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Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Symphony No. 2 Mysterious Mountain Op. 132 (1955) [19.23]
Symphony No. 50 Mount St Helens Op. 360 (1981) [29.16]
Symphony No. 66 Hymn to Glacier Peak Op. 428 (1991) [18.38]
Storm on Mount Wildcat Op. 2 No. 2 (1931) [3.37]
Royal Liverpool PO/Gerard Schwarz
Recorded Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK, 9 August 2002
Notes in English. Photographs of the composer and performers.
Booklet cover painting by Alan Hovhaness.
CD stereo and SACD 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound. Hybrid SACD
TELARC SACD 60604 [71.45] Plays on SACD players and on CD players.

Comparison Recordings:
Mt. St. Helens Symphony, Schwarz, Seattle SO DELOS DE 3137*
Mysterious Mountain, Schwarz, Seattle SO DELOS DE 3157*

Mysterious Mountain, Fritz Reiner, CSO RCA/BMG 61957
Mysterious Mountain, Dennis Russell Davies, ACO MusicMasters MMD 60204D
Mysterious Mountain, John Williams, LSO Sony SMK 62729

*All Seattle SO recordings are now owned by Naxos and plans are underway to re-release many of them in the Naxos American Classics series.

I came to love the music of Alan Hovhaness at once upon hearing some of it in the late 1950s, the St. Vartan Symphony and the Celestial Fantasy #1 in particular. But dodecaphony had yet a while to reign and it amazes one now to think back upon the calumny and derision Hovhaness had to endure while joyously pursuing his own path. Fortunately he has always had champions and his music has always been available if you were willing to look for it. Gerard Schwarz who was Hovhaness’s champion for the final 15 years of his life was able to accomplish the recording many of the composer’s finest works in state of the art sound on CDs. Hopefully the current popularity of this composer will bring back into the catalogue many older recordings long gone out of print. Hovhaness’s music always inspired recording engineers to do their best, and he has never received a bad recording that I am aware of, so these older recordings will still be of great interest, especially since many of them were made with the composer’s active collaboration.

We now have an embarrassment of riches with several better-than-adequate recordings of the Mysterious Mountain Symphony. The Reiner is still probably the best performance overall but the pre-Dolby sound and the fluffed trumpet note during a fugal entry are small but not insignificant annoyances. The Davies recording is so indolent as to be almost an insult; I think they spent all their rehearsal time on the Harrison work on the same disk and threw in the Hovhaness as an afterthought in the hope the disk would thus sell a few copies. The John Williams recording has good sound and good playing but the interpretation is overly reverent, approaching somnolence. The first Schwarz recording with the Seattle SO, compared directly with this new one, shows occasions where concentration lapsed or orchestral balance was slightly off. This new recording by Schwarz has none of these difficulties, builds feeling and manifests grandeur, and is the only real challenge to the Reiner recording; many will prefer it. The major difference is that Reiner achieves greater dynamics, possibly exceeding those written in the score since all other recordings remain within this smaller dynamic range.

I remember once when I was on a two week pack trip in the Arizona desert our guide, a man who spent his whole life outdoors and formally knew nothing about music confided to me that the Mysterious Mountain Symphony said everything he felt could be said about his religion and his love of the natural world—amazing that a person unschooled in music could relate so immediately to a work which consists entirely of learned forms, which builds an arch of chorales and canons with a double fugue as its keystone.

Symphony #66, ‘Hymn to glacier Peak’ is good Hovhaness; if it were the only work he ever wrote, we would revere it as a masterpiece. It fades only by comparison with its diskmates. The slow movement of this three movement work is entitled ‘love song to Hinako’, after Hinako Fujihara, Hovhaness’s wife of 24 years. It is brief, features the flute, and not overly sentimentalised. It is not by any means the most Japanese sounding music on the disk. Likewise ‘Storm on Mount Wildcat’ Op 2, which is an impression of a mountain storm in Massachusetts where the composer grew up. The mountains are smaller there and so is the height of the music.

The Mount St. Helens Symphony, commissioned by Peters International publishers, is one of the composer’s finest works, but faces one impossible challenge: no matter how hard you hit a bass drum on stage it’s still going to be hundreds of orders of magnitude quieter than a volcanic explosion. The conductor’s job is to make of it a gesture that accomplishes its symbolic goal without amusing the audience. No attempt was made in either of Schwarz’s recordings to amplify the sound by use of an anvil or sounding box as might be employed in the Mahler Sixth Symphony, and neither recording actually accomplishes the required gesture (although the Seattle SO recording comes much closer), and one must just discipline oneself and not to snicker and agree to accept the gesture as sufficient. Certainly the savagery of the ensuing music with its trombone glissandi and intricate timpani solo quickly draws one’s attention away and brilliantly depicts the chaotic violence of the rampaging fiery cloud.

However to me the high point of this work is the ‘Spirit Lake’ movement, one of the composer’s very finest, making effective use of a little trick of string writing he learned from a Shostakovich string quartet. Never let it be said Hovhaness didn’t listen to other people’s music.

Of the St. Helens Symphony I played first the Seattle SO CD, then the Telarc CD tracks, both with virtual surround sound, and finally the Telarc SACD surround sound tracks of this work, and I observed that the best performance by far is the Seattle version, perhaps for a number of obvious reasons: The composer was present in the hall. Every one of these musicians heard the boom when that mountain blew. Their children in the suburbs of Seattle at the base of Mt. Rainier (generally expected to be the next one to go off) have regular volcano escape drills. The poisonous fiery clouds can travel a kilometre in about 40 seconds which means it would take them about five minutes after the initial explosion to reach the schools. On a surprise signal, the children are alerted and their teachers hurriedly lead them out of the building and assemble them in the school yard while the schoolbusses are driven onto the grounds. The children get onto the buses which depart one by one when full, get up onto the expressway, then accelerate to 90 kilometres an hour, while the preparedness officials click their stopwatches. Presumably the teachers and school employees are permitted to board the last bus. If they can get everyone out and up to 90 kilometres an hour in five minutes, they’re safe. And they rehearse this at regular intervals. The surrounding residents, of course, are on their own.

The Telarc CD tracks have lower dynamic range than the Seattle SO CD, but by comparison with the SACD have the same artefacts of compression into 44/16 format: general cloudiness, raspy violins, muddy bass, and odd clicking sounds in the high percussion. The SACD tracks have no greater dynamic range, but the bass range and definition are markedly superior, and all the cloudiness, harshness, and artefacts in the midrange and high ranges disappear. The genuine surround sound is less obvious than this particular player’s (Sony DVP-NS755V) virtual rear channel surround sound. And, even though I already knew this music pretty well and I’d just heard it two times on the CD tracks with no significant loss of dignity, when the SACD tracks finished playing I was sobbing.

For the Mt. St. Helens Symphony, ask Santa Claus to ask Naxos to re-release the Seattle SO performance in DVD-Audio format. In the meantime, if you’re a Hovhaness fan you already have the Delos version and can be happy that it has not been superseded. Buy the Telarc version for the Mysterious Mountain and the two other works. If you don't own this music, then by all means buy the Telarc disk, and ask Santa Claus, &c. &c.

Paul Shoemaker

see also review by Rob Barnett


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