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Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Symphony No. 4 Op.165 (1958) [19:43]
*Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places Op.213 (1965) [8:56]
Symphony No. 20 Op.223 Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain (1969) [20:32]
*Prayer of Saint Gregory Op.62b (1972) [3:30]
Symphony No. 53 Op.377 Star Dawn (1983) [13:22]
John Wallace (trumpet)*
The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Wind Orchestra/Keith Brion
Rec. Thomas Coates Memorial Baptist Church, Paisley, Scotland, October 2003 DDD

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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 Hovhanessís 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 Hovhanessís 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 Academyís 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 Hovhanessís music is still hard to assess but I hope that record companies will continue to explore his output. Donít 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.

Patrick C Waller



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