Two symphonies, one apiece, by West Coast Americans: Harrison, typically Californian with a wide-eyed receptivity to Pacific voices and Hovhaness, the Armenian mystic.
is the second of Hovhaness's sixty-seven
symphonies. From a name that was the fringe denizen of the MGM,
Unicorn and Poseidon labels, Hovhaness's music made rapid progress
in his last ten years and since his death. His catalogue is vastly
forbidding but the accommodating catholicism of taste of the listener
to recorded music has encouraged an industry now vigorously engaged
in unveiling one recorded premiere after another.
bid fair to be his most famous work in the long-lived LP era. RCA recorded it with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner in 1955. That recording is still available and although a classic it has a fierce edginess absent from this Nimbus-MusicMasters version. The Symphony is a work of long lines, smoothly surging and singing. It carries a redolence of Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony. The massed string choirs are to the fore and the music serves as a great anthem rolling high - sanguine, benign and muscular. This is a symphony about exaltation and that is the effect and the aim. The last of its three movements opens with a suggestion of the spatter of ice-cold rain and a great vorticial storm high amid towering peaks. The brass are allowed a momentary prominence before the return of the Tallis
is a single-movement piano concerto inspired by the Greek mystic painter, Hermon DiGiovanno. Here it is played by jazz composer-pianist Keith Jarrett. It lasts about the same time as the symphony. There is a sustained fusillade of determined violin pizzicato proving a tense undergrowth for the musing and then increasingly machine-gun stutter of the piano. The style is very much that of the symphony. Here the massed strings also carry that middle-eastern sway and ululation. The writing is also notable for the remora-like solo violin here heard as if in a coursing hieratic trance. Later the music returns to the drumming rain pizzicato noted in the finale of Mysterious Mountain
. Elsewhere the music has the vigorous insistence of de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain
. The premiere was attended by Harrison and John Cage who were stunned by the work's freshness and originality and its total sever from anything else on the American musical arts scene. The performance is all you would hope for except that towards the end the strings take on a coarse hard edge which I suspect is down to the orchestra rather than the sound engineer.
The Harrison connection takes us onto that composer's Elegiac Symphony
. It was written in memory of Serge Koussevitsky and his wife Natalie. Interesting also that Harrison credits the second and fifth movements to Pierre Monteux. Koussevitsky was a virtuoso of the largest string instruments is reflected in writing for two contrabasses in the third movement which carries the title Tears of the Angel Israfel
A pity that the notes are unchanged from their original issue. Both composers are now dead. Otherwise the essay by Tim Page is good.
So this makes a welcome return to the catalogue for the music of two West Coast outsiders with a predilection for the East, arcana and lyricism.