Conductor Gerard Schwarz has long been a champion of
the great 20th century American composer Alan Hovhaness.
He has regularly performed his music and made several recordings
with the Seattle Symphony - of which he has been Music Director
since 1985 - on the Delos label. It seems as with cinema, so with
classical music, at least to the extent that once something has
been done it is easier to do it again than something entirely new.
Hence, though Hovhaness wrote 67 symphonies and has a catalogue
running to 434 works, this present disc finds Schwarz returning
to two of the symphonies he has previously recorded, offering "remakes"
of his 1993 Delos recording of Symphony No.50, Mount St. Helens
(written 1981), and from the following year, Symphony No.2, Mysterious
Mountain (written 1955). To these, making this an entirely mountain-themed
collection, the conductor has added Symphony No.66, Hymn to Glacier
Peak (1991), and a much earlier work, the brief Storm on Wildcat
Mountain, composed in 1931.
As can be seen from the fact that the four works
on this disc were composed over a period of 50 years, Hovhaness
had a life-long love of mountains, and his richly tonal, melodic,
spiritual and essentially optimistic music is, at least in the
works here deeply programmatic. This fact endears him to devotees
of film music as much as it has alienated him from the critical
intelligentsia for much of his career.
The album opens with Mysterious Mountain, the
composer's second symphony and the work which put his name on
the musical map. The introductory "Andante con moto" is here slow
and suitably translucent, suggestive of a calm dawn amid the mountains.
Schwarz takes the work at a much more relaxed pace than a decade
ago. The current version clocks in at 7.42, the Delos recording
at 5.58. Glitteringly orchestrated and filled with beguiling woodwind
melodies, the movement leads to the "Double fugue" (here just
marginally slower than with the Seattle SO) and unfolds with a
fluid grace and logic which is completely convincing. The finale,
"Andante espressivo" is again slower than before, majestic and
lyrical, thoughtful and a little more introspective than before.
It brings the symphony to a highly satisfying close.
The conductor takes the opposite tack with the
new version of "Mount St. Helens", trimming almost three minutes
off the earlier time, over two of these from the finale, "Volcano".
The result is a more concentrated, explosive and dramatically
compelling musical imagining of the famous eruption of the titular
Pacific North-West mountain, the sonic boom of which actually
struck the composer's windows on May 18, 1980. The sound here
is first rate - as indeed it is throughout the disc - though by
most accounts the SACD version greatly surpasses the CD reviewed
Between these two symphonies is the late work,
Hymn to Glacier Peak, particularly distinguished by the lovely
and heartfelt central movement, a tribute to the composer's wife
- "Love song to Hinako". In fact Hinako Hovhaness contributes
movingly to the accompanying booklet, making this a highly personal
recording, a CD made by those who knew and loved the composer.
The entire symphony is rewarding and grows with each listen, though
it may be overlooked due to the towering presence of its epic
companions on either side.
"Storm on Wildcat Mountain" is very different,
a bold "Lento tempestoso" in a style much more indebted to the
late romantic masters than Hovhaness's later, far more personal
style. It's exhilaratingly enjoyable as an example of his early
writing, but no match for the three fine symphonies which comprise
the heart of the programme.
One might think the Seattle SO, being an American
orchestra from Hovhaness's region of the USA might have an unassailable
edge in this music. That is not necessarily so and the Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic play with a formidable assurance, richness of tone
and subtle detailing which quiet matches, if not surpasses the
earlier Seattle versions. The Delos performances are very good
in their own right, and while the new interpretations are certainly
different and perhaps preferable (certainly so in the case of
the "Volcano" movement) there is no reason to think this new album
makes the earlier discs redundant.
A highly recommended release for followers of
the composer, of romantic, melodic 20th century American
music, and those who appreciate grand-scale "landscape" film music
looking for an entry point into the modern American classical
world. It is harder to recommend to those who already have the
comparison discs, but if money is not a concern this splendid
album is well worth adding to the collection.
see also review
by Rob Barnett