Alan Hovhaness's full name is Alan Hovhaness Chakmakjian. The 'Chakmakjian'
has been discarded, at least for artistic purposes. The name is Armenian
in origin although he was born in Somerville, Massachusetts on 8 March 1911
of Scottish and Armenian parents.
Hovhaness was way ahead of the mystic fashions of the 1960s and 1970s: hippiedom,
TM, Indian mysticism (The Beatles visiting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). The ethnic
sound has become very popular these days so it is difficult to know why Hovhaness
has not made more progress. You need only look at the rising reputation of
Avet Terteryan (ASV and BMG Melodiya), whose regionally accented music is
so distinctive, to wonder what has happened.
Hovhaness's Symphony No. 11 is, in the composer's words: 'an attempt to
expressive a positive faith in universal cosmic love as the only possible
ultimate goal for man and nature. Let all unite on our tiny planet, our floating
village, our little space ship as we journey across mysterious endlessness.'
As an aspiration who could argue with this? As for the reality we have known
to date, well, let that not tarnish the goal. While much of the philosophical
message sounds similar to Scriabin's grand visions the music is very different.
The Symphony was premiered in New Orleans conducted by Frederick Fennell
on 21 March 1961 then completely rewritten and the new version given its
world premiere with Werner Torkanowsky (whose name I always remember for
a magical performance of Ned Rorem's Lions) with the New Orleans PO
on 31 March 1970.
The first movement has an initial Brahmsian string density (perhaps not aided
by the age of the recording?) moving into an interlude of harp passes and
bell tolling exoticism. Then not, for the last time, we move into a Vaughan
Williamsy soundbed of strings over which the brass cry out in austerity.
The second movement is an oriental dance with, again, strange RVW-style sounds
and Rózsa-like barbarian music. The folk dances suggested here might
easily have come from Somerset! The finale ends all in a hymnal melody in
praise of the universe. This melody is grounded by deliciously discordant
strokes on the vibraphone. This is alternated with a string anthem with accents
again fully worthy of RVW. 'And the voice of the Lord Buddha was heard like
the sound of a great gong hung in the skies, saying that though one met a
thousand men on his way they would all be one's brothers.' We return to the
harp passes and bell tolling exoticism. The brass call across eternity and
usher the work to a dignified and impressive close.
Armenian Rhapsody No. 1 is melodic music with a coursing pulse. The flavours
of the Middle East are strong and instantly recognisable - sometimes close
to Holst's Beni Mora. The twists and turns of the writing ground you
firmly in the exotic. All three Armenian Rhapsodies are here to be
experienced across three Crystal discs. The Prayer of St Gregory (from
his 1944 opera Etchmiadzin) is a quietly sinuous trumpet psalm over
a bed of strings - an Oriental extension of the Tallis Fantasia.
Occasionally I thought also of the string essays of Gerald Finzi.
Tzaikerk is the second longest essay on the disc and is here delightfully
and flutteringly done by Gretel Shanley (flute) with the serene, viola-toned
violin of Eudice Shapiro underpinning and partnering the constant flighty
activity of the flute. Gradually the flute calms into single held notes while
the violin sings out in dignified reflection.
The music is there to discover and enjoy. I recommend this disc.
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