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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
Rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 2002? DDD
TELARC CD-80604 [71.45]

Symphony No.2, Mysterious Mountain, Gerard Schwarz/Seattle SO Delos DE 3157
Symphony No.50, Mount St. Helens, Gerard Schwarz/Seattle SO Delos DE 3137

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 here.

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.

Gary Dalkin

see also review by Rob Barnett

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