HOVHANESS: Piano Concerto, “Lousadzak.” Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain. HARRISON Symphony No. 2, “Elegiac”

HOVHANESS Piano Concerto, “Lousadzak.” Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain” . HARRISON Symphony No. 2, “Elegiac” • Dennis Russell Davies, cond; American Composers Orchestra; Keith Jarrett (pn)• NIMBUS NI-512 (67:00)

This is a reissue of a recording originally released on the Musicmasters label in 1989. It brings together the music of two composers who, as Tim Page’s program notes point out, first came to public attention as kindred spirits, linked together with John Cage, interestingly enough. Readers may be aware that Lou Harrison was one of the composer-critics whom Virgil Thomson ushered in as associates to the New York Herald-Tribune during the mid 1940s. This was the period when Alan Hovhaness, until then an impoverished eccentric struggling to gain attention in the Boston area, attempted to cast his lot in the broader arena of New York City, after having essentially been ridiculed out of Tanglewood by Aaron Copland and his coterie. Both Thomson and Harrison were among the first with access to an influential forum of opinion to champion Hovhaness’s music, and their enthusiastic advocacy contributed significantly to establishing his early reputation. Of course, as the years passed, each of these figures—stubborn individualists themselves—proceeded in his own personal direction, and each ended his career at quite a different point from the others on the American compositional matrix.

Lousadzak, composed in 1944, is certainly one of the most unusual piano concertos ever written (neither a single chord nor sequence of octaves appears in the piano part). The music assigned to the solo instrument imitates a number of Armenian folk instruments, especially those in the dulcimer family, while the string ensemble plays the role of a folk orchestra, providing an accompaniment of primitive polyphony. Both Harrison and Cage were present at the work’s New York premiere, and evidently it really took the audience by surprise. Harrison later recalled that it “was the closest I’ve ever been to one of those renowned artistic riots.” From the standpoint of some six decades later, when Hovhaness is no longer alive, having left behind a legacy of hundreds upon hundreds more compositions, Lousadzak stands as one of his indisputable masterpieces. Somehow the work evokes, as its name, meaning “the coming of light,” implies, a haunting and mysterious sense of the beginning of time. It also has a real sense of drama—not drama in the romantic, climactic sense, but a gradual accumulation of passion and intensity as the work unfolds. No one who has written off Hovhaness after having heard only the over-inflated, endlessly soporific compositions of his later years should fail to acquaint himself with this important representation of one of the composer’s most fertile periods. One is hard-pressed to name another work of his that is as consistently compelling and inspired.

That a pianist with the varied interests and talents—not to mention the distinguished reputation—of Keith Jarrett turned his attention to Lousadzak has served to attract the notice of listeners unlikely otherwise to have encountered such a work. And Jarrett’s performance has much to recommend it. But there are also aspects of his reading that I find wrong-headed. The ethnomusical context from which this work derives is one of individual improvisation alternating with passages in which the ensemble comes to the fore. The improvisational passages tend to be rhythmically free and rhapsodic (an approach of which Jarrett—in other contexts—is a consummate master). Though thoroughly notated, Lousadzak emulates this style, and should be performed in a manner that is in keeping with it. But for some reason Jarrett approaches this profoundly non-virtuosic music as if trying to press it into service as some sort of technical showpiece, with overly driven, frenetically rushed tempos. Conductor Davies seems of the same mind as Jarrett, constantly pressing the piece forward, squaring off its phrase rhythms, and sacrificing much of its depth and subtlety. A performance that better captures the work’s spirit was released in 2005 on the Black Box label (see Fanfare 29:3), featuring pianist Martin Berkofsky. Although the Russian Globalis Symphony Orchestra lacks the precision and refinement of the American Composers Orchestra, pianist Berkofsky evinces a deeper understanding of the mode of expression represented by Hovhaness’s work. 

Mysterious Mountain has loomed as Hovhaness’s best known and most popular composition ever since it first appeared on recording during the late 1950s. (The fact that this work is identified as Symphony No. 2 should not be taken to mean that it was the second symphony Hovhaness composed. In fact, it was not given this appellation until a number of years after it was composed. To summarize briefly, toward the middle of his career, Hovhaness revised, re-titled, destroyed, or partially or completely recast many of his compositions, leaving “holes” in his opus number listings and, in some cases, his numbering of symphonies. He would often “plug up” these “holes” with works composed either earlier or later than the numberings would suggest.) The great success of Mysterious Mountain, composed in its final form in 1955 (although portions date back to the 1930s), can be attributed to two factors: 1) Just two or three years after its completion, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded it for RCA Victor; 2) It is a beautifully tranquil and euphonious work in a neo-ecclesiastical vein almost entirely devoid of harmonic dissonance. Readers may be interested to learn that in a letter written in May, 1961, the composer wrote, “As to my ‘Mysterious Mountain’ my feelings are mixed—I am happy it is popular but I have written much better music and it is a very impersonal work, in which I omit my deeper searching.”

The Reiner/Chicago recording set a performance standard for Mysterious Mountain that is hard to surpass, although even that performance is marred by a blemish or two. But its overall pacing and phrasing seem little short of ideal. By now there have been at least half a dozen recorded performances of this work. Most tend to take the first movement, Andante con moto, at tempos much faster than Reiner’s 7:25. Of them Davies’s 5:09 may be the fastest. Andante con moto is a very vague tempo indication, leaving much room for interpretation, even more than most such designations. The expressive content of the music must be the determinant, and at Davies’s tempo, this quintessentially tranquil movement sounds brusque and rushed—clearly against the grain of the music. The more actively polyphonic second movement—which happens to be my favorite—is done magnificently. The mysterious opening of the third movement is again disconcertingly hasty, while the remainder of the movement proceeds lovingly, the pure, consonant harmony exquisitely in tune.

It is perhaps not too much of a stretch to observe that the “Elegiac” Symphony plays a similar role within Lou Harrison’s oeuvre that Mysterious Mountain plays in Hovhaness’s: that is, they both attempt to integrate the spirit, as well as some of the exotic usages, of Eastern music within a Western symphonic context. This makes Harrison’s piece, in particular, especially unusual. A large work (longer than both Hovhaness pieces together), the “Elegiac” Symphony comprises five movements, and reportedly occupied Harrison intermittently from 1942 until 1975. Perhaps its dedication to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky accounts for the symphonic approach. Harrison’s familiar fingerprints—modal melodies of somewhat Balinese cast presented in unison or with a heterophonic or simple polyphonic treatment—are clearly evident (especially in movements 1, 3, and 5), but are here expanded to symphonic proportions—not solely a matter of duration, but also of a certain grandeur of both gesture and sonority. This very aspect of the work may alienate some of the composer’s more extreme admirers, while others are likely to find it all the more appealing for the same reason. The symphony is scored for a large orchestra, which is approached with considerable subtlety and delicacy—especially the use of the tackpiano, a specialty of the composer, somewhat related to Cage’s “prepared piano.” The three odd-numbered movements—entitled “Tears of the Angel Israfel,” “Tears of the Angel Israfel II,” and “The Sweetness of Epicurus” respectively—are indeed “elegiac,” but not in the highly personal, Samuel Barber-like sense, but rather, in a more abstract, cosmic, contemplative sense, conveying a feeling of serene acceptance. The last movement is especially warm and poignant, concluding the work with deep, heartfelt beauty. The second movement, Allegro, poco presto, is scherzo-like and more Western in style, with some chromaticism, although gamelan-like effects clearly identify the composer. The fourth movement, “Praises for Michael the Archangel,” presents a stark contrast. Its harsh, aggressive harmonic dissonance, and 12-tone material remind us that at one point Harrison studied with Arnold Schoenberg. Altogether, Harrison’s Symphony No. 2 serves as an excellent introduction to, and consolidation of, the many facets of this unique composer, presented in a fashion accessible to the more traditionally-oriented listener. 

