Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Symphony No.1 Exile Op.17, No.2 [22:42]
Armenian Rhapsodies 1-3 opp. 45, 51, 189 (1944) [5:35 + 8:55 + 6:40]
Song of the Sea (1933) [6:24]
Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings op. 344 (1980) [18:13]
John McDonald (piano)
Kenneth Radnofsky (soprano saxophone)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 3 March 2007, Distler Hall, Tufts University, Medford, MA; 23 May 2008, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA. USA. DDD
world premiere recording of Song of the Sea
BMOP/SOUND 1020 [67:39]

For a composer known of because of his 67 symphonies and seven operas this disc presents Hovhaness the miniaturist.

Even the symphony is a compact 23 minutes. The only piece here not previously recorded is the very early Song of the Sea. This little tone poem is a miniature for piano and orchestra. The young 22 year old composer announces himself with a flowingly lyrical and then twinkling and sentimental bipartite work. Not everything tends to syrup; there are some very tasty Straussian dissonances in the second section of this piece. Was this typical of the works he burnt in their alleged hundreds in the early 1940s?

The Armenian Rhapsodies – all three of them – emphasise the burnished glow of the meditative strings with spiritual slow-dancing melodies that unfold rather than sprint and plangent pizzicati. The distant similarities are with RVW’s Tallis Fantasia and Suk’s Wenceslas Chorale. You can hear all three on a Koch disc alongside Symphony 38 and Concerto No. 10 (review). They’re all performed by the Seatle orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz who became Hovhaness’s foremost champion and remains so. You can also hear the composer himself in the Armenian Rhapsodies across three Crystal CDs (review). The composer tends to take these works faster than Rose.

The three movement Symphony No. 1 dates from three years after the Song of the Sea. It is a more occluded work in which the first movement juxtaposes whisper-quiet pacing from harp and strings with statuesque and then dynamic brass interjections. Magically rushing violins sound Sibelian (Symphony 6 and Luonnotar) and Mendelssohnian. The second movement is idyllic, sun-languorous, confiding and lotus-eating. The finale is more variegated in mood with that oriental magic that Hovhaness weaves so well blended in with regally hymnal brass and dynamic propulsive strings. The Symphony can also be heard on Delos DE3168 again in the hands of Schwarz in Seattle. The work has also appeared on Guild in the pioneering Stokowski premiere on GHCD2347. Stokowski was also to give the premieres of the next two symphonies (Cala CACD0539 and Guild GHCD2379/80).

Hovhaness’s Saxophone Concerto was first recorded by Centaur alongside other works for sax and orchestra. This is in three movements with two totally typical and earnestly lovely outer movements and a completely odd central panel in which show-sentimental and vaudeville play the jackanapes. Pleasingly disorientating stuff – as if the composer was saying: here is the spiritual and here is the profane – the sacred will make an even more telling effect when you have experienced the worldly. The booklet is good – typical of BMOP – with an interview by the famed and much-loved Charles Amirkhanian with the composer, a profile by Sahan Arzruni, a biography by the composer’s widow and artist details.

Rob Barnett

Idyllic, sun-languorous, confiding, lotus-eating, regally hymnal and dynamic-propulsive.