AN OVERVIEW OF THE MUSIC OF ALAN HOVHANESS ON CD
Approaching the music of Alan Hovhaness can be a daunting prospect for new
listeners, as it would be for any prolific composer from Antonio Vivaldi
to Bohuslav Martinö .
Hovhaness's 467 opus numbers include 67 symphonies, 22 concertos, 67 sonatas
for various instrument combinations, and 7 operas, and there are 48 CDs including
his music on the market. This overview discusses recordings listed in the
2001 edition of Schwann Opus which I have found most rewarding.
Because he considered atonal music to be unnatural, Hovhaness eschewed serialism
which held sway in intellectual musical circles and, instead, followed his
own path. Though his music often included dissonance, it was always within
the context of (frequently modal) tonality. Influenced by Sibelius early
in his career, Hovhaness retained long melodic lines and transparent harmonies
in his music. During the 1940s, he absorbed his Armenian musical heritage
along with Renaissance and Baroque fugues, canons and arias, medieval and
Greek modes, Byzantine polyphony, as well as Indian, Japanese and Korean
classical music. These many influences never obscured his own voice. He did
not ignore contemporary trends, using prepared and quartertone piano as well
as contrasting rhythms which he called orbits. His early experiments with
aleatoric music, what he referred to as Oriental spirit murmur, precipitated
John Cage's fascination with chance in music. But, above all, Alan Hovhaness
strove to communicate beauty through his music.
Hovhaness's two most recorded works, and among the most rewarding, are his
Symphony No. 2 "Mysterious Mountain" op. 132 with lush sweeping
melodies like an oriental-tinged Sibelius, and Prayer of St. Gregory
for trumpet and strings (or organ) op. 62.
By far the best performance of Mysterious Mountain is the 1958
recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA V61957
although Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony have a fine rendition
The Delos recording also includes Alleluia and Fugue op. 40 No.
2, And God Created Great Whales op. 229 No. 1, Prayer of St.
Gregory, and Prelude and Quadruple Fugue op 128 (see below). Those
enjoying Mysterious Mountain would likely appreciate Gerard Schwarz
and the Seattle Symphony's versions of Symphony No. 1 "Exile" op.
17b, Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints op. 211 for xylophone and orchestra,
and Meditation on Orpheus op. 155 (Delos 3168
They might also like Vakhtang Jordania and the Korean Broadcasting System
Symphony Orchestra's recording of Symphony No. 3 op. 148 (Soundset
SR1004 - you can order this directly from Soundset at
The Prayer of St. Gregory op. 62b, an intermezzo from his
Etchmiadzin op. 62 opera with the trumpet's prayer over plaintive,
hymnal strings, is a moving spiritual piece that has already become a staple
in the trumpet repertoire. It is simple and always affecting but no one
performance stands out in my mind.
Later symphonies were often more experimental and frequently included
instrumental or vocal soloists. In 1 to 24 movements, they were scored for
string orchestra, wind band, winds and percussion as well as the traditional
orchestra. Symphony No. 6 "Celestial Gate" op. 173 and
Symphony No. 25 "Odysseus" op. 275, reflect Armenian influences.
Both can be found with the composer conducting the Polyphonia Orchestra on
In a single movement, Symphony No. 6 turns from a great and sorrowful song
to a dervish dance in the dust that leads to peace and enlightenment. Symphony
No. 25 evokes the sweeping landscapes of Asia Minor with the sensation of
traveling immense distances.
Symphony No. 11 "All Men Are Brothers" op. 186 (Crystal
) is a powerful call for love among all living things.
Symphony No. 21 "Etchmiadzin" op. 234 (composer conducting
the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Crystal 804
a fine example of Hovhaness's synthesis of Byzantine and aleatoric styles.
It is coupled with the powerful free-canon tribute to the 15th
century Florentine painter of celestial musicians Fra Angelico
op. 220, the flowing Mountains and Rivers Without End op. 225
which was inspired by Korean landscape scroll-painting and used a theme
from his The Leper King op. 219 opera, and Armenian Rhapsody
No. 3 op. 189. Symphony No. 46 "To the Green Mountains"
op. 347 (Vakhtang Jordania and the KBS Symphony Orchestra, Koch
International 7208) contains a beautiful pastoral third movement "River
and Forest Music".
Other exceptional orchestral works include the Meditation on Orpheus
op. 155 (William Strickland and the Japan Philharmonic Symphony
Orchestra, Citadel 88122
though a fine performance can also be found on Delos 3168 (see above).
And God Created Great Whales op. 229 No. 1 for orchestra and
taped humpback whale song wonderfully invokes the mysteries of the deep ocean
(Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, Delos 3157
advocated over Crystal 810). Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints
op. 211 played by Ron Johnson, marimba, with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle
Symphony on Delos 3168 is highly recommended over the deleted
Etcetera release. Also enjoyable is Concerto No. 7 for
Orchestra op. 116 (Rudolf Werthen and I Fiamminghi, Telarc
80392) which is in the same sound world as Symphony No. 25 "Odysseus".
