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Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Symphony No. 23 Ani (City of a Thousand and One Cathedrals) for symphonic band Op. 249 (1972) [38.14]
The Spirit of Ink for three flutes Op. 230 (1970) [18.42]
Highline and Shoreline College Bands/Alan Hovhaness (symphony)
Samuel Baron (flute - all three parts)
rec. Ani from Poseidon LP 1015 transferred by Seth Winner; Ink ADD from Poseidon LP 1011


This has been a long time in the coming. In the 1970s the composer’s own Poseidon company issued vinyl and after vinyl in stark monochrome sleeves and with minimal notes. Their frugal appearance was comparable with the Music Heritage Society issues. The off-white sleeve of each LP included a woodcut of a ruined monastery standing in the desolate Armenian steppe. Those LPs travelled far and wide beyond their natural home: the cities of the USA’s Pacific littoral. A generous selection found their way to the secondhand shelves of the Wise Owl bookshop in Bristol in 1976. That was where I found them and bought them for a pound a piece. I knew of the recordings because they had been advertised by Gramex and Harold Moores in London. They were by no means cheap when bought new. The best of the master tapes were licensed out to Goldsmith’s much-missed company Unicorn. Unicorn did a much better job than Poseidon. Presentationally the Unicorn sleeves looked good with relevant and attractive Armenian or Mid-East, illustrations. Sleeve notes were literate and informative. Perhaps someone (Christopher Palmer) had been on the phone to the composer in Seattle. Sonics were as good as they could be made. Many of the Poseidon masters were issued by Unicorn (symphonies: St Vartan; Odysseus; All Men Shall be Brothers and two non-symphonic works Mountains and Rivers Without End and Fra Angelico) but not all of them. Two LPs of Hovhaness songs never made it to LP; nor did Majnun - one of his most attractive ‘mosaic’ panel symphonies. Also left out in the cold was the Symphony No. 23 Ani.

Like Symphonies 4 and 7 Ani is for windband, that American (and Japanese) phenomenon. In this case what a windband! Two bands were involved and we are aware of a larger than usual body of instrumentalists. The bands were, I understand, of high school calibre and included Gerard Schwarz, then a trumpeter and now conductor of the Royal Liverpool Phil (who with the RLPO has recently recorded three of the symphonies for Telarc). There is no alternative and if you are fearful do not be. The defects are low key.

Peter Christ, the far-sighted owner of Crystal, managed to track down the master tape for Ani. Peter’s engineer, Seth Winner, in all the trying circumstances, has made a good job. In doing so he has completed Crystal’s mission of getting all of the Poseidon Hovhaness LPs onto CD. After this there remain only the two symphony LPs issued by the Fujihara Record Company in 1982.

The Ani LP was amongst those that I picked up in Bristol all those years ago. Frankly it was a pretty distant recording which required the amplifier to be driven hard to make much of an impact. The microphone placement, hall and sonics created a lively but rather opaque or ‘smudged’ effect. Perhaps this is what Hovhaness intended. The opacity of the Poseidon tape remains to some degree but the impact has been recaptured as has the liveliness of the recording.

Ani was the capital of medieval Armenia and sure enough this Symphony conjures up the spirit of great and otherworldly antiquity. The movements are I adagio legato espressivo [13.29]; II allegro grazioso [7.48] and III adagio con molto espressione [16.52]. There is the occasional cough and creak and some slight distortion but nothing untoward.

The first movement’s highlights are a Gabrieli-like ceremonial treatment of the brass with a middle eastern sway - a temple processional, a fruity yet regretful saxophone solo [5.36], incessantly chattering birdsong on the flutes [6.47] and the horrific braying of the trombones suggestive of monsters rolling and yowling in rasping pain. The trombone episode can be likened to a similar moment in Symphony No. 19 Vishnu. The short second movement features oriental percussion, processional atmosphere, bell-work and the spirit of a world in miniature. It is like an understated concerto for orchestra - a microcosm of caprice and curlicue. This prepares the way for the finale which is at first hymn-like and more sentimental than usual. It later combines mourning and a hymn to the dawn. Some of the playing is at first insecure and wheezy but the young players soon find their feet. There is a continuity to this music rather than the mosaic we hear in St Vartan. Calming and pulse-slowing moments make way for trumpet and horn-lofted eminences [9.10 and 9.33]. Wild bells in torrential fusillade contrast with a trumpet singing high above. A valedictory gong stroke rounds out this phantasmal piece [16.10].

The ‘filler’ is The Spirit of Ink for three flutes. It was written to a commission by Chiyo Amemiya. Samuel Baron (1925-1997) was a founding member of New York Wind Quintet. His flute is multi-tracked to achieve the three parts. The work is full of the fantasy inherent in the titles of the nine movements: Apparition of the Eternal One; Sunrise Birds; Salutation of Dawn; Tree of Birds; Apparition of a Celestial City; Strange Birds; Angelic Salutation; Birds in a Magic Forest; Birds Amid Celestial Towers. The music is a kaleidoscopic gallery: the fluttering of wings; slipping, swerving, dissonant, howling and shrilling birdsong, apparitions, a graceful pavane, a mist of song around the listener, the subtle craft of birds singing in dissonance. There is one moment of distortion in a passage of very demanding high pitched ‘flutery’.

Crystal have done more for Hovhaness than any other company. I urge you to try their catalogue. Start with Majnun and St Vartan. Once you have the bug you will want the others. This CD is for the dedicated pursuer of windband repertoire and for the committed Hovhaness fan. Crystal should take a bow for their incomparable role in making the wildly strange music of this American-Armenian available to listeners worldwide. Ani is not perhaps the place to start but this disc will be an essential purchase for the many who have caught the Hovhaness bug.

Rob Barnett

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