HOVHANESS: And God Created Great Whales. Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra. Elibris. Alleluia and Fugue. Anahid.

HOVHANESS: And God Created Great Whales. Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra. ElibrisAlleluia and Fugue. Anahid. David Amos conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. CRYSTAL RECORDS CD810 lDDD]; 69:53. Produced by Peter Christ.

At last Crystal Records, custodian of the Poseidon series of Hovhaness recordings, has issued a release of the composer’s music that can be recommended wholeheartedly. Under the sympathetic leadership of the enterprising and adventurous conductor David Amos, the Philharmonia Orchestra offers new performances of some of Hovhaness’s finest works—some never recorded before, others, long out-of-print. Most welcome of all is the Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra, final installment in a genre that drew Hovhaness’s attention during the 1950s. The Concertos for Orchestra, which are in no way virtuoso showpieces in the Bartók manner, are among the most consistently successful works in the composer’s enormous canon. Best known are the Concerto No. 1, “Arevakal” (once available on Mercury MG-50078), which Concerto No. 8 resembles in style, and the uncharacteristically symphonic Concerto No. 7 (once available on Louisville LOU-5454). Concerto No.8 may be regarded as a first recording, although it did appear, along with the Symphony No. 16, on the very first Poseidon release, issued privately during the mid-1960s. Similar to others in the series, the Concerto No. 8 alternates between solemn incantations that draw upon the Armenian cantorial style and uplifting polyphonic hymns featuring diatonic counterpoint enhanced by frequent use of reverent suspensions. An Armenian-style march (played a little too slowly) and a very uncharacteristic, Satie-like but charming “pastoral dance” provide contrast. Solo trombone fulfills the cantorial role, while imaginative instrumental touches enhance the sonorous aspect. In this generally excellent performance, the Concerto No. 8 is the sort of work that attracted so many followers to Hovhaness a couple of decades ago. 

Also gracing this release is the reappearance of Anahid, a brilliantly exotic fantasy for chamber orchestra in undiluted Armenian style, available thirty years ago in a superb performance on MGM’s astonishingly discriminating (and thus predictably short-lived) contemporary music series. Listeners who have sat through any of Hovhaness’s recent, bloated, half-hearted, interminable symphonies, wondering what was the appeal of this man’s music, will be stunned by the blazing splendor, subtle delicacy, and wild ferocity found in this work from the mid-l940s, when the composer’s explorations into his Armenian heritage were still fresh and new. It is wonderful to have this work available again, now in a modern recording. Unfortunately the all-important timpani patterns during the final dance, which feature intriguing cross-rhythms, are not captured distinctly in this otherwise fine performance. 

A piece with special significance for me is Alleluia and Fugue, another work from the 1940s, once available on the same MGM release (E-3504) that featured Anahid. This was the piece through which I was first introduced to Hovhaness’s music, back at an age when I had barely entered puberty. I was captivated by its rich parallel triads in organum style, by its haunting modal melody with primitive imitative counterpoint, accompanied by open fifths, and by the vigorous Handelian fugue that followed. (Perhaps) prematurely jaded by the predictable rhetoric and narrow expressive range of mainstream classical music, I found this unfamiliar language (I hadn’t yet heard Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia) to be a revelation from the very first note. Its apparent independence from time or place and its awe-inspiring sense of pure spirituality held out the promise of a magical gateway into hitherto unimagined expressive realms—a promise that was fulfilled by my subsequent immersion in twentieth-century music. I have since learned that Hovhaness’s music has played a similar role in the musical lives of other young people, and this is a role to which it is well suited. In any case, returning to the release at band, the performance of the fugue is rather disappointing: Not only does Amos take an excessively slow tempo, but the inner contrapuntal lines arc muffled and indistinct, making for a rather slurpy effect. 

Elibris, a ten-minute “concerto” for flute and strings, appears here in its first recording ever. Dating from 1944—the same year as Anahid—it consists of a slow, incantational section, followed by a dance-like finale, both in Armenian style, with clear thematic affinities to such other works as Lousadzak and the St. Vartan Symphony. It is good to have this work available, although Christine Messiter’s flute playing, while adequate, is a little short on color, character, and vitality. 
The biggest surprise on the disc is And God Created Great Whales, dating from a time (1970) when Hovhaness had been concentrating on Japanese and Korean sources of musical inspiration for some time—in fact, to the point of exhaustion and redundancy. This was also the time when whales—and, particularly, the discovery that they created “music”—sound patterns with distinct, definable shapes—were very much in the news. Thus, when introduced by Andre Kostelanetz at a summer concert of the New York Philharmonic, this new work, which combined pre-recorded whale “songs” with themes found in prior works by the composer, seemed to smack of blatant gimmickry and opportunism (a motif in Hovhaness’s career that has always jarred uncomfortably with the image he conveys of existing apart from the mundane world). A subsequent recording featuring the same forces (Columbia M-34537) did nothing to alter the impression. However, in this new performance and recording (which uses entirely different and much more interesting whale sounds), the work is remarkably powerful. While there is no denying its fundamental lack of substance, the sheer sonic impact of Hovhaness’s orchestral effects, played here with tremendous conviction, and the skillful way they complement the whale sounds, creates a remarkable sense of drama.

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 9, “St. Vartan.” Concerto for Horn and String Orchestra, “Artik.”

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 9, “St. Vartan.” Concerto for Horn and String Orchestra, “Artik.” National Philharmonic Orchestra of London conducted by Alan Hovhaness (Symphony); Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Amos (Concerto); Meir Rimon, horn. CRYSTAL CD802 (compact disc).

St. Vartan Symphony (as it was originally named) is often considered to be one of Hovhaness’s landmark works. Ambitious in scope and conception, it is certainly one of the major works of his “Armenian period” (which lasted roughly from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s), though other works from this time (e.g., AnahidLousadzak, and Talin) are perhaps more fully realized and satisfying pieces of music. The symphony, about 45 minutes long, comprises 24 movements that contrast simple but lovely, modal, hymnlike melodies in early Christian polyphonic style against wild polytonal canons based on Armenian dance patterns. There are also a few movements in a melismatic, Armenian cantorial vein. All these contrasting movements are not simply presented in alternation, but rather progress gradually from a preponderance of slow movements toward a concluding succession of manic dance-like movements. The work, which has often been likened to a mosaic, is strikingly unusual and arresting, capable of making quite a powerful cumulative impact on listeners attuned to the composer’s mystical aims and attracted to the exotic language he uses. However, others may be irritated to the point of committing violence; even this sympathetic listener finds the psychological effect of the exceedingly repetitious polytonal canons comparable to the ecstasy produced by the Zen exercise of hitting oneself repeatedly on the head with a hammer.

In the past I have described the numbering of Hovhaness’s works as confused and chaotic. A few more words about this are in order: St. Vartan Symphony , written in 1949-50, was originally listed as Op. 80, and was not a numbered symphony, though it fell chronologically beforeMysterious Mountain, which later became Symphony No. 2. It is necessary to know that Hovhaness has always been prone to drop works from his oeuvre, as well as to restore earlier works that had formerly been rejected, sometimes in revised form, and to assign “empty” opus numbers to them, regardless of chronology. For this reason his opus numbers are meaningless. 

Additionally, some time around the late 1960s, Hovhaness began to accumulate symphonies at a phenomenal rate, often including in the canon some large-scale orchestral works that had not previously been part of the sequence. It is through this messy process that St. Vartan Symphonybecame known as the Symphony No. 9 and received the opus number of 180.

St. Vartan Symphony originally appeared on records during the mid-1950s, as part of the legendary MGM classical series (E3453), in a performance by a superb pickup chamber orchestra of top New York freelances conducted by Carlos Surinach. The current, composer- conducted performance was first released in England during the mid-1970s on Unicorn (RHS 317) and then shortly thereafter in the U.S. on Poseidon 1013. I had found the Unicorn release quite thin and shallow in sound and the subsequent Poseidon issue marred by typically noisy surfaces. However, on this new CD the sound is so superior that the considerable merits of this performance come to the fore. Most apparent are slightly slower, but more kinetically expressive, tempos in the canons, thereby lending to these problematic movements a more natural, dance-like, and less frenetic quality. Textures are also more transparent, revealing rhythmic intricacies and contrapuntal felicities that heighten interest and underline Hovhaness’s role as a precursor of minimalism (for whatever that is worth). Perhaps some of the instrumental solos were played with more finesse on the old MGM issue (many of the players were veterans of the NBC Symphony); but the later performance is superior on most other counts and is highly recommended to all Hovhaness fans. 

Also included on this 62-minute CD is the Concerto for Horn and String Orchestra, “Artik,” which originally appeared a few years ago on Crystal S507. Dating from 1948, “Artik” remains largely in the modal, hymnlike vein of such contemporaneous pieces as the Prayer of St. GregoryAvak the Healer, and much of St. Vartan. Some of its eight short movements seem more inspired than others; experienced Hovhanessians will know what to expect. There is another performance of the work on Coronet 3122, which I have not heard; but this one, featuring Meir Rimon and members of the Israel Philharmonic under the direction of David Amos, is excellent. 

I second John Ditsky’s enthusiasm for Crystal’s generous reissues onto CD of material from the Poseidon catalog. The sonic improvement is far greater than I would have predicted. My own vote for the next release would be a CD containing the magnificent large-scale cantata Lady of Light with the Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate,” probably the finest of Hovhaness’ 50+ symphonies. 

HOVHANESS: Concerto for Viola and Strings, “Talin.” Concerto for Violin, Sitar, and Orchestra, “Shambala.” Five Hymns of Serenity, “Janabar”

HOVHANESS: Concerto for Viola and Strings, “Talin.” Concerto for Violin, Sitar, and Orchestra, “Shambala.” Five Hymns of Serenity, “Janabar” • Rastislav Štúr, cond; Slovak Philharmonic; Christina Fong (vn, va); Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar); Michael Bowman (tpt); Paul Hersey (pn) • OGREOGRESS DualDisc (DVD: 126:00; CD: 59:00) – Interviews and Talking (Alan Hovhaness and Antony Hopkins)

This is a most peculiar release. It is a “DualDisc,” containing both DVD and CD information. The DVD is more than two hours in duration, while the CD portion comprises 59 minutes selected from the complete program—Shambala in its entirety, plus one movement each from Janabar and Talin. The CD also holds useful program notes by Marco Shirodkar—who created and manages the extremely informative Web site www.Hovhaness.com—which augment the brief notes that appear on the oddly designed disc package. I should emphasize, however, that the only visual component of the DVD program is the menu of the disc, indicating what is being heard. The package appears to sell for $24.50. Anticipating that this format will bewilder many potential consumers, I wrote to producer Glenn Freeman, inquiring about the rationale for this format. His reply, edited for concision: “This title was originally planned for release on Audio DVD only. Audio DVD allows for much higher audio quality [96kHz|24bit]—over 2 hours of high resolution audio on one disc. This has been our format of choice since 2004. It was suggested we should also issue content on CDs from time to time—a few consumers voiced an interest in purchasing Shambala on CD. So, for several reasons, we decided to press this title on one DualDisc instead of Audio DVD: 1) Our budget only allows for one pressing; 2) We would much rather press at the higher audio quality, if given a choice; 3) Those with CD players are encouraged to upgrade their equipment in the future and will have the whole program when they do so; 4) The CD side of a DualDisc only allows for 60 minutes of material, MAX. Does it make sense? The idea was to accommodate everyone, both audiophiles and everyday users, while at the same time demonstrating the clear advantage of Audio DVD, hopefully inspiring those who have only CD players to upgrade their equipment in the future.”

Well, does it make sense? I will leave it to you to arrive at your own answers. However, for me—and for what percentage of other “serious collectors” I do not know—this meant playing it through my TV, or on the computer; so much for “much higher audio quality.”

Turning now to the content of the release: There are three little-known works of Hovhaness, along with just under half-an-hour of commentary by Hovhaness (and a minute or two attributed to Antony Hopkins—not to be confused with Anthony Hopkins, of Hannibal Lecter fame). What proves to be the most outstanding aspect of the release is the work called Janabar, or “Five Hymns of Serenity.” Hovhaness enthusiasts who have become disillusioned by the shockingly high proportion of dross within the composer’s output, especially during the last three decades of his life, have cause to rejoice. Composed in 1950, during the period generally conceded to be his most fertile, with regard to quality, if not quantity, this extended (37 minutes) work is scored for trumpet, violin, piano, and string orchestra, and comprises five movements, each discrete enough that it could stand effectively on its own. Originally written for Anahid and Maro Ajemian, the violin/piano duo who were among the composer’s most vigorous champions during the 1940s and 50s, Janabar is a richly varied work that touches upon most of the musical devices and sub-styles that concerned Hovhaness during those years: using the piano to imitate Armenian dulcimer-like instruments and pitched water-bowls played percussively; modal, hymnlike string polyphony; pizzicato passages in which each instrument plays at its own rate; cantorial writing for the trumpet. All these techniques, familiar to all Hovhaness aficionados, appear here in some of their most inspired usages. Perhaps the work it resembles most closely is Khaldis—the concerto for four trumpets, piano, and percussion, written around the same time, and another one of the composer’s strongest works. Such pieces as the Prayer of Saint Gregory and the Symphony No. 6 are also called to mind. No admirer of Hovhaness will want to miss this piece; I am quite sure it has never been recorded before, and am amazed that it took this long to surface—it is definitely one of his greatest works. The performance is generally quite fine: pianist Paul Hersey is especially sensitive to the musical expression; Christina Fong handles her role ably; and Michael Bowman’s trumpet solos are on the mark; on the other hand, the last movement presses forward a little brusquely, as if the conductor were impatient and unmoved by the music.

Talin is a rather different story—a work composed shortly after Janabar, and recorded in 1957 by the well-known viola virtuoso of the period, Emmanuel Vardi, with a string orchestra conducted by Izler Solomon. This piece is revered among Hovhaness admirers as one of his most profoundly inspired works, and that performance still stands as one of the most fervently convincing renditions of the composer’s music ever to appear on recording (although it has long been out of print). Hovhaness approved a transcription of Talin for clarinet and strings, and that well-intentioned version appeared on recording during the 1970s, but the clarinet is simply incapable of the burnished intensity of a viola, well played. The concerto—less than 20 minutes long—comprises three movements: a short, wild Armenian dance with polytonal pizzicato accompaniment, sandwiched between two slow movements in which the doleful, throbbing cantillations of the soloist are answered by impassioned modal polyphony in the string orchestra—a familiar Hovhaness technique heard at its best in this work. Now, a half-century later, we have the second recording of Talin in its original version for viola. Christina Fong, one of the chief protagonists of the OgreOgress operation, recorded an attractive CD of violin and viola music by Hovhaness several years ago (see Fanfare 27:4). It pains me to say that this new recording falls far short of the Vardi/Solomon by a vast margin, although it is not so much that Fong/Štúr are bad, but that the older recording is so great! Perhaps what is most dismaying is that Rastislav Štúr conducts this music as if it meant absolutely nothing to him, or as if his mind were elsewhere during the recording. The tempos seem purely arbitrary, are consistently too fast, and once set, never change. There is no contour to the phrasing; it is like someone reading aloud in a monotone, in a language he doesn’t understand. And violist Fong matches this conductorial indifference with a lack of intensity, precarious intonation, and insufficient technical ease to play the floridly melismatic passages of the third movement with abandon. Why this work has not attracted more violists—given the instrument’s meager repertoire—is beyond me.

However, what appears to be the principal work on this new release is Shambala, a 45-minute “concerto” for violin, sitar, and orchestra, in one single movement, composed in 1969, on commission from Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin intended to perform the work with sitarist Ravi Shankar, but such a performance never materialized “for reasons unclear,” and Shambala has lain dormant ever since—until now. 

(For the benefit of our younger readers, let me recount a strange confluence of circumstances during the late 1960s: At that time the Beatles were at the height of their sensational international popularity, which enabled them to explore musical possibilities beyond the limited vocabulary of the rock idiom. And anything they explored became world-famous virtually overnight. As they delved into “alternative forms of consciousness,” aided by psychedelic pharmacopoeia, the Beatles became fascinated with Asian cultures—especially that of India. Beatle George Harrison traveled to India to study with Ravi Shankar, a sitarist with a devoted following in that country—and elsewhere, among those attracted to this exotic and highly evolved musical tradition. Harrison’s association with Shankar catapulted the latter to international celebrity, and his concerts—previously enjoyed by only small, specialized audiences outside India—were now attended by thousands of college-age youth in America and elsewhere in the West. To a much lesser extent, this celebrity even generalized to Hovhaness, as his decades of experimentation with fusing Western musical forms and Asian musical techniques now drew the attention of the more musically sophisticated members of this huge audience. Hovhaness had met Shankar in 1959, while on a Fulbright Fellowship to India. Yehudi Menuhin already had an abiding interest in Indian culture; now, during this period he gave performances and made recordings together with Shankar [“East Meets West”—that sort of thing]. However, this widespread fascination with Indian music was short-lived, and by 1969 had probably peaked. But the association of Menuhin, Shankar, and Hovhaness was a clear outgrowth of this fad.)

Shambala is said to be the first orchestral work to incorporate the sitar, although the following year Shankar composed his own “Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra,” which I heard at the time and recall as abysmally bad. Hovhaness’s composition, however, is not abysmally bad. But, as with many of his later pieces, it is needlessly long and overly simple. According to Shirodkar, if I understand correctly, the sitar part is not specifically notated, beyond indicating the Indian modes which the soloist is to follow while improvising his part. The violinist’s role, however, is largely notated, but quite primitive in style. The musical vocabulary does not adhere exclusively to Indian-based usages, but includes in addition the “sliding tones,” “giant melodies” accompanied by ceremonial bells, dissonant canons at the unison, and cluster-chords that Hovhaness adopted from his study of Korean music, as well as some of his own longstanding devices (such as melodies with the Al-an Hov-HA-NESS rhythmic signature). The role of the orchestra is limited, and the interaction between the two solo instruments is mostly quite rudimentary, although some of their duo passages create heterophonic modal complexities. But 45 minutes is an awfully long time for a single stretch of music. True, there are subsections, but there is very little contrast in mood, character, or energy level among them. Unlike the case with authentic Indian ragas, there isn’t that gradual increase in energy as the music progresses from a rather static, reflective opening, through a more actively rhythmic phase, finally culminating in almost frenzied virtuosic elaboration. Yes, there are some opportunities for more rapid sitar passages, but they do not really change the overall level of intensity. Christina Fong handles the violin contribution with conviction, while Gaurav Mazumdar, a student of Shankar’s, fulfills his role with ease. Although the quality of the recorded sound on the CD track—for this as well as the other works—is very good, there is something about the recording of Shambala that leaves me with the impression that not all the elements were recorded at the same time and place. Perhaps the sitar was recorded separately, and then mixed in—not that there’s anything wrong with this, although we, the listeners, should not notice it. 

Enthusiasts who have discovered Hovhaness since his death in 2000 are likely to find the half-hour of the composer’s own commentary—subdivided into twelve snippets—quite revelatory. However, the interviewers’ questions have been edited out, and the dates and sources of these commentaries are not provided (although I can tell you with certainty that several of them came from an interview done by yours truly, in 1971. It would have been nice if I’d been asked for permission, or at least credited appropriately.) These commentaries touch upon the composer’s feelings about religion, about long mountain walks, about tuning systems, his sources of inspiration, use of aleatoric devices, his “visions,” his playing of Asian instruments, and the basis of his interest in the music of Eastern cultures. But including the dates and sources would have provided a more informative context. In conclusion, readers will have to weigh the pros and cons of this unusual release, and decide individually on its relevance to their musical and technological interests.

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 60, “To the Appalachian Mountains.” Guitar Concerto. Khrimian Hairig

HOVHANESS Symphony No. 60, “To the Appalachian Mountains.” Guitar Concerto. Khrimian Hairig • Gerard Schwarz, cond; Berlin Radio S O; David Leisner (gtr); Lars Ranch (tpt)• NAXOS 8.559294 (73:30)

Khrimian Hairig was composed in the mid 1940s, a period when Hovhaness was delving deeply into the traditional music of his ancestral Armenia for inspiration as well as for a stylistic identity. It is a modal work of eight minutes duration, named for a heroic Armenian priest. The solo trumpet functions in a cantorial role, as in much of this composer’s music. The work culminates in a melody that was re-used in his incidental music for The Flowering Peach, and then again in Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places. Danish trumpet soloist Lars Ranch boasts a sharp, penetrating tone but tends consistently to anticipate the accompanying strings.

Most Hovhaness enthusiasts tend to agree (if only in hushed, mournful tones of regret) that the quality of the composer’s output deteriorated badly after the late 1960s (and he was to write a great deal more music). It is hard to escape the conclusion that around that time he lost the often fierce sense of rapture that had animated his best works up until then, and spent the next 30 years creating pallid, over-extended parodies of his earlier music. He may have become a happier fellow, but listeners were not necessarily the beneficiaries. Nevertheless, in at least some of these later works, convincingly inspired moments do appear, as illustrated by this recent Naxos release.

One such work is the Guitar Concerto composed in 1979 on a commission from the Bolivian guitarist Javier Calderon. Its three movements exceed a half hour in duration, and offer little or nothing in the way of virtuosic display. For the most part, the music is slow and remarkably simplistic, its long, unadorned melodies presented with minimal contribution from the orchestra. Worst of all is the second movement, which betrays a revolting mawkishness that began to appear in some of these late works (e.g. The Rubaiyat)—the kind of thing from which he would have recoiled, I think, during his earlier years. Hinako Fujihara, his sixth wife, with whom he spent the last 24 years of his life, provided the program notes accompanying this disc, and describes the concerto as “most romantic,” and calls it, “Hovhaness’s love-song.” However, just when one is about to give up, the third movement takes one by surprise, reviving interest as it recalls rhythmic intricacies reminiscent of Khaldis, one of the composer’s masterpieces from the 1950s. Guitarist David Leisner fulfills the modest challenges of the concerto without apparent strain.

