Listeners who know Alan Hovhaness from his symphonies – the pyrotechnic Mount St. Helens
in particular – would do well to take a chance on this collection of smaller pieces. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), set up by Gil Rose in 1996 to narrow the ‘widening disconnect between contemporary audiences and contemporary music’, is very much on message with this enterprising CD, which includes the world premiere recording of the Song of the Sea.
The three Armenian Rhapsodies
– sensibly interleaved amongst the other pieces here – have a yearning bass and subtle rhythms that make them rather haunting at times. The strings are always firm and songful – in No. 2, especially – and the recording is warm and detailed. I was quite surprised at how easily these tunes lodged in my musical memory bank, demanding to be played again and again. Ditto the Song of the Sea,
the questing piano part admirably played by John McDonald. There’s Romantic weight and width too, although the Adagio espressivo veers towards a more intimate, chamber-like style. Those tiny flourishes on the piano are a special delight.
Listening to the Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings
immediately after the second rhapsody reveals Hovhaness’s musical ‘fingerprint’, a steady, connective bass line that anticipates the Andante of his epic Op. 360, the Mount St. Helens Symphony,
written just two years later. Even though this material is recycled – surely forgivable in an (official) tally of 67 symphonies – it’s the bright, characterful soprano sax playing of Kenneth Radnofsky that gives the concerto its special appeal. As for the motile second movement it has a clarion confidence that’s most infectious, the third – subtitled ‘Let the Living and Celestial Sing‘– delivered with delicate animation and a gentle tread. The pizzicato
playing is polished and pointful too.
Fortunately the composer’s first – numbered – symphony wasn’t among the 500-1.000 works he claimed to have destroyed in the 1930s and 1940s, for it has an integrity and focus that’s remarkable for such an early opus. True, it shows signs of what E. M. Forster once called ‘the cleverness of the young’, but Hovhaness never reaches beyond his grasp. The Andante, with its weaving woodwind, is punctuated by brass- and timp-led outbursts of some ferocity that will catch the unwary by surprise. Such percussive splendour – very well caught by the engineers – is another of the composer’s trademarks, as is the easeful ebb and flow of the Grazioso, with its air of oriental centricity. By contrast the Finale vacillates between inner calm and outward energy, the latter expressed in music of a frankly martial disposition.
Gil Rose has a firm grasp of these scores, his band playing with plenty of passion and bite, not to mention touching inwardness when required. As for the recording, it has all the dynamic range one could wish for – notably in that menacing Finale – the balance between orchestra and soloist in the concerto near ideal. The informative liner notes and the CD itself slot into separate pouches inside the double-gatefold Digipak; not the most secure arrangement, perhaps, but increasingly commonplace.
A pleasing trawl through unfamiliar waters; a rewarding catch, too.
See review by Rob