It came as a surprise to an American friend of
mine that I had never listened to a piece of music by Alan Hovhaness
before reviewing this CD. At least I have never consciously listened:
I am sure I have heard a few passages on the car radio whilst
driving to Scotland, or listening to Radio 3 whilst having an
early morning shave. But I have never sat down with one of this
composer’s works and given it my best shot.
My first impression was that it did not ‘do’
for me. It seemed to lack structure; to be devoid of musical pegs
to hang my hat on.
I had decided to approach this review with an
innocent ear. I did not even read the programme notes or look
up the composer’s entry in Grove or check out the excellent
but partially complete web pages. But we do not live in a void
– I did know one or two ‘facts’ about Hovhaness
that prejudiced (for good or ill) my mind. Firstly, I knew that
he wrote lots of symphonies – some 67 of them. I had seen
the Delos record covers and knew that he was prolific. I knew
also that he was regarded by many as a precursor of minimalism
and other post-modernist styles. It is reasonably common knowledge
that he had a clear out of his ‘juvenilia’ in 1940
and supposedly destroyed a thousand scores [apparently, this number
is exaggerated]. And last but not least I had read somewhere that
he had felt the acerbic side of Lenny Bernstein’s tongue
when the pair of them were at Tanglewood.
There is no for me need to give a biography of
the composer here. An excellent one has been written at http://www.hovhaness.com/
Let’s look at the Symphony No. 22. It is
billed as Op. 236. I understand that the high opus number is due
to the composer’s attempt to reorder his works after the
1940 cull. Many works were recomposed, rewritten and ‘dished
up’ in new guises. The present work was written quite late,
in 1971. It was commissioned for the Birmingham (Alabama) Symphony
Orchestra to celebrate the centenary of the city itself.
What Hovhaness does is to sidestep any implicit
historical references to this particular city. He looks beyond
the tangible to the underlying reality. It is a platonic vision
of a metropolis. He wrote for the programme notes that he was
‘thinking of a million lights, an imaginary city.’
Now a lot comes down to one’s philosophical bent here: whether
we are idealist or realist, perhaps. Yet for the composer the
‘ideal’ city was the more real because it is what
Birmingham had tried to model itself on. The real city is but
an imperfect image of the imaginary. He tries to create a city
that is beyond time and location. It is as if he is searching
for the Utopia that has been sought by mankind for millennia.
The work as I first heard it was a bit like an
exploration. There were no really obvious themes - no ‘easy
to follow’ sonata form. What appears to happen is a slow
but sure expansion of the main theme over the course of the first
two movements. There is a stillness or repose introduced into
this first part of the part of the work that makes the music feel
spacious. One is not really aware of the passage of time here.
No wonder that some people see Hovhaness as a precursor to Reich,
Adams and Glass. It is not until the third movement that the music
‘gets a move on’ with a very brief ‘scherzo’.
This is almost a dance movement – although just what ethnic
dance is represented here is difficulty to say. There is almost
something ‘Holstian’ about this movement – although
I am not suggesting direct influence!
The last movement is where all the big action
happens. Here the composer uses every trick in the book –
including unusually for him at this stage - counterpoint and fugue.
The music certainly builds up into a huge climax that has been
described as being reminiscent of the Great Gate of Kiev by Mussorgsky.
The minimalist feel is ever present. The music seems to move on
by small, subtle development rather than being defined by any
classical form. However this is truly great music; the wanderer’s
journey is over. The true city has been found and has been found
to be glorious. We are happy to rest our weary souls in this City
For photos of Birmingham, Alabama see http://larryogay1.oceansfree.com/
One of the early works that the composer decided
not to recycle to the waste bin was the Cello Concerto. This had
been composed in 1936. Now whether this work should take its place
alongside those of Dvorák and Elgar is for every listener
to decide for themselves. My first hearing of this work did not
impress me; I am not sure that I am impressed on a subsequent
hearing. I do not know Hovhaness’s music sufficiently well
to be able to evaluate this work in terms of further development
or prior achievement. However, the programme notes suggest that
many of the composer’s fingerprints are already present
- the use of ‘sequences of rich, sonorous chords and evocative
use of old modes.’ The big difference would appear to be
that there is lack of contrapuntal writing - a return to an earlier
style, perhaps. However I do not see this as being a big problem.
The constantly developing melody of the cello largely makes up
for this deficiency. There is a considerable chamber feel to much
of this music – none more so than the pairing of a single
flute with the soloist which is exquisite.
The concerto is written in three movements. The
two outer slow ones frame a short ‘Allegro’. There
are many lovely and very beautiful things in this work. Yet to
my mind there is an inherent imbalance. Perhaps the outer movements
outstay their welcome? To me the short middle movement is perfect
in form, balance and content.
Having said all this, there is something about
this work that does haunt me. I will return to it again and give
it another go. There is something worthwhile that is hiding itself
from me. If only I could put my finger on it…
I cannot fault the performance by the Seattle
Symphony Orchestra or the playing of the cellist Janos Starker.
The sound quality is perfect and lends itself to the spacious
sound that the composer creates.
The Symphony was conducted by the composer himself,
so presumably represents a definitive performance.
The programme notes could have been a bit more
extensive. I do not know these works so I need all the help I
After listening with an innocent ear, I read
up a little about the composer. I am left with the impression
that he is the kind of guy I could have problems with. For all
intents and purposes he is eclectic; using a variety of styles
culled from all over the world he appears to have created a unique
soundscape. However I do not yet know if this eclecticism will
prove hard to cope with. I wonder if we can ever pin him down
to a style. This remains to be seen, assuming I have the opportunity
to explore a bit further into his massive catalogue.