According to the fascinating and informative Web site www.Hovhaness.com, by the time of his death in 2000, this remarkably prolific composer had completed 67 symphonies. The Symphony No. 60 was commissioned in 1985, interestingly enough, by Martin Marietta Energy Systems, bringing the composer the largest fee of his career to celebrate the cultural heritage of the state of Tennessee. (Hovhaness was rarely offered a commission that he couldn’t adapt in some way to his own creative purposes.) In order to lend some relevance to the music, he prepared himself by studying “shape-note” hymns and mountain music, justifying the subtitle, “To the Appalachian Mountains.” Despite his effort to generate some local color, the result is pure, unmistakable Hovhaness, although the thematic material is more blatantly pentatonic than usual. Once again, long simple melodies with minimal accompaniment alternate with homophonic chorales and hymn-like passages. The second movement scherzo even attempts something of a “hoe-down” flavor, although no one is likely to mistake it for Copland; “Hovhaness in Dixieland” might be a more fitting appellation. Nevertheless, although I cannot claim familiarity with more than 10-12 of the 45 or so symphonies he composed after 1970, I would have to rate this the most interesting of those I have heard. Indeed, the central portion of the brief third movement (of four) reveals some especially lovely counterpoint.

Gerard Schwarz, whose interest in Hovhaness (as noted elsewhere) dates back nearly 40 years, leads the Berlin Radio Orchestra in fervent, well-paced performances, graced by some particularly beautiful solo playing.

HOVHANESS: Symphonies: Nos. 4; 20, “Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain;” 53, “Star Dawn.” Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places. Prayer of Saint Gregory

HOVHANESS Symphonies: Nos. 4; 20, “Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain;” 53, “Star Dawn.” Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places. Prayer of Saint Gregory • Keith Brion, cond; Wind Orchestra of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama; John Wallace (tpt)• NAXOS 8.559207 (66:03)

Naxos seems to have picked up Hovhaness, at the point left off by Delos, which picked him up at the point left off by Crystal, which reissued on CD many of the LPs released previously by Poseidon Society. (Of course the company that first made a major commitment to recording Hovhaness was the short-lived classical series on MGM, back during the mid 1950s. These fine recordings certainly contributed significantly toward making the composer’s name widely known, although if there is one recording that really deserves the credit for this accomplishment, it is the RCA recording of Mysterious Mountain, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. If I am not mistaken, this recording has never been out of print after almost 50 years!). There certainly is no shortage of music by Hovhaness available on recording today, although his output is so vast that the recorded repertoire still barely scratches the surface (although that is also partly because a number works have been recorded quite a few times [the record holder seems to be the Prayer of Saint Gregory, also included here; ArkivMusic.com currently lists 16 recordings]).

The recent release at hand offers three of Hovhaness’s eight symphonies for wind ensemble, along with two other shorter pieces. Symphony No. 4 is the earliest of the symphonies, having been written in 1958 for the remarkable American Wind Symphony Orchestra, and its founder Robert Austin Boudreau. This is another one of the composer’s best known works, largely owing to the long-lived Mercury recording featuring the Eastman Wind Ensemble, under the direction of A. Clyde Roller (although that estimable recording does not seem currently to be available). That was a fine performance, recorded brilliantly, although there was an egregious wrong note in a brass chorale in the first movement. I am pleased to report that the chord is correct on this new recording, conducted by longtime Hovhaness devotee Keith Brion (who also provided the program notes). Like so much of this composer’s music from the 1950s, the Fourth Symphony largely comprises long, modal melodic lines suggestive of middle-eastern religious incantation, reverent brass chorales (often spiced with bell-notes from outside the prevailing mode), and lively, Handelian fugal passages. In addition there are a few idiosyncratic elements: a central intermezzo that highlights the mallet percussion, a rather frightening siren-like effect created by trombones in cross-glissandi and pedal-tones. The performance is acceptable overall, although—like most of the readings on this disc—the pacing and phrasing tend to be a bit perfunctory and routine. What is most outstanding is the playing of the mallet instruments (I am assuming that they are all played by the same individual, because the meticulous understanding of the way these solos are to be articulated is displayed similarly by each instrument). Because of this, the symphony’s middle movement is perhaps the most impressively played track on the whole CD. On the other hand, the contrabassoon solo in the first movement—one of the literature’s most extended solos for this instrument—is played rather unfeelingly.

The Symphony No. 20 is subtitled, “Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain,” and was composed in 1969. The work comprises three movements: the 9-minute first movement is somewhat tedious, consisting largely of modal cantorial lines in the brass, often treated with simple imitative counterpoint, and accompanied by repeated tolling of bells; the second movement illustrates Hovhaness’s “Armenian procession” manner, also accompanied by generous offerings on the chimes; the third is the most appealing movement, largely fugal, based on a subject also used in the composer’s 1963 oratorio In the Beginning Was the Word. This idea is combined with some chatty staccato material in the woodwinds. There is also a hymn melody oddly reminiscent of the hit tune from the late 1950s, “To Know Him is to Love Him.”

Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 53, “Star Dawn,” dates from 1983 and comprises only two movements. It is explicitly suggestive of an interplanetary journey. Like so many (and I mean many) of the composer’s post-1970 works, this one reflects a further simplification of his already-not-very-complicated idiom. What are most notable—and least appealing—are long, chant-like melodies, almost completely devoid of accompanimental texture or harmony. Although chorale passages and the concluding hymn of arrival are pleasant, these very uninteresting melodies make the piece seem over-extended at 13 minutes.

Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places is one of Hovhaness’s great titles. It denotes a 10-minute piece in two movements for solo trumpet and wind ensemble. Veteran Hovhanessians may recall a Mace LP from about 40 years ago that included this work in a performance by the North Jersey Wind Symphony, conducted by the self-same Keith Brion. The trumpet soloist on that recording was none other than Gerard Schwarz. This is one of those works from the 1960s that the composer built around a theme used in an earlier work, surrounding it with the sort of cluster harmonies, sliding tones, and odd dissonances that he cultivated during that period. It begins with a stentorian alarum followed by a chaotic explosion. The second section suggests an Armenian incantation, treated with simple polyphony. Eventually a modal, hymn-like melody appears. This melody seems to have originated with Khrimian Hairig, a work from the 1940s, but was then recycled during the early 1950s for the incidental music to Clifford Odets’s play, The Flowering Peach. It appears in slightly varied form in Return and Rebuild …. John Wallace is one of the UK’s leading trumpet soloists and boasts a beautifully focused tone.

Wallace also lends his artistry to the aforementioned and nearly ubiquitous Prayer of Saint Gregory, an intermezzo from an Armenian-style opera dating from the mid 1940s. Its great popularity is not hard to understand, as it is about five minutes long, rather easy to play, and quite inspiring to listeners. This is my first exposure to its alternate scoring for band, which I find quite acceptable. However, as with the other performances on this disc, the rendering is technically accurate, but the phrasing strikes me as brusque and insensitive.

