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Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Cello Concerto Op. 17 (1936) [31.13]
Symphony No. 22 City of Light Op. 236 (1971) [29.43]
Janos Starker (cello)
Seattle Symphony/Dennis Russell Davies (concerto); composer (symphony)
rec. 19 Mar 1999, Benaroya Hall, Seattle (concerto); 19 May 1992, Seattle Center Opera House. DDD
NAXOS 8.559158 [60.49] 


Experience Classicsonline

Hovhaness did not lack for celebrity supporters. Although solo concertos were nowhere near as profuse in his output as symphonies, his 1976 Violin Concerto Ode to Freedom was premiered by Menuhin with Kostelanetz, Symphony No. 36 had an extensive solo role for Jean-Pierre Rampal and here we have Janos Starker launching the Cello Concerto's world premiere recording. 

This Concerto is part of an extremely small number of works that survived the composer's 1940 ‘bonfire of the vanities’ in which some one thousand of his works of the 1930s went up in smoke. The Cello Concerto is music noticeably in the Hovhaness idiom. Do not expect dynamic concentration. Instead we get a meditatively rhapsodic work with gestural drama provided by a swingingly portentous gravity. The central panel is briskly and flowingly rhapsodic aided by hallmark pizzicato and woodwind decoration. The string writing combines the yearning tension of Barber's Adagio with Oriental modality. Hovhaness is not always sweetly inclined and works such as Mountains and Rivers Without End and the Vishnu Symphony freely use groaning dissonances. Much of the concerto is extremely easy on the ears. Only the central ‘panel’ with its grand and almost minatory brass-emphasis provides tension and contrast. The work ends in a rapidly gathering skein of stormy darkness. 

The writing in the Cello Concerto has a barren Presbyterian quality by comparison with the 1971 Symphony. City of Light is in four movements and was written for the Birmingham (Alabama) Symphony Orchestra for that city's centennial celebrations. The first movement deploys plush-lush string harmonies, lustrous and full-toned, and elaborates sedately-moving material with the awed tones of tam-tam and hieratic brass. The fast-shuddering and brief Angel of Light largo calls up the composer's childhood vision of Christmas. The third movement allegretto grazioso is also short (2.42) with a ‘Vaughan Williamsy’ quick-trudging theme developed from a  melody Hovhaness wrote for an early operetta, Lotus Blossom. Again there is plenty of pizzicato and high-wheeling music for the piccolo. The ‘Hymn of Praise’ largo maestoso finale is again portentous without quite the wrenching blackness that marks the main climactic statements in the Cello Concerto. Dancing violins and antiphonal effects (5.50) prepare the way for a finale in which one of Hovhaness’s whirlwind mosaic storms bids the listener farewell (12.30). 

These two recordings are part of the Naxos Seattle series most of which derive from Delos CDs from the early-mid 1990s. The Cello Concerto has not previously been issued in any commercial format. This recording of the Symphony first appeared on Delos DE3137. 

A contrasting couple of works, stunningly recorded and well annotated by Steven Lowe. The spare and rare Cello Concerto played by the world renowned - and rather breathy - Starker and the composer-directed Symphony No. 22, an artefact of his lush-plush mystical 1970s.

Rob Barnett

see also Reviews by John France and Ian Lace




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