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Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Op. 128 (1936, rev. 1954) [6:59]
Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings, Op. 344 (1980) [18:59]
Symphony No. 48 Vision of Andromeda, Op. 355 (1982) [29:50]
Greg Banaszak (soprano saxophone)
Eastern Music Festival Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 2013, Dana Auditorium, Guilford College, Greensboro, USA
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from [DJB]

Like those other prolific composers of the twentieth century – Martinu and Villa-Lobos – the works of Alan Hovhaness vary widely in their quality. These three certainly illustrate that range.

The Prelude and Quadruple Fugue is one of Hovhaness’s most highly regarded works. It may be that this is because of its relative brevity. Rather than dilute his ideas across half an hour, it has a concentration of counterpoint and forward progress that make it thoroughly enjoyable. The fugue was his calling card: each of these three works features one.

The concerto is not so much a showpiece for the soloist, rather a tone poem with obbligato. It is described in the notes as his most Romantic concerto. That may be so, but I found it his least interesting. The work meanders through mostly middling tempos (andante and allegretto), the saxophone part is cloyingly sweet, and the strings-only orchestra provides rather featureless support. Those who believe the music of Hovhaness to be no more than new-age background music – I don’t – would see this as strong evidence for their case. This is its third recording, which is at least two more than the world needs.

The symphony is inspired by astronomy and specifically the Andromeda galaxy and the images from the various telescopes trained on deep space. What Hovhaness would have made of the astonishing images from the Hubble Telescope, one can only imagine. It is very much standard Hovhaness: swirling strings, counterpoint, Asian-influenced melodies and orchestral colours and a fugue (the short second movement). The lengthy outer movements are dominated by Gamelan-like bell motifs (apparently intended to depict the stars), the short middle movements more traditional Western classical. I enjoyed it, especially after the blandness of the concerto, but it is not going to change the mind of anyone who is resistant to Hovhaness.

The notes are written by the composer’s widow, and border on hagiography in places. There is a contribution from the composer regarding the ideas behind the symphony, which is rather more helpful. Gerard Schwarz is a steadfast Hovhaness champion with recordings dating back to the 1990s for Crystal, Delos, Telarc, Koch and Naxos. The orchestra comprised professional players from around the world who come together for performances and masterclasses at the annual North Carolina festival. There is no faulting their playing or that of the soloist in the concerto.

David Barker
Another review ...
Steadily inroads are being made into the task of recording the 67 symphonies of Alan Hovhaness. This disc sees another brought within reach of listeners whose curiosity has been stirred or whose enthusiasm has already been seized by the Hovhaness experience. The other two works have already been recorded commercially. In fact this is Schwarz's second recording of the Prelude and Quadruple Fugue. He made the first in the early 1990s for Delos who issued it on DE3157. It has also appeared on Telarc CD-80392 from Rudolf Werthen and I Fiamminghi. Neither of these discs are direct competition being differently coupled in what are all-Hovhaness collections. The Saxophone Concerto is in a similar position. There are two other recordings. The first is from BMOP reviewed here and there's another from Centaur in which the same saxophonist, Greg Banaszak, plays the concerto in a recital of twentieth century works for sax and orchestra. Once again these are quite differently coupled so there is little point in comparison.

The Prelude and Quadruple Fugue is an utterly characteristic amalgam of two aspects of the composer's character: oriental grace and Finzian mystery (Dies Natalis) melded with fugal treatment packaged in a sound comparable to that of Vaughan Williams' Concerto Grosso for massed strings. It comes as no surprise to hear that the work was championed by Stokowski. There was a conductor, who, as we know, was partial to giant fugal structures. I have his indulgent broadcast of the work with the Boston Symphony. The relay took place shortly after the revision was completed.

The Saxophone Concerto is a work of opposites - an unnerving contrast. The slowish first and third movements sing with a modest yet sturdy confidence - the very antithesis of arrogance or bombast. The soloist is called on to function as an introspective solo singer - on show but not showy. At 5:50 (I) the composer treats us to another of those glistening Christmas hymns from the strings - a long mobile meditation. Between them jangles a showbiz-sentimental second movement which ends with a very odd Mozartean chuckle. The saxophone charts the same numinous regions as the stratospheric and vulnerably eloquent voice of the composer's widow Hinako Fujihara Hovhaness in Starry NightCelestial Canticle and Joy at the Dawn of Spring (Crystal CD811). It carries echoes also of the commercially unrecorded Kanuko, Mysterious Harp, the three arias from the opera Pericles and the Sonata for soprano and harp.

The four movement Vision of Andromeda symphony is another example of Hovhaness's immersion in mystical and/or distant things. Not only did it find its inspiration amid the stars it speaks in an engaging voice that will draw the listener in. It is a work utterly familiar in its sound-world to many of his other symphonies. Avoiding the sort of discord he indulged in the Vishnu, Circe and Odysseus symphonies he here expresses himself in the lofty concordant manner of St Vartan, Silver Pilgrimage and Holy Mountain.

The playing time is on the shortish side. It's a pity another otherwise unrecorded Hovhaness work could not have been added.

Hovhaness adherents will have no choice - the compulsion will be well rewarded. The Saxophone Concerto is unnerving but the Prelude and Quadruple Fugue brings the listener back to the composer's True North and the symphony is from familiar Hovhaness territory.

Rob Barnett
Hovhaness review index