For string or chamber orchestra, I would recommend the Alleluia and
Fugue op. 40b with its moving modal alleluia and taut well-written
fugue (Rudolf Werthen and I Fiamminghi, Telarc 80392
not unlike Henry Cowell's Hymn and Fuguing Tunes in its straightforward
and heartfelt exposition. Armenian Rhapsody No. 1 op. 45, the
lively dance Tzaikerk (Evening Song) op. 53 No. 2 (Ernest Gold
and the Crystal Chamber Orchestra, Crystal 801
and the Armenian Rhapsody No. 3 op. 189 (composer conducting
the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Crystal 804
are fine examples of Hovhaness's Armenian-influenced music. The third rhapsody
is one of the few works that quotes directly from folk songs - "Sird im Sasani"
(My Heart is Shattered) and "Bagh Aghpiuri Mod" (By the Fountain).
Foremost among Hovhaness's large output for winds is his Return and
Rebuild Desolate Places op. 213 for trumpet and wind band. The first
movement is an aleatoric expression of violent destruction while the latter,
based on the Khrimian Hairig op. 49 for trumpet and strings, is a
moving prayer. It is coupled with Mountains and Rivers Without End,
Symphony No. 6 "Celestial Gate" and Prayer of St. Gregory in
a fine performance by Chris Gekker, trumpet, and Richard Aulden Clark conducting
the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra (Koch International 7221
Concerto No. 1 "Lousadzak (Coming of Light)" for piano and
strings op. 48 is a seminal work and my personal favorite. Delicate
melodic lines imitating kanoon and oud are woven into an evocative tapestry
that unrolls continuously until it simply ends without climax. Structurally,
it bears some semblance to Liszt's Totentanz though soloist and orchestra
work together unlike the more familiar Romantic concerto. Unfortunately,
Lousadzak is not presently available on CD though two out-of-print
discs are worth looking out for. The performance of Hasmig Surmelian piano,
with Jean-Jacques Werner and the Orchestre Leon Barzin (Marcal MA951001,
also Musisoft or Media7 1001) comes close to capturing the
spirit of this work and is coupled with the beautiful Concerto No.
2 for violin and strings op. 89a, played by
Annie Jodry, made up of arias and dances. While Keith Jarrett's performance
with Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Symphony on
Musicmasters MMD 60204K is brilliant, some important moments are lost
in the rush.
Some highlights of Hovhaness's chamber output include his String Quartet
No. 1 "Jupiter" op. 8, an early and lush work, and 4
Bagatelles for string quartet op. 30, both gracefully interpreted
by the Shanghai String Quartet on Delos 3162
Other noteworthy chamber works are his Sonata for violin and
harp op. 406 (Aurora Duo, 4Tay 4010) and a Sonata
for solo harp op. 127 worthy of Mozart (Yolanda Kondonassis harp,
The latter recording includes the evocative Upon Enchanted Ground
for flute, cello, tamtam and harp op. 90 No. 1 and the Harp
Concerto op. 267.
Fine examples of his choral works can be found in his dramatic cantatas
Lady of Light op. 227 and Avak the Healer op. 65
No. 1 both of which are on Crystal 806
(Patricia Clark, soprano, Leslie Fyson, baritone, composer conducting
the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Ambrosian Singers; Marni Nixon soprano,
Ernest Gold and the Crystal Chamber Orchestra, respectively). Lady of
Light tells the story of a dancing girl who inspires love in others and
is perceived as a threat by authorities. The traditional
Magnificat op. 157 (Donald Pearson conducting the Choirs and
Orchestra of St. John's Cathedral, Denver, Delos 3176
is also well worth hearing.
Hovhaness's output for solo piano include 26 sonatas and many shorter works.
The sonatas, mostly gentle and meditative, resemble Renaissance suites more
than Romantic piano sonatas while piano pieces based on Near and Far Eastern
folk music are often more energetic. Wayne Johnson shows a great affinity
for Hovhaness's piano music on Crystal 813
This disc includes the rambunctious Macedonian Mountain Dance op.
144a (a bit of an oddity resembling a 'boogie woogie' avalanche),
Mountain Dance No. 2 op. 144b, the sprightly Dance
Ghazal op. 37 No. 1, the gentle Fantasy op. 16 for
prepared piano like a Japanese garden, and the contemplative Piano
Sonata "Ananda" op. 303. Another beautiful example of Hovhaness's
late piano music is Piano Sonata "Mt. Katahdin" op. 405 played
by Martin Berkofsky on Crystal 814 which is coupled with the percussive
"Khaldis" Concerto for piano, 4 trumpets and percussion op. 91
and Alan Hovhaness's own performance of his Piano Fantasy.
