Conductor Gerard Schwarz has long
been a champion of the great 20th century American composer Alan
Hovhaness, regularly performing his music and making several recordings with
the Seattle Symphony - of which he has been Music Director since 1985 - on the
Delos label. It seems as with cinema, so with classical music, at least to the
extent that once something has been done it is easier to do it again than something
entirely new. Hence though Hovhaness wrote 67 symphonies and has a catalogue
running to 434 works, this present disc finds Schwarz returning to two of the
symphonies he has previously recorded, offering "remakes" of his 1993 Delos
recording of Symphony No.50, Mount St. Helens (written 1981), and from the following
year, Symphony No.2, Mysterious Mountain (written 1955). To these, making this
an entirely mountain-themed collection, the conductor has added Symphony No.66,
Hymn to Glacier Peak (1991), and a much earlier work, the brief Storm on Wildcat
Mountain, composed in 1931.
As can be seen from the fact that
the four works on this disc were composed over a period of 50 years, Hovhaness
had a life-long love of mountains, and his richly tonal, melodic, spiritual
and essentially optimistic music is, at least in the works here deeply programmatic;
a fact which endears him to devotes of film music as much as it alienated him
from the critical intelligentsia for much of his career.
The album opens with Mysterious
Mountain, the composer's second symphony and the work which put his name on
the musical map. The introductory "Andante con moto" is here slow and suitably
translucent, suggestive of a calm dawn amid the mountains, Schwarz here taking
the work at a much more relaxed pace than a decade ago. The current version
clocks in at 7.42, the Delos recording at 5.58. Glitteringly orchestrated and
filled with beguiling woodwind melodies, the movement leads to the "Double fugue"
(here just marginally slower than with the Seattle SO) and unfolding with a
fluid grace and logic which is completely convincing. The finale, "Andante espressivo"
is again slower than before, majestic and lyrical, thoughtful and a little more
introspective than before, it brings the symphony to a highly satisfying close.
The conductor takes the opposite
tack with new version of "Mount St. Helens", trimming more almost three minutes
off the earlier time, over two of these from the finale, "Volcano". The result
is a more concentrated, explosive and dramatically compelling musical imagining
of the famous eruption of the titular Pacific North-West mountain, the sonic
boom of which actually struck the composer's windows on May 18, 1980. The sound
here is first rate - as indeed it is throughout the disc - though by most accounts
the SACD version greatly surpasses the CD reviewed here.
Between these two symphonies is
the late work, Hymn to Glacier Peak, particularly distinguished by the lovely
and heartfelt central movement, a tribute to the composer's wife - "Love song
to Hinako". In fact Hinako Hovhaness contributes movingly to the accompanying
booklet, making this a highly personal recording, a CD made by those who knew
and loved the composer. The entire symphony is rewarding and grows with each
listen, though may be overlooked due to the towering presence of its epic companions
on either side.
"Storm on Wildcat Mountain" is
very different, a bold "Lento tempestoso" in a style much more in-debited to
the late romantic masters than Hovhaness' later, far more personal style. It's
exhilaratingly enjoyable as an example of his early writing, but no match for
the three fine symphonies which comprise the heart of the programme.
One might think the Seattle SO,
being an American orchestra from Hovhaness' region of the USA might have an
unassailable edge in this music, but that is not necessarily so and the Royal
Liverpool Philharmonic play with a formidable assurance, richness of tone and
subtle detailing which quiet matches, if not surpasses the earlier Seattle versions.
The Delos performances are very good in their own right, and while the new interpretations
are certainly different and perhaps preferable (certainly so in the case of
the "Volcano" movement) there is no reason to think this new album makes the
earlier discs redundant.
A highly recommended release for
followers of the composer, romantic, melodic 20th century American
music, and those who appreciate grand-scale "landscape" film music looking for
an entry point into the modern American classical world. It is harder to recommend
to those who already have the comparison discs, but if money is not a concern
this splendid album is well worth adding to the collection.