Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Symphony No.1 Exile, Op.17, No.2 (1936, rev.1970) [19:45]
Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, Op.211 (1965) [14:20]
Symphony No.50 Mount Saint Helens, Op.360 (1982) [31:35]
Ron Johnson (marimba)
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Opera House, Seattle, WA, USA, 6-7, 12 June 1990 (1); 17, 19 May 1992 (Fantasy; 50).
NAXOS 8.559717 [65:40]

 

Do you remember the days when one had to scour various obscure record shops in London and sometimes elsewhere in the vain hope of finding an LP that might have one work by this then elusive composer? With the advent of the CD gradually more of his works became available. I collected them at first whenever they appeared. It seems extraordinary that Hovhanessís music is now available easily at the cost of an average bottle of wine and this is not the first in the unfolding Naxos series. In fact, I make this disc number six of his works in their American Classics series.
 
Gerard Schwarz who has recorded so many American works is not a stranger to this music although Naxos is not using the same ensembles for each CD.
 
When I had prised from this disc from its cellophane I realized that I already owned two of these works on older CDs. Schwarz recorded the Mount St. Helens symphony (Delos DE3137) in a stunning recording but different coupling from 1992 and itís this version which reappears now. The Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints was originally recorded in 1990 on the Etcetera label (KTC1085) with the American Robert van Sice playing the marimba. This new version is a little more spacious but marginally less exciting. Nevertheless Ron Johnson is superb and very atmospheric in the slower sections.
 
My own fascination with Hovhaness was not only triggered by his unique sound world but by meeting him. He came to the old Guildhall School of Music in 1974 when I was student there and for a couple of hours a small group of us sat by him and chatted. I was gripped by his quietly spoken, guru-like demeanour and wanted to hear as much of his music as possible. He was a distinctively spiritual man. Unfortunately I have found in recent years that a little Hovhaness goes a long way and some symphonies I found just dull and uninteresting. But weíll move on.
 
The Symphony No. 1 was new to me but its curious opus number of 17 no. 2 makes me wonder if there is a pre-1st Symphony, say, even a number 0.
 
Basically Hovhaness writes simply. His works are full of generally modal melodies often treated canonically or fugally. He writes more often for strings and utilises pedal points. The orchestration frequently sounds as if itís from the organ loft. He is careful with his modulations. He uses oriental scales and sometimes, as in the Japanese Woodcuts, deploy aleatoric - controlled improvisation - techniques. Anyway this deeply moving symphony displays many of the above trademarks. Armenia is never very far away and is very evocatively landscaped throughout. Indeed the work, subtitled Exile, commemorates those Armenians forced to flee their homeland by the Ottoman Turks after World War 1. Donít think that this is all slow and rather meditative; the finale, after an imposing chorale opening, suddenly embarks on a galloping allegro that comes twice. The middle movement is an alluring and easy-going song-like Grazioso.
 
This Symphony was first issued in this recording on Delos DE 3168.
 
The Symphony No. 50 commemorates the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 which I can still recall as I was in America at the time. It encapsulates power and mystery all at once and demonstrates another of the composerís fascinations, that is any and all mountains. He climbed a great deal as a young man and some readers may know his Symphony No. 2 Op. 137 subtitled Mysterious Mountain.
 
No 50 begins in a calm manner and is in the form of a Prelude and Fugue. It depicts the mountain and its landscape before nature took a hand. There are lovely melodies, in the horn at first, and later taken up by the oboe and clarinet over lush string harmonies.
 
Before the explosion, at the base of the mountain, was the ĎSpirit Lakeí. This is depicted in the delicate second movement which is a good example of Hovhanessís awareness of the language of Asian melodies. We hear gentle scoring for pitched percussion.
 
With movement three we move to the specific event. May 18th, the day of the eruption, starts with a beatific hymn to the beauty of early daylight. The Volcano is marked at first with chaotic drum-rolls and strikes from the gongs. Hovhanessís favourite braying trombone glissandi - also heard in the Japanese Woodprints Ė are in evidence. From this quickly develops a curious march - all on a singly pedal point. I canít think of another passage in Hovhaness quite like this. The hymn returns with its now seraphic colours. Then follows a final joyous fugue symbolic of renewal of the earthís vitality to build, destroy and re-build.
 
So this is a work, as are the others recorded here, well worth the modest investment. These represent good Hovhaness and in addition are superbly played and recorded.
 

Gary Higginson
 

See also review by Steve Arloff


 Reviews of alternative recordings of Symphony No. 1

Stokowski (historical) Guild
BMOP Rose 1; BMOP Rose 2

Reviews of alternative recordings of Symphony No. 50

RLPO/Schwarz 1; RLPO/Schwarz 2; RLPO/Schwarz 3