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Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Cello Concerto Op. 17 (1936) [31.13] (Andante - Maestoso [15:56]; Allegro [03:27]; Andante [11:40])
Symphony No. 22 City of Light Op. 236 (1971) [29.43] (Allegro moderato [10:00]; Angel of Light (Largo); Allegretto grazioso [02:42]; Finale: Largo maestoso [13:06])
Janos Starker (cello) Seattle SO/Dennis Russell Davies (concerto); composer (symphony) rec. 19 Mar 1999, Benaroya Hall, Seattle (concerto); 19 May 1992, Seattle Center Opera House. DDD
NAXOS 8.559158 [60.49]


It came as a surprise to an American friend of mine that I had never listened to a piece of music by Alan Hovhaness before reviewing this CD. At least I have never consciously listened: I am sure I have heard a few passages on the car radio whilst driving to Scotland, or listening to Radio 3 whilst having an early morning shave. But I have never sat down with one of this composer’s works and given it my best shot.

My first impression was that it did not ‘do’ for me. It seemed to lack structure; to be devoid of musical pegs to hang my hat on.

I had decided to approach this review with an innocent ear. I did not even read the programme notes or look up the composer’s entry in Grove or check out the excellent but partially complete web pages. But we do not live in a void – I did know one or two ‘facts’ about Hovhaness that prejudiced (for good or ill) my mind. Firstly, I knew that he wrote lots of symphonies – some 67 of them. I had seen the Delos record covers and knew that he was prolific. I knew also that he was regarded by many as a precursor of minimalism and other post-modernist styles. It is reasonably common knowledge that he had a clear out of his ‘juvenilia’ in 1940 and supposedly destroyed a thousand scores [apparently, this number is exaggerated]. And last but not least I had read somewhere that he had felt the acerbic side of Lenny Bernstein’s tongue when the pair of them were at Tanglewood.

There is no for me need to give a biography of the composer here. An excellent one has been written at http://www.hovhaness.com/

Let’s look at the Symphony No. 22. It is billed as Op. 236. I understand that the high opus number is due to the composer’s attempt to reorder his works after the 1940 cull. Many works were recomposed, rewritten and ‘dished up’ in new guises. The present work was written quite late, in 1971. It was commissioned for the Birmingham (Alabama) Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the centenary of the city itself.

What Hovhaness does is to sidestep any implicit historical references to this particular city. He looks beyond the tangible to the underlying reality. It is a platonic vision of a metropolis. He wrote for the programme notes that he was ‘thinking of a million lights, an imaginary city.’ Now a lot comes down to one’s philosophical bent here: whether we are idealist or realist, perhaps. Yet for the composer the ‘ideal’ city was the more real because it is what Birmingham had tried to model itself on. The real city is but an imperfect image of the imaginary. He tries to create a city that is beyond time and location. It is as if he is searching for the Utopia that has been sought by mankind for millennia.

The work as I first heard it was a bit like an exploration. There were no really obvious themes - no ‘easy to follow’ sonata form. What appears to happen is a slow but sure expansion of the main theme over the course of the first two movements. There is a stillness or repose introduced into this first part of the part of the work that makes the music feel spacious. One is not really aware of the passage of time here. No wonder that some people see Hovhaness as a precursor to Reich, Adams and Glass. It is not until the third movement that the music ‘gets a move on’ with a very brief ‘scherzo’. This is almost a dance movement – although just what ethnic dance is represented here is difficulty to say. There is almost something ‘Holstian’ about this movement – although I am not suggesting direct influence!

The last movement is where all the big action happens. Here the composer uses every trick in the book – including unusually for him at this stage - counterpoint and fugue. The music certainly builds up into a huge climax that has been described as being reminiscent of the Great Gate of Kiev by Mussorgsky. The minimalist feel is ever present. The music seems to move on by small, subtle development rather than being defined by any classical form. However this is truly great music; the wanderer’s journey is over. The true city has been found and has been found to be glorious. We are happy to rest our weary souls in this City of Light.

For photos of Birmingham, Alabama see http://larryogay1.oceansfree.com/

One of the early works that the composer decided not to recycle to the waste bin was the Cello Concerto. This had been composed in 1936. Now whether this work should take its place alongside those of Dvorák and Elgar is for every listener to decide for themselves. My first hearing of this work did not impress me; I am not sure that I am impressed on a subsequent hearing. I do not know Hovhaness’s music sufficiently well to be able to evaluate this work in terms of further development or prior achievement. However, the programme notes suggest that many of the composer’s fingerprints are already present - the use of ‘sequences of rich, sonorous chords and evocative use of old modes.’ The big difference would appear to be that there is lack of contrapuntal writing - a return to an earlier style, perhaps. However I do not see this as being a big problem. The constantly developing melody of the cello largely makes up for this deficiency. There is a considerable chamber feel to much of this music – none more so than the pairing of a single flute with the soloist which is exquisite.

The concerto is written in three movements. The two outer slow ones frame a short ‘Allegro’. There are many lovely and very beautiful things in this work. Yet to my mind there is an inherent imbalance. Perhaps the outer movements outstay their welcome? To me the short middle movement is perfect in form, balance and content.

Having said all this, there is something about this work that does haunt me. I will return to it again and give it another go. There is something worthwhile that is hiding itself from me. If only I could put my finger on it…

I cannot fault the performance by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra or the playing of the cellist Janos Starker. The sound quality is perfect and lends itself to the spacious sound that the composer creates.

The Symphony was conducted by the composer himself, so presumably represents a definitive performance.

The programme notes could have been a bit more extensive. I do not know these works so I need all the help I can get.

After listening with an innocent ear, I read up a little about the composer. I am left with the impression that he is the kind of guy I could have problems with. For all intents and purposes he is eclectic; using a variety of styles culled from all over the world he appears to have created a unique soundscape. However I do not yet know if this eclecticism will prove hard to cope with. I wonder if we can ever pin him down to a style. This remains to be seen, assuming I have the opportunity to explore a bit further into his massive catalogue.

John France



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