Alan Hovhaness was
an extremely prolific composer (note the opus number above for
his 53rd symphony); his tally of 67 symphonies was
exceeded by Haydn but very few other composers. An American
of Armenian and Scottish parentage he was influenced by his
roots and developed a characteristic style of writing which
is approachable and often spiritual. Presumably because of the
large volume of his output and perhaps also a tendency to homogeneity
of feeling, much of Hovhaness’s work has yet to be recorded.
Some of the symphonies have appeared on various labels and Naxos
entered the field in 2004 with a splendid disc of his cello
concerto and 22nd symphony (see review).
Eight of Hovhaness’s
symphonies are for wind orchestra, of which three are performed
here. Like much of his work they are essentially programmatic
and, in particular they reflect a pre-occupation with nature,
on this planet and beyond. The instrumentation is for an expanded
orchestral wind section with bells and other percussion.
Among the inspirations
for the Symphony No. 4 Hovhaness cited the Himalayan mountains
and Handel. The work is in three movements with a slow-fast-slow
pattern that he repeated in the 20th Symphony. The
first movement Andante is here an extremely long-breathed
hymn. The brief Allegro which follows is playful whilst
the finale initially reprises the mood of the opener before
anguish intervenes but only temporarily. The end is marked Maestoso
but characteristically rather understated.
Return and Rebuild
the Desolate Places is a mini-Trumpet concerto in two movements
with a program based on Armenian history. After a moderately
ominous opening there is an amazing outburst of terror just
over a minute into this work. The first movement is then curtailed
rapidly as Hovhaness passes over the desolation. The more extended
concluding movement is song-like with a dominant trumpet solo
beautifully rendered by John Wallace.
The Symphony No.
20 subtitled Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain is structurally
and emotionally similar to the Fourth. Based on three pilgrim
marches it gainfully employs a choir of clarinets. The third
movement chorale and fugue is particularly splendid. This is
followed by the Prayer of Saint Gregory, an intermezzo
drawn from the opera Etchmiadzin.
The final work Star
Dawn is a two movement symphony, depicting a journey through
space and arrival on another world. The opening movement has
some sense of the vastness of space but the second opens quizzically
and concludes indeterminately, nothing is overstated.
The Royal Scottish
Academy’s Wind Orchestra is an impressive band and there is
much splendidly clean playing to be heard on the disc. They
are very well-recorded in a church acoustic which is not too
resonant. The documentation is good and anyone interested in
the composer or in 20th century wind music will find
this to be a worthwhile bargain.
The ultimate value
of Hovhaness’s music is still hard to assess but I hope that
record companies will continue to explore his output. Don’t
put it on as background music, it will merge into the pattern
of the wallpaper. Hovhaness requires serious listening and then
may well exert an hypnotic spell.