarks at that event, which commemorated the 110th anniversary of the composer’s birth, she had quoted the following from Hovhaness: “I propose to create a heroic, monumental style of composition simple enough to inspire all people… It is not my purpose to supply a few pseudo-intellectual musicians and critics with more food for brilliant argumentation, but rather to inspire all mankind with new heroism and spiritual nobility. This may appear to be sentimental and impossible to some, but it must be remembered that Palestrina, Handel and Beethoven would not consider it either sentimental or impossible. In fact, the worthiest creative art has been motivated consciously or unconsciously by the desire for the regeneration of mankind.”

The new CD, published by the Italian label Dynamic, has been made available in its entirety on YouTube by Naxos: