Hovhaness: American Mystic (CD review)

Music of Alan Hovhaness: Centennial Collection. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Keith Brion, Ohio State University Concert Band; Shanghai Quartet. Delos DE 3421.

If Alan Hovhaness had been born in the nineteenth century, people would have called him a Romantic (or a Romanticist). But he was born and lived in the twentieth century (1911-2000), surrounded by "modern" composers experimenting with impressionism, expressionism, twelve-tone techniques, microtones, aleatoric music, indeterminacy, stochastic music, intuitive music, neoclassicism, free improvisation, process music, atonal ideas, and the like. Hovhaness's more "spiritual" music, dwelling as it did on harmonies and melodies and moods of wonder, reflection, and meditation, must have seemed downright old-fashioned. Thus, his label as a "mystic."

Delos recorded quite a lot of Hovhaness's music in 80's and 90's, a dozen or more albums, and on the present disc they have collected together some of the composer's most-representative pieces, culled from their back catalogue and featuring several outstanding ensembles. The CD makes a good introduction to Hovhaness's vast output (the man wrote some sixty-seven symphonies alone) and for those listeners not familiar with the composer, it may whet the appetite for more intensive collecting of his material.

The relatively lengthy and diverse program begins with the little Prayer of St. Gregory, Op. 62b, with Gerard Schwarz leading the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Charles Butler on trumpet. Delos recorded it beautifully--it sounds rich, resonant, and detailed--and the performance is heartfelt and serene.

Next is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, Op. 308, again with Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, featuring Michael York as the narrator and Diane Schmidt on accordion. It is atmospheric, romantic, and effective.

Following those items are 4 Bagatelles, Op. 30, done by the Shanghai Quartet. The group seems somewhat big-sounding for the occasion, but they play beautifully.

Then it's on to the centerpiece of the collection, the Symphony No. 2 "Mysterious Mountain," Op. 132. Although Hovhaness had been composing professionally for twenty-odd years before Leopold Stokowski premiered the Second Symphony in 1955, it was the work that made the composer famous, and it remains today probably his most well-known piece of music. Under Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, it is certainly evocative and mystical in tone, although I have a slight preference for the much-older performance by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA). Oddly, too, the Seattle midrange sonics are a tad steely, yet without in any way sounding edgy and having a fine, extended high end.

The Shanghai Quartet return for the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 147, "Gamelan in Sosi Style" and "Spirit Murmur," two movements that are direct and sorrowful, with obvious Asian and South Pacific influences.

The most-surprising music on the program is The Flowering Peach, Op. 125, performed by the Ohio State University Concert Band under director Keith Brion. It sounds nothing like band music but is chamber-like in its approach, using saxophone, clarinet, harp, and various percussion instruments. Also surprising, it is incidental music Hovhaness wrote in 1954 for a Broadway play by Clifford Odets, and it includes a whole passel of different cultural idioms. As with most of the recordings on the album, it sounds wonderful in its laid-back, leisurely style.

The program concludes with a personal favorite of mine, And God Created Great Whales, Op. 229, again with Schwarz and his Seattle Orchestra. It is probably the most environmentally correct music ever written, incorporating as it does the actual songs of whales within the score. Hovhaness composed it in 1970, and I remember first hearing it during a presentation on whales at a local natural museum show. A delightfully soft, relaxed recording helps make the piece a fascinating and totaling engrossing work.

I might add that Delos provide over seventy-five minutes of selections on the disc, a generous offering that only just touches the surface of the composer's prodigious output.


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