The engaging Allegro on a Pakistan Tune op. 104 No. 6 has just
been released on CRI 874
with Robert Helps playing numerous short piano works by contemporary
American composers in a recording from 1966.
What can we hope for in the future? While labels such as Crystal have done
a wonderful job of re-releasing LP incarnations of many of his works, most
of Alan Hovhaness's music remains unrecorded. Of his 67 symphonies, for example,
38 have never been recorded at all while 10 have appeared only on LP. Although
I have not heard most of Hovhaness's unrecorded works, radio broadcasts and
concerts have afforded the opportunity to hear a few of these. From this,
three promising candidates among unrecorded symphonies are Symphony
No. 8 "Arjuna" for piano, winds, horn, timpani and strings op. 179,
Symphony No. 18 "Circe" op. 204a based on his Circe ballet
music, and Symphony No. 28 "Armenian II" op. 286. Other symphonies
I hope to soon see on CD are Symphony No. 23 "Ani" for wind
band op. 249, the drones of which betray hints of Hovhaness's Scots roots,
the avalanche-like Symphony No. 14 "Ararat" for winds, brass
and percussion op. 194, Symphony No. 15 "Silver Pilgrimage" op.
199 and Symphony No. 20 "Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain"
Shorter orchestral works of merit include Janabar (Journey) op.
81, Ode to the Temple of Sound op. 216, the Byzantine
Vision from High Rock op. 123, Mountain of Prophecy
op. 195 and Meditation on Zeami op. 207. Also much appreciated
would be a CD release of Andre Kostelanetz's performances for Columbia Records
of many of the tone poems described above.
I hope some label will record the Adoration cantata op. 221,
a haunting love song aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the
early 1970s. It is surprising that Revelations of St. Paul op.
343 remains unrecorded. It is a powerful choral work worthy of Handel.
I suspect that suffered unfair criticism at its premiere because its tonality
clashed with reviewers' post-Penderecki expectations. Hopefully, Donald Pearson
and the Choirs and Orchestra of St. John's Cathedral, Denver will take on
this fine work.
The unrecorded Soprano Saxophone Concerto op. 344 shows
off Hovhaness's affinity for the saxophone. Divorcing the instrument from
its contemporary jazz connotations, he treats it like a member of the ancient
and venerable oboe family. The Guitar Concerto op. 325 is another
appealing work that would be effective on CD.
In the 1970s, Alan attempted to obtain the original recording tapes for MGM's
LP releases from the 1950s. These included outstanding performances of
Concerto No. 1 "Lousadzak" (Maro Ajemian piano, Carlos Surinach
and the MGM String Orchestra), Concerto No. 2 for violin
and strings (Anahid Ajemian violin), the "Talin" Concerto
for viola and strings op. 93 No. 1 (Emanual Vardi, viola,
Izler Solomon and the MGM String Orchestra), Alleluia and Fugue
op. 40 No. 2, Anahid op. 57 No. 1, Is There
Survival? Op. 59 and Tower Music op. 129. Unfortunately,
these tapes appear to have been lost.
The Sonata for cello and piano op. 255 is a perfect
example of beauty in simplicity that has yet to be recorded. Spirit
of Ink for 3 flutes op. 230 is beautifully evocative of dawn birdsong.
Sharagan and Fugue for 2 trumpets, horn and tuba op. 58 appeared
on 5 independent LPs but has yet to show up on CD.
A CD of Hovhaness's works for 2 pianos - Vijag op. 37, the
tumultuous Mihr op. 60 No. 1, Ko-ola-u op. 136
(the seed for And God Created Great Whales), the pastoral Child
in the Garden op. 168 (actually for one piano, 4-hands), and O
Lord, Bless Thy Mountains for 2 pianos tuned a quartertone apart
op. 276 - would be a wonderful addition to the Hovhaness discography. An
unrecorded solo piano work I would like to see on CD is the Piano Sonata
"Journey to Arcturus" op. 354.
Hovhaness's interest in music of the East is reflected in a length list of
unrecorded works for traditional Asian instruments that pique my curiosity.
These include Gamelan and Jhala for carillon op. 106,
Two Sonatas for koto (or cheng) op. 110, Sonata for ryuteki
and sho op. 121, Sonata for hichiriki and sho op. 171,
the "Shambala" Concerto for violin, sitar and orchestra op. 228,
Nagooran for South Indian orchestra op. 237, Stars Sing
Bell Song for soprano and gamelan op. 350 No. 1 and Pleiades
for gamelan op. 350 No. 2.
With so much music by Alan Hovhaness unrecorded, there is undoubtedly much
to look forward to. Enjoy what has already made its way onto CD while keeping
a lookout for new releases.
© Eric Kunze
See also Rob Barnett's survey
Hovhaness on Crystal
A CRYSTAL QUINTET Five
Instrumental Anthology Discs from Crystal Records Inc. Each includes a work
by ALAN HOVHANESS