Hovhaness often seems as much an outsider as Pettersson, Havergal Brian or
Vermeulen. His exotic name has subsisted on the edges of the record catalogue
for many years. In fact 'Hovhaness' is simply the Armenian form of 'Johannes'
As for his music, the received wisdom is reflected in the following quote:
"One cannot help suspecting that Hovhaness's music is too easy to write and
too easy to listen to." This was Wilfrid Mellers's verdict in 'Music in a
New Found Land' (London: 1975). This symphony gives the lie to that finding.
The story of 'Majnun and Layla' is the Persian equivalent of the 'Romeo and
Juliet' story. Hovhaness's symphony on this legend is amongst the most attractive
of his works available on disc: much more accessible than the much vaunted
Mystic Mountain symphony.
The first track segment is a canvass of string pizzicato over which solo
violin sings sweetly and none too orientally. If anything the reference points
are British pastoral with the Lark Ascending and swooping. At other times
the composer creates the plushest mattress of strings over which a trumpet
incantation takes us drifting from one Quiet City to another and possibly
more exotic metropolis. Letters in the Sand sounds like quintessential Algerian
Music (do you recall the French film Le Mari du Coiffeuse) heard
accidentally as you leisurely traverse the shortwave bandwidth. At other
times a speeding pizzicato speaks of the dry and relentless desert wind.
Celestial Beloved suggests a drowsy numbness of eyes half hooded and
twilit rooms. Martyn Hill is in typically mournful voice but he does inject
pastel colouring into his tone. The choir are predictably on-song. Though
both have a single text to sing and this they do and it is short so can seem
repetitive. The music often seems to suggest a middle-eastern Swan of
Tuonela calling out across a lake of strings but instead of a cor anglais
it is a trumpet that floats in sallow mystery across the cool waters. The
Symphony can be thought of as an Armenian Sheherazade or a modernistic Antar
Symphony. It opens the door into strange realms. In days when mystery and
beauty was in short supply this symphony deserved a much better fate than
it has 'enjoyed'.
There are two criticisms. The first is that the tracking is niggardly. There
are only two tracks comprising two very substantial segments. The sections
within each segment are played without pause or tracking . The playing time
is short although the interest of the music leaves you feeling quite satisfied.
I am now looking forward to exploring the piano music available on both Crystal
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