The music of Alan Hovhaness,
who died in 2000, still has it in its
viscera to engage the musical public.
While some of his wilder reaches (Vishnu
symphony and Mountains and Rivers
Without End) link with Ligeti and
Stockhausen much of his output is rhapsodic,
mystical, melodic, dancing, grave and
Martinů and Brian he was astoundingly
productive. While Martinů wrote
only six symphonies Hovhaness wrote
67. That’s more than twice Brian’s complement
of 32. He continued writing until his
mid-eighties when ill health intervened.
His output would have been even
more mountainous if he had not had his
own intentional bonfire of the vanities
when circa 1940 he burnt many of his
scores from the 1930s. From that purging
came many extraordinary and unusual
works. His worth is not a matter of
gross measurement. The gradual and continuing
process of assaying has revealed much
that is worthy and of very great beauty.
Amongst his most notable works are And
God Created Great Whales, which
includes a part for recordings of whale
song, the Saint Vartan Symphony,
which proceeds in many small panels,
visions of strange chaos and arcane
ecstasy as in the symphonies Vishnu
and Ani and seraphic works
such as the overture Fra Angelico.
There are 467 opus numbers and quite
apart from the symphonies there are
seven operas, 22 concertos and 67 sonatas
for various instrument combinations.
This present disc is
one of the longest playing in the First
Edition series. Matthew Walters’ label
offers three substantial scores from
the 1950s and 1960s. It is a valuable
contribution to the CD catalogue making
accessible the seventh of Hovhaness’s
concertos for orchestra, a symphony
of delights and a devout Magnificat.
Although these are all recording premieres
two of the featured works have appeared
on CD before now. The Magnificat
op. 157 is Anglican traditional. It
is well worth hearing but written with
patent acknowledgement to its commissioning
source. The previous recording was made
by Donald Pearson conducting the Choirs
and Orchestra of St. John’s Cathedral,
Denver on the now deleted Delos 3176.
Perhaps it will resurface on Naxos as
many of the Delos American series have.
The Concerto No. 7 has also been
recorded on Delos but before that there
was a BBC broadcast by the BBC Scottish
Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alun
Francis. This was broadcast on 20 January
1983 - a rare piece of BBC recognition
for Hovhaness who despite one excellent
slot as composer of the week a couple
of years ago still seems to be viewed
with suspicion there. This is despite
the fact that back in the BBC’s adventurous
and enlightened 1930s, Leslie Heward
conducted the premiere of Hovhaness’s
Symphony No. 1 The Exile in the
The Concerto No.
7 was written to a Louisville commission
and is dedicated to the orchestra. It
was written between August and October
1953. This confident and magnificent
performance was recorded in glowing
mono some six months later. The work
is in three movements, the first of
which reverberates with the suggestion
of the Orient conjured by bells, woodwind
and especially flutes. Within the movement
there is a central canzona-hymn for
brass. The second movement deploys pizzicato
and the multiple impacts of porcelain
water cups hit with a stick suggestive
of gamelan. There is not once the hint
of Ketèlbeyan kitsch. Hovhaness
drives his illuminating inspiration
razor-sharp into something essentially
mysterious in something exotically liturgical.
In the finale after a gloomy and subdued
introduction there is a monumental string-flighted
fugal paean glancing toward Handel,
Tippett and Oriental modes. Brass take
up the coursing magnificence and then
steadily fade down aided by the radiant
glow of string tremolandi and ceremonial
impacts on the tam-tam.
It is a while since
I have heard the Delos version of the
Concerto but I know that the Alun Francis
version through which I came to know
this piece lacks the piled on intensity
and vivacity of this version. The performance
transcends the limitations of the single
audio channel in much the same way as
the contemporaneous Swedish mono recording
of Blomdahl’s I Speglarnas Sal.
A demonstration disc providing ample
evidence of the loving care lavished
both at the original sessions, for the
storage over five decades and re-mastering.
The Symphony is just
as good. In the 1960s Hovhaness spent
much time in Korea, Japan and India.
As Marco Shirodkar tells us, Silver
Pilgrimage synthesises elements
of Japanese Gagaku traditions with Indian
modes and materials. It is a compact
four movement piece. The first opens
with a mysterious blizzard of staggered
pizzicatos; this is to return. Brass
moan in dissonance. Percussion enter
and leave in enigmatic pointillism.
A harp ostinato provides a moving backdrop.
The Marava Princess movement
again has a pizzicato line but the middle
strings sing a fast-flowing long enchanting
melody. The River of Meditation sounds
distinctly Britten-like (Morning
from the Grimes Interludes)
with dissonance, more string pizzicato
(suggestive of the river) and subterranean
bass contributions from drums and harp.
Heroic Gates of Peace rounds
out the work with timpani punctuation
and over the steady radiance of the
strings a warmly glowing brass hymn.
This sings out in growing confidence
and universality glimmeringly suggestive
of Vaughan Williams but distinctive
Back to mono for the
twelve movement Magnificat which
plays for half and hour. Calm brass
peaceable and slightly supplicatory.
Apart from the occasional harmonic twist
this music has one foot firmly struck
into the Three Choirs tradition. Try
the Quia fecit mihi magna. The
other foot stamps down the through orchestral
part: distinctly Hovhaness with string
tremors, brass hymns, moderate dissonance
and harp patterning. The Esurientes
implevit bonis begins in a grand
ffff shuddering and bristling
of the strings before making way for
the imploring Richard Dales and the
choir. A Finzian oboe ushers in the
women’s chorus for the sweetly serenading
Suscepit Israel. The Gloria
Patri finale makes prominent use
of the sinuously cantorial solo trumpet
and the muscular celebratory tones of
the full choir. To many Western ears
the Gloria will seem to ring
out like a Christmas carol accentuated
by the closely recorded bell strokes
and the Rozsa-like glow to the singing.
All these works are
conducted by Robert S. Whitney (1904-1986).
Perhaps Jorge Mester, Whitney’s successor
in 1967, was unsympathetic to Hovhaness’s
The analogue origins
of these recordings are tactfully announced
by a gentle untroubling hiss. However
the intrinsic quality of the sound with
close-up microphone placement is very
pleasing: meaty and undistorted.
The English-only notes
are splendidly detailed and are provided
by Marco Shirodkar, the composer, Howard
Scott and Matt Walters. The words of
the Magnificat are not provided.
Listeners who search
out lyrical and unusually rewarding
music with a spiritual dimension need
look no further. This is an outstandingly