Picks of the Year: 2005

As far as I can recall, this is the first year that I actually had difficulty narrowing down my list of most significant new releases to five. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I am certainly glad that the much-observed and –discussed dwindling of the audience for classical music has not yet resulted in a corresponding tapering off of new releases featuring unusual repertoire. 

One most welcome entry is the Chandos recording (reviewed in 28:5) of Samuel Barber’s gorgeous opera Vanessa. This recent release appeared on the heels of a perfectly adequate Naxos recording of the same work. Hopefully, the latter, budget-priced, will draw new listeners to the opera, while the more expensive Chandos release provides an extraordinary performance, brilliantly recorded, to satisfy already-convinced enthusiasts who want an alternative to the almost-50-year-old Metropolitan Opera version.

The Griller Quartet’s fervently committed 1954 recordings of the first four of Ernest Bloch’s five string quartets (reviewed [most likely] in 29:1) have long been unavailable, and have achieved something like “legendary” status. Now re-issued on a modestly-priced two-disc set of CDs, these performances will presumably draw new listeners to these great works, still barely known to either the listening audience or the academic musicological world. The Griller performances offer persuasive evidence that Bloch’s quartets are comparable in stature to those of Bartók and Shostakovich. Indeed, the Quartet No. 2 is probably Bloch’s greatest work.

On the other hand, Bloch enthusiasts may want to pursue the first recording available in the United States of the rarely heard orchestral rhapsody Helvetia: The Land of Mountains and Its People (Kleos KL5134), performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under the direction of David Amos. Further enhancing the value of this recording is the presence of two really obscure, but intriguing piano concertos by Isidor Achron, lesser-known younger brother of Joseph (whose music isn’t that well known either, except to violin specialists). 

Alan Hovhaness died in 2000, at the age of 89, leaving behind a legacy of more than 500 works—a legacy that even the composer’s most fervent admirers will concede is “uneven” at best. Pianist Martin Berkofsky is a most effective protagonist for this music, and for his new Black Box release has selected some of Hovhaness’s most unequivocal masterpieces, which he performs—sometimes enlisting the additional participation of other pianists—with a deep understanding of the aesthetic premises underlying these works. This is an indispensable release for all admirers of the composer.

Recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in music, Paul Moravec is the first such winner in the last few years whose selection seems warranted. Tempest Fantasy, the prize-winning work, is included on this brilliantly performed Arabesque CD (reviewed in 28:5), along with several other equally-rewarding pieces. Moravec’s is a compositional voice to follow: unmistakable for that of any other composer, yet clear and straightforward enough to be readily enjoyed.

The music and reputation of Vincent Persichetti, one of the supreme masters among American composers, have been in something of a hibernation since his death in 1987. Suddenly a spate of new recordings featuring his works has appeared, and will be discussed at length in a forthcoming issue. Perhaps the most significant of these is Albany’s new release of three symphonies (two of which have never been recorded before) on a two-CD set priced as one. The performances by David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony are solid and sympathetic, while the recording is of revelatory clarity. 

Better known than Persichetti’s symphonies are his works for wind ensemble, which are among the cornerstones of the genre. Highly esteemed band director Eugene Corporon presents seven of these works in meticulous performances by the North Texas Wind Symphony and the Cincinnati Wind Symphony (GIA CD-627; available from www.giamusic.com); this release complements David Amos’s overlapping survey of Persichetti’s works for band featuring the winds of the London Symphony Orchestra, to be reissued imminently on Naxos American Classics.



BARBER Vanessa • Soloists/Slatkin/BBC SO/Ch • CHANDOS CHSA 5032(2)

BLOCH String Quartets: Nos. 1-4 • Griller St Qt • DECCA 475 6071

HOVHANESS Lousadzak. Two-Piano Concerto. Mihr. Vijag et al. • Berkofsky/Krimets/Globalis SO • BLACK BOX BBM1103

MORAVEC Tempest Fantasy. Mood Swings. B.A.S.S. Variations. Scherzo • Krakauer/Trio Solisti • ARABESQUE Z6791

PERSICHETTI Symphonies: Nos. 3, 4, 7 • Miller/Albany SO • ALBANY TROY771/72

HOVHANESS Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Lousadzak. Mihr. Vijag

HOVHANESS Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. Lousadzak. Mihr. Vijag. Ko-ola-u • Konstantin Krimets, cond; Globalis SO; Martin Berkofsky (pn); Atakan Sari (pn); Sergei Podobedov (pn) • BLACK BOX BBM1103 (55:21)

I expect that this new release will be welcomed by enthusiasts of the music of Hovhaness, while providing hitherto disdainful listeners with evidence that may change their minds—or at least may offer a plausible explanation for the music’s appeal for those enthusiasts. Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was one of those composers—like Milhaud, Martinu, and Villa-Lobos—who produced huge bodies of work (more than 500 opus numbers in Hovhaness’s case) much of which is routine at best and abysmally bad at worst. But scattered among them are also some real gems—in Hovhaness’s case, glorious creations that evoke a mysterious sense of timelessness, and inspire in listeners feelings of awe and exaltation. However, since such masterpieces are relatively few in number, and not even the enthusiasts are familiar with more than a small proportion of the composer’s output, the majority of recordings either recycle the same few favorites or venture into unknown territory that often proves disappointing. Therefore, it is gratifying to announce that this disc is a real winner.

The hero of this CD—and the force behind it—is Martin Berkofsky, a veteran pianist who deserves far more attention than he has thus far been accorded. I happened to attend his New York debut recital some forty years ago, at which he performed Hovhaness’s elaborate Fantasy, Op. 16, for piano—a recital that also included Liszt’s B-minor Sonata. I knew then that he was a major talent (although to this day I have never met him), and he has been championing Hovhaness’s music ever since. Well acquainted with the composer personally, he displays a deep insight into the music, and performs it with great sensitivity, and a real understanding of its sources of inspiration.

In finding his creative voice, Hovhaness repudiated most of the development of western music, delving into to the practices of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and combining them with usages drawn from the traditional music of his ancestral Armenia, as well as that of India, Japan, and Korea. This highly idiosyncratic approach resulted in a style that was totally unique, marked by a striking sense of spiritual purity utterly alien to the various isms that competed on the battlefield of 20th-century music (although for a time he was associated with such company as Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and John Cage). More recent composers, most notably Henryk Górecki in his dreary Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and, to a lesser extent, Arvo Pärt have been adduced as latter-day spiritual progeny of Hovhaness. Although he continued composing prolifically until a few years before his death, after the mid-1960s—unfortunately and inexplicably (to me, anyway)—the quality of his work plummeted into depths of mind-numbing banality. Of the hundreds of pieces that poured from his pen during those years, virtually none approaches the freshness and incandescence of his best work.

Aside from a two-minute trifle, the program at hand, recorded in Moscow, is drawn from the years 1944-54, the period during which Hovhaness created his greatest music. The earliest is Lousadzak, meaning “the coming of light” (Hovhaness loved titles drawn from Armenian culture). Subtitled “Concerto for Piano and Strings,” the work is unlike any other piano concerto in the repertoire. There is not a single chord, not a single passage of octaves in this one-movement work. The piano is employed to emulate various Armenian and middle-eastern instruments of the dulcimer and zither families, and the music is composed very much along the lines of what those instruments typically play, which includes striking the same key repeatedly to simulate sustained notes, and playing a melody off against a drone-note, often in rapid, irregular rhythmic patterns. (Berkofsky plays this work in a way that reveals his familiarity with the sources that inspired Hovhaness in the first place.) The strings provide a largely accompanimental backdrop like a small folk orchestra, in simple, almost improvisatory modal polyphony. The effect is truly unforgettable. The result is a highly exotic work, suggesting an ancient pagan rite of unearthly, primitivistic fire and passion, as well as, at times, tender tranquility. One of Hovhaness’s greatest works, Lousadzak has been recorded several times before, most notably during the mid 1950s by Maro Ajemian, a pianist closely associated with the composer, with an orchestra conducted by Carlos Surinach—a performance that might be regarded as “authoritative;” and, more recently, in a smoothly virtuosic reading by Keith Jarrett, with the American Composers Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies. But as fine as both these performances are, neither matches the exquisite sensitivity and total commitment of Berkofsky’s reading. Unfortunately, the strings of the Globalis orchestra fall somewhat short of the precision and artistry displayed by the pianist.

