David Amos conducts Modern Masters

David Amos conducts Modern Masters

Harmonia Mundi is inaugurating a new series of recordings under the heading “Modern Masters,” and the first three releases have just arrived. A varied selection of repertoire is eatured–primarily accessible works of the 20th century–in performances by three London groups, led by the American conductor, David Amos.

Amos is becoming an increasingly familiar name on the iInternational recording scene, with more than a dozen Recordings — mostly of just this sort of repertoire — on a variety of different labels. These recordings have been highly praised, for the most part, by Fanfare as well as by other reviewing media. During the past year alone, Amos has conducted seven new compact discs, featuring 26 works, 15 of them first recordings — a pretty impressive total, especially for a conductor who does not have a permanent orchestral post.

David Amos is based in San Diego, where he heads the International Musicians’ Recording Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering recordings of worthy but neglected music, mostly of the 20th century. So he is certainly an appropriate figure to collaborate with Harmonia Mundi on a project of this kind.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Maestro Amos, on the occasion of the release of these three new recordings, when he was gracious enough to share some of his thoughts and aspirations regardinq the “Modern Masters” project.

WS: This is a pretty imposing set of initial releases: thirteen pieces for orchestra, many of them first recordings. How did the Modern Masters series come about?

DA: Originally, I approached Harmonia Mundi with the idea. Knowing of my track record of promoting music of lesser-known composers and talented young artists, the Harmonia Mundi executives were pretty receptive to my proposal. 50 together we conceived the idea of a series called “Modern Masters,” which would present music that has never been recorded, as well as some other pieces that may have been available during the 1950s but have long been out of circulation. You know, there are a lot of pieces like that — wonderful pieces that haven’t been available for years. Libraries and radio stations are always clamoring for new copies to replace their old, worn-out ones. 50 we decided to do some of these as well, with modern sound and modern orchestras.

WS: That’s great. Do you expect the series to continue?

DA: I have every indication that there is an interest in continuing. Of course, the success of these first releases will be an important factor.

WS: How did you determine the initial repertoire?

DA: Basically, I do music that I enjoy and respect. 1’malso open to suggestions from experts who are knowledgable about 20th-century orchestral music and are aware of which works are most deserving of exposure. This has seemed to work very well, because the music I have recorded has elicited tremendous enthusiasm from listeners. I was just speaking with the music director of New York City’s public radio station earlier today, and he happened to mention that Hovhaness’ Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra and some of the Rosner pieces have prompted an unbelievable number of phone calls.

WS: Yes, I notice that Hovhaness, Rosner, and Creston seem to be favorites of yours.

DA: That’s right. You know, contrary to the conventional myths, there’s a great deal of 20th-century music that’s quite melodious and enjoyable, even at first hearing.

WS: That’s right. For a brief period — during the 1940s and early 5Os — this kind of music was being heard in America. Then — except for people like Copland and Barber — it disappeared. Now, thanks to the efforts of conductors like Leonard Slatkin, Gerard Schwarz, and you, this music has begun to re-enter the repertoire.

DA: Yes, I’m very excited about this. Since it appears that 12-tone music, serial music, and most of the other avant-garde music of the 1960s and 70s has not fulfilled the claims made for it by its defenders, many soloists and conductors are looking for new allegiances. A lot of them seem to be turning to some of the older composers whose music was ignored when it was first composed: people like Creston, Dello Joio, and Morton Gould, who are definitely high-quality composers whose excellent craftsmanship and artistry are now being recognized.

WS: Would you like to have a permanent orchestral position at some point?

DA: Well, what I would really like is to have a position as principal guest conductor with one of the better orchestras — one that has the same beliefs and interests that I do. You see, even though I love the standard repertoire and enjoy conducting it, I find there are plenty of fine conductors who do only that and duplicate each other’s efforts. I much prefer to pursue what I feel is a personal crusade and bring some of this wonderful unfamiliar repertoire to audiences, while interspersing it with standard pieces that they all know and love.

WS: Do you find conducting for recordings very different from conducting in concert?

DA: It is, in many ways. Standing up in front of an English or European orchestra to do a first recording requires some very specialized skills that I’ve had the opportunity to develop: It’s usually the first time that the orchestral players look at the music, in many cases it’s the first time the conductor conducts it, the music is generally far more difficult in concept and technique than standard repertory, and it all has to fall into place right there in the recording session — no real rehearsals, just a run-through or two, a few comments, and then the tape starts rolling. So conductor, soloist, and orchestra have to develop a unified style almost immediately. There’s no time to correct tempos or change interpretation — you must know exactly what you want right from the start. In order to accomplish this, of course, the orchestra must consist of superb and experienced readers, able to adjust instantly to the motions, style, and demands of the conductor on the podium. Most orchestras that do only standard repertoire cannot handle such a pressured situation. That’s why it was such a pleasure recording Modern Masters in England, with absolutely the finest reading musicians any place in the world.

This conversation with David Amos certainly whetted my appetite for the three new releases at hand. Having listened to each several times, I can summarize my impressions as follows: Each CD contains one work — listed first in the headnotes below — that, if not justifying the acquisition of each release, makes it worthy of serious consideration by the listener who favors this sort of music.

Volume I, which presents music for full orchestra, features the first recording, as far as I know, of Tripartita, a substantial, three-movement work written in 1972 by Miklos Rozsa. Considering the state of health of the 84-year old composer, it is probably his final major orchestral piece. Tripartita is a terse, powerful, brilliantly orchestrated work, considerably more angular and hard-bitten than the film music for which Rozsa is famous. Drawing upon a language rather reminiscent of Bartok’s Dance SuiteTripartita is sure to interest and gratify the composer’s many admirers.

The other pieces on Volume I are highly accessible and generally diverting in character. Some listeners may prefer a deeper, more challenging program, but others will enjoy the selections, I am sure. Menotti’s Triple Concerto a Tre is a genial, concertante-style work composed in 1970, featuring three instrumental trios in soloistic roles. The slow movement displays a lovely, Finzi-like lyricism and poignancy that would be ideal in a movie; the outer movements each have an infectious, slightly neo-Baroque, Pulcinella-like quality that reminds one of the overture to an opera buffa. Morton Gould’s three-movement Folk Suite dates from 1938, and displays the composer’s characteristic treatment of American-flavored subject matter. I find that in such pieces, Gould subjects exceedingly banal material to such excessively complex elaboration that the results lack the naturalness, spontaneity, and grace achieved by Copland, for example. Latvian-born Marc Lavry composed the 16-minute symphonic poem Emek in 1936, one year after he immigrated to Palestine. A homage to the early settlers of Israel, the work is simply conceived with broad, heroic gestures and exotic colorations.

Modern Masters II features the Partita for flute, violin, and strings, composed by Paul Creston in 1937. This is a delightful five-movement neo-Baroque dance suite, infused with the composer’s warmth and exuberant good humor. Though the Partita does not aspire to “the power and intensity of Creston’s more serious-toned works, it has been a favorite among listeners, ever since its early-1950s recording on the American Recording Society label, which was later reissued on Desto. I always found that performance and recording pretty drab, so the high-spirited vitality of this rendition, captured within a sonic context of crystalline transparency, represents a most welcome improvement.

The remainder of this disc presents a varied program of music for chamber orchestra. David Ward-Steinman was born in Louisiana in 1936 and is now composer-in-residence at San Diego State University. His music has evolved during the years, incorporating many of the trends and fashions that have come and gone. The Concerto No. 2 was composed during the early 1960s and is a representative example of the sort of American neoclassicism that often appeared on Robert Whitney’s Louisville Orchestra recordings from exactly that period. Ward-Steinman’s contribution is skillful in its lively, exhilarating way. Norman Dello Joio is a composer whose music has rarely impressed me at all, despite my great fondness for the generation of composers to which he belongs. His Lyric Fantasies is a relatively recent (1975) work for viola and strings whose genial, if somewhat dry, urbanity calls William Walton to mind. Something of a human composing machine, Henry Cowell composed his five-minute Hymn on the spur-of-the-moment one day in 1946. It is a warmly euphonious example of his distinctive neo-early-American vein, with its hearty modal polyphony, and deliberate crudities of voice-leading. Paul Turok is