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Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Concerto No.7 for Orchestra, Op.116 (1953) [20.35]
Symphony No.15 Silver Pilgrimage Op.199 (1963) [20.53]
Magnificat for Four Solo Voices, Chorus and Orchestra, Op.157 (1957) [29.47]
Audrey Nossaman, (sop)
Thomas East, (ten)
Elizabeth Johnson, (alto)
Richard Dales, (bar)
University of Louisville Choir
Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney
rec. Columbia Auditorium, Louisville, Kentucky, USA, 11 May 1954 (Concerto No.7, mono); 23 November 1965 (Sym. No. 15, stereo); 26-27 April, 1961, (Magnificat, mono). World premiere recordings
FIRST EDITION MUSIC FECD-0006 [71.35]

 

In recent years the Santa Fe Music Group has acquired the rights to the Louisville Orchestra’s landmark First Edition Records. The treasury of recorded sound has been drawn upon for the launch of the First Edition Music label; some 38 titles.

This reissue from the First Edition Records back catalogue comprises three world premičre recordings of works from the pen of Alan Hovhaness. The recordings were made in the Columbia Auditorium in Louisville, Kentucky between 1954 and 1965.

Hovhaness was born in the USA to Armenian and Scottish parents. From the 1940s he felt ineluctably drawn to the culture, legends, philosophy, languages, art and music of the East. Hovhaness destroyed all the traditional Western music that he had composed and from then on found the Near East, the Middle East and the Far East a bountiful source of inspiration. Most of his works, including symphonies and concertos, now assumed exotic titles, just as they were musical interpretations of exotic subjects.

Marco Shirodkar explains in the sleeve-notes that Alan Hovhaness is rightly known as a trend-setting pioneering composer who melded East and West in music. Of the few modern composers considered as ‘true originals’ he is one of the few whose music has such a distinctive personality that it could not be mistaken for that of any other. Shirodkar holds the view that unlike the music of Messiaen, Hovhaness’s art is not religiously inspired, in the traditional sense, but guided by a musical sensibility attuned with otherworldly affinities.

Howard Scott, who was the supervising producer for the original recording sessions, explains in his essay in the booklet notes how he attributed the amazingly high productivity of the Louisville players in the studio to their love of Hovhaness’s newly composed scores and the meticulous preparations of their conductor Robert Whitney.

In 1948, the management of the Louisville Orchestra made the significant decision to commission several new works each year and perform their world premičres; often conducted by the composer.

Concerto No.7 for Orchestra, Op.116

The three movement Concerto No. 7 for Orchestra was begun in Cummington, Massachusetts in August 1953 and completed a few weeks later in New York City. The score is one of Hovhaness’s many concertos, some of which are without a soloist, and is one of only a handful indexed by number. Regrettably, the evocatively entitled ‘Mysterious Mountain Symphony has eclipsed this earlier tour-de-force, which is a true sister piece in that it too comprises three movements and incorporates a double fugue.

In the opening movement allegretto the entrance of the Louisville brass at point 02.38 (track 1) is especially impressive. The second movement allegro uses all sorts of unusual effects, including porcelain water cups played by sticks and there are also important parts for xylophone and glockenspiel. The extended final movement is a double fugue, which is unsettled and agitated in nature. The frenetic second fugue for the strings is played at a feverish pace. One is left exhausted by the sheer energy expended. There is an unexpected respite at point 08.11 (track 3) from which develops a solemn but surprising cadence. The Louisville Orchestra under Robert Whitney imbue a mood of exoticism throughout the colourful score.

Symphony No.15 ‘Silver Pilgrimage’, Op.199

Hovhaness’s research periods in India, Japan and Korea afforded lessons from native instrumentalists. This firsthand ethno-musicological exposure prompted his Indo-Oriental phase in the 1960s. The 1963 score of the Symphony No.15Silver Pilgrimage’ synthesises elements of both the Japanese Gagaku and Indian traditions and is named after the novel Silver Princess by Justice Anantanarayanan which is a tale about a pilgrimage by a young Indian prince. The score, like many of the Hovhaness symphonies, eschews traditional symphonic architectonics; instead each of the four movements portrays a specific concept or mood.

The first movement titled Mount Ravana is said by Hovhaness to suggest the mystery and wrath of a mountain prophet. Here Whitney and his orchestra provide a disquieting and eerie atmosphere that borders on the terrifying. The blaring brass and woodwind spit out their fury especially at points: 03.05, 03.13. 03.38 and 03.43 (track 4). Mount Ravana feels like an evil place to be. The second movement Marava Princess is lyrical and dance-like, suggesting the idea or image of feminine grace. In contrast to the opening movement, Marava Princess is lithe and swift - almost like a gazelle. Everything here feels as if it is in a hurry. 

The third movement (River of Meditation) portrays the spirit of the religious river-side meditation of a sage. The initial mood of relative calm comes as respite from what has gone before. The repetitive flute and string lines feel like mantras. The extended flute line represents the meditative sage and the long string line, often in pizzicato, suggests the flow of the river. The speed of the music unexpectedly moves, at point 01.37 (track 6) from a leisurely pace to a darting and rapid rate. In this performance an underlying anxiety prevails which prevents a truly relaxed state of being. The Heroic Gates of Peace is the name given to the final movement which suggests the spirit of a peaceful reign of wisdom wherein harmony is achieved between heaven and earth. There is muscular and spirited playing with the brass and timpani dominating. The movement strides quickly along and provides a sense of vast open spaces, perhaps evocative of the American prairies.

Magnificat for Four Solo Voices, Chorus and Orchestra, Op.157

In twelve sections, the Magnificat, Mary’s song of Thanksgiving on being told by the angel Gabriel that she will bear the son of God, is based on a text from the first chapter of St. Luke. Hovhaness stated, “I have tried to suggest the mystery, inspiration and mysticism of early Christianity.” Hovhaness makes effective and extensive use of the non-metrical melodic line of plainsong.

Several of the Magnificat’s twelve sections employ Hovhaness’s trademark mysterious ‘free rhythm’ textures. This is perhaps most striking when sung by the choir in the penultimate movement Sicut Locutus Est for baritone and chorus. Here we are led from silence to a swirling cloud of buzzing voices which peaks and then recedes to nothingness. This is certainly a striking and original work in which Hovhaness achieves his stated aim.

The singing, especially from the soloists, is not always ideal but perfectly adequate to communicate the manifold qualities of this unusual score.

The sound is acceptable, yet variable in quality. Occasionally it feels as if the recording was made in a tunnel not a recording studio and there is some blaring from time to time in the forte passages. I have read criticism of some of the brass playing, however, this did not present too much of a problem. Overall the sound quality, which is between fifty year old mono and forty year old stereo, has been re-mastered pretty well. The interesting and informative booklet notes in this well presented release are a credit to the label.

Admirers of the unique sound world of Hovhaness will be in their element with this reissue.

Michael Cookson

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