Hovhaness composed many shorter piano pieces of this kind during the 1940s, of widely variable quality. Nothing specific distinguishes the most interesting from the least, aside from that ineffable factor, “inspiration.” Nonetheless, two of the pieces for two pianos chosen by Berkofsky—Mihr (1945) and Vijag (1946)—are among the very best. The former, almost ten minutes in duration, is deeper and more elaborate than most, while the latter, at barely four minutes, is a captivating perpetual-motion gem, as the two pianos imitate two of those exotic instruments in primitive, but irresistibly infectious polyphony. I would cite all three of these pieces—Lousadzak, Mihr, and Vijag—as among the composer’s twenty-or-so greatest works.

Ko-ola-u is that two-minute trifle from 1962 noted earlier. Named after a Hawaiian mountain range, it is based on a pentatonic lullaby melody that Hovhanessians will immediately recognize from the better-known And God Created Great Whales. Here it is played delicately, against a simple, undulating accompaniment, occasionally interrupted by violent interjections from the second piano.

The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, composed in 1954, had to wait fifty years for its first performance, by the same performers heard here. In three movements, the Concerto is shaped along the lines of contemporaneous works by the composer, such as Vision from High Rock, Khaldis, and the Suite for Violin, Piano, and Percussion, in which the Medieval and Renaissance practices, and the Armenian and other middle-eastern influences are joined by jarring and seemingly incongruous extratonal and polytonal dissonances and tone clusters. Although the work reveals many of the composer’s familiar devices, there are also moments that are strikingly fresh and unexpected.

This release earns a place alongside the five or so Hovhaness CDs that are truly indispensable.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphony No. 9. HOVHANESS Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain.” CRESTON Toccata. RIEGGER New Dance

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphony No. 9. HOVHANESS Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain.” CRESTON Toccata. RIEGGER New Dance • Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra • CALA CACD0539, mono ADD (73:17) Live: Carnegie Hall 9/25/58

Issued by the Leopold Stokowski Society, this recent release documents a concert given in honor of Stokowski’s 50th anniversary as a conductor. The concert was presented by the Contemporary Music Society, an organization led by Oliver Daniel (1911-1990), a vigorous advocate of new music and a close associate (and, eventually, biographer) of Stokowski. For the September, 1958, concert the conductor assembled an orchestra composed of some of the best musicians in New York. (This was just a handful of years before he created the American Symphony Orchestra, which probably included many of the same players.) With the exception of the Riegger piece, the program was devoted to works that had just been composed during the preceding few years. Originally scheduled as the major offering was Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, composed the previous year. However, shortly before the concert, Stokowski learned of the death several weeks earlier of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and decided to replace the Shostakovich with the English composer’s Ninth Symphony, which had just been premiered in London several months before, and had not yet been heard in the United States. The Creston had also been composed in 1957, on commission from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Stokowski himself had commissioned the Hovhaness work, presenting the premiere in Houston in 1955.

For the Stokowski enthusiast, and for partisans of the repertoire chosen for the program, the concert was a landmark event. (As such a partisan, and an admirer of Stokowski as well, I have known about this concert for many years. But at the time it took place I was not quite twelve years old, and had as yet heard none of this music. However, within a year or two I had discovered all of it, and would have done anything to have been present.) For such listeners, this recording is a treasurable document. However, from a purely objective standpoint, some of the works fared better than others. For some listeners the sonic compromises of this 1950s live-event recording and the availability in some cases of good alternative studio recordings may make this release superfluous. Perhaps surprisingly, the Vaughan Williams emerges as the most coherent, fully convincing rendition on the program. Percy Grainger, who was in attendance, wrote to the composer’s widow, “The performance seemed a perfect one in every way and the exquisite beauty and cosmic quality of this immortal work struck me as being ideally realized.”

As someone who reveres Vaughan Williams as one of the greatest composers of his generation, I hold his nine symphonies in the highest regard. Of them I (along with many others) would select Nos. 4, 6, and 9 as the finest of them all. Furthermore, as a major work completed by a composer at age 86, No. 9 is a statement of which I stand somewhat in awe. Most commentators find it an enigmatic work, difficult to grasp and conceptualize. I share their perplexity, which may be attributable to its plethora of strikingly diverse, highly characterized musical ideas that seem to be evoking specific expressive notions that are never made explicit. Or perhaps it is simply that the fourth movement does not convey the sense of summing up the foregoing events and pressing toward a final resolution, as one typically expects from a finale—especially of a ninth and final symphony. Some have drawn upon comments and associations made by the composer at various stages during the work’s composition in an effort to “explain” its “meaning;” others have focused on its unconventional scoring (which includes prominent roles for flügelhorn and three saxophones –the latter representing one of the most successfully integrated usages in the symphonic repertoire); still others resort to the usual clichés about late works, e.g. “autumnal” expression, farewell to life, retrospective contemplation, etc. However, none of these attempts is really convincing. Neville Cardus found its clumsy nobility to be reminiscent of Bruckner, and I think he had a point. Yes, there is a clumsy nobility, but also a true sense of exaltation, albeit one that embraces elements that are ominous, sinister, grotesque, and sardonic. But as difficult as it may be to capture in words, Vaughan Williams’s Ninth is one of the great symphonies of the 1950s—a vision of cosmic beauty, but a beauty comprising revelations not all of which are comforting. Stokowski leads a performance remarkable for its consistent cogency and intense focus. Profoundly moving, it is a reading that all admirers of Vaughan Williams will want as a secondary recording.

Alan Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain (originally thus entitled and only later plugged into his vast catalogue of 67 symphonies) is the composer’s best-known work, deeply beloved among his many devotees. Its wide popularity among his output of more than 400 works can be attributed to its accessible euphony and its ongoing availability for nearly 50 years on a magnificent RCA recording, eventually reissued on CD, featuring Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. By now there have been quite a few additional recordings of the work, and I must confess that I haven’t kept up with all of them. Most that I have heard are quite good, but all take the outer movements much faster than Reiner did. Having been long accustomed to Reiner’s tempos, I find these faster readings somewhat disconcerting, but I am not prepared to say that they are “wrong” (Andante is a particularly vague tempo indication), although I do find that they rob the work of some of its “mystery.” Stokowski, who not only commissioned and premiered the work but also performed many other works of Hovhaness over the years, warrants respect as an authority, and it must be said that he too opts for a more hasty journey up the mountain. On the other hand, his rendition of the second movement is especially beautiful, and builds to quite an impassioned climax.

Paul Creston is another American composer whom Stokowski favored. Falling into a fast-slow-fast design, his Toccata is the sort of exuberant, festive piece for which the composer became somewhat typecast during the 1950s. Creston’s chief musical interest was rhythm, and he loved to devise textures built from syncopated, polyrhythmic ostinati, with subtly interlocking accent-patterns. A commission from the virtuosic Cleveland Orchestra provided him with the opportunity to create one of his most intricate works, boasting some 65 different rhythmic patterns within ¾ meter—a real orchestral tour-de-force with brilliant solos to highlight each instrument, all in a work less than 15 minutes in duration. The Toccata never appeared on a commercial recording until 1994, when Gerard Schwarz recorded it with the Seattle Symphony (now available on Naxos 8.559153) in a performance whose energy sags somewhat as the orchestra struggles to negotiate the work’s demands. An air-check of the Cleveland premiere reveals a meticulously accurate performance, though one that is also rather clinical and bloodless, lacking any real joy or enthusiasm. What is missing from that rendition becomes immediately apparent when heard alongside Stokowski’s reading. There is a real sense of excitement here, along with the manic exuberance that elevates Creston’s music above the level of banality to which it often sinks in less competent or sympathetic hands. Such enthusiasm offsets some unfortunate clinkers, including an oblivious trumpet entrance in the final section that occurs a phrase or two early.

Wallingford Riegger was an American composer, a contemporary of Griffes who lived into the 1960s. Although his music is heard infrequently today, he was regarded highly at one time for his personal application of the 12-tone system. However, his most widely played pieces are a number of lively, infectious works written to accompany modern dance. One of these is called New Dance, a six-minute piece originally composed for piano and percussion in 1935, but orchestrated in 1940. Its extroverted, energetic character, and its focus on syncopated rhythmic patterns bring it remarkably close to the style of Creston. It is a delightful piece, but, unfortunately, the one that fares most poorly in performance here. Odd inconsistencies of tempo destroy the sense of spontaneity and undermine the music’s cumulative impact. Far more effective is the hearty Eastman-Rochester performance from the early 1950s, conducted by Howard Hanson. Once available on a Mercury monaural LP (MG 50078), it has not, as far as I know, been reissued on compact disc.

This release is highly recommended to Stokowski aficionados and connoisseurs of tonal music of the 20th century. One regrettable omission: given the circumstances of the concert, it would have been great to have a listing of the orchestra personnel.

HOVHANESS Violin and Viola Pieces

HOVHANESS Violin and Viola Pieces · Christina Fong (vn/va); Arved Ashby (pn) · OGREOGRESS PRODUCTIONS OG003 (60:04)

Oror (1922/26). Varak (1944). Chahagir (1944). Saris (1946). Shatakh(1948). Yeraz (The Dream) (1948). Khirgiz Suite (1951). Duet for Violin and Harpsichord (1954). Three Visions of Saint Mesrob (1962)

This CD caught my attention chiefly because it concentrates on rarely heard pieces by Hovhaness composed during the 1940s and 50s—the period when he was writing his most inspired work. I was not previously familiar with either of the performers, or with Ogreogress Productions, which seems to be a tiny operation based in Grand Rapids, Michigan (see www.ogreogress.home-page.org). Violinist Christina Fong is no Itzhak Perlman, displaying a rather thin tone, with little vibrato, and a reticent approach overall, although her intonation is generally on target, and there is a clean purity to her sound. Furthermore, this music does not require a rich, throbbing violin sound or lots of “personality.” Most of the music on the disc has either not been recorded before, or was available on obscure and/or long-unavailable LPs.

Oror has the distinction of being identified as the prolific composer’s first composition, ostensibly dating from his early teens. (I say “ostensibly” because Hovhaness was one of those composers inclined to revise early works without indicating having done so.) It is a brief lullaby based on a simple, pentatonic-flavored melody presented and reiterated with little adornment or complication.

Almost all the remaining music on the disc originated during the 1940s and 50s, when Hovhaness returned to his spiritual/cultural roots, attempting to use aspects of Armenian (and other similar) folk and religious music as media for expressing his own personal concerns. Much of the music from this period displays a dynamic fervor and creative urgency largely absent from his later work. Most notable of these pieces is the brief (four-minute) Varak, named for a holy Armenian burial ground. An opening section presents a passionate incantation with strong major-minor conflicts. This section calls to mind portions of the work that many Hovhaness experts consider to be the composer’s masterpiece: the Concerto for Viola and Strings, subtitled Talin. (A brief digression is warranted here: A brilliant and deeply moving performance of Talin, featuring violist Emanuel Vardi, was available briefly during the mid-1950s on an MGM LP. Some twenty years later clarinetist Lawrence Sobol persuaded the composer to make an alternate version of the work for him to perform and, later, record. That recording has been re-issued on a Citadel CD [CTD88107] still available. However, the clarinet, lacking the viola’s capacity for incisive articulation and passionate intensity, is a poor substitute and changes the character of the work entirely. Unfortunately, Vardi’s performance has never been re-issued, nor has any other violist chosen to champion the work. [One would think that Kim Kashkashian would be a natural and likely candidate, wouldn’t one?]) In a sense, Varak is almost a preparatory study for Talin. The lively second section displays one of Hovhaness’s more effective devices: the violin and piano each representing the characteristic style of a different Middle-Eastern instrument, playing together but independently in seemingly ad hoc, improvisatory counterpoint. Similar in style but not quite as inspired is the somewhat more extended Shatakh. Hovhaness enthusiasts will want to know both these pieces.

On the other hand, quite disappointing is Saris, actually (at fifteen minutes) the longest piece on the disc. The violin plays long, melismatic melodies, while the piano accompanies, first “strumming” in obvious imitation of a stringed instrument, then later in a slow “jhala” style, rather like raindrops. Initially intriguing, the piece remains flat in affect throughout, becoming an excellent soporific.

Chahagir features unaccompanied viola, while Yeraz (The Dream) is for unaccompanied violin. Both are improvisatory modal incantations. By now readers will know whether these pieces are their cup of tea.

Familiar from another MGM LP of the 1950s, the six-minute Kirghiz Suitecomprises three concise movements. This is the only piece that calls for anything approaching virtuosity, and here Ms. Fong really shines. Her rendition is more polished, precise, and dynamic than that of Anahid and Maro Ajemian, who originally championed and recorded the work, and she and Ashby make of it a far more substantive and satisfying piece of music.

Even more concentrated is the Duet for Violin and Harpsichord, composed in one day, its three movements lasting a total of three minutes. Floating around for nearly 50 years on CRI issues performed by Robert Brink, with composer Daniel Pinkham at the harpsichord, this rather odd piece comprises two movements in which angular phrases in the violin are accompanied by cluster harmonies, then later, by a strange ostinato, in the harpsichord. More than one listener has described these movements as “Webernian” and not without reason. The third movement is a fervent hymn, accompanied by full triads in repeated quarter-note rhythm. Here I think I prefer Pinkham’s more sustained rendition of the accompaniment to Ashby’s detached plunk-plunk-plunk.

The melodic angularity and cluster harmony of the Duet anticipate the direction Hovhaness was to take in the 1960s, exemplified by Three Visions of Saint Mesrob. Attempting to evoke a sense of mystery, these short movements comprise improvisatory melismas without a clear sense of meter, accompanied by tone clusters or single notes in the piano, often tonally unrelated, played with pedal remaining down throughout, creating a semblance of some exotic stringed instrument.

Ogreogress Productions’s packaging is spare, to say the least, with no information about the performers, although this is mitigated somewhat by a mid-range price. Pianist Ashby provides brief but informative program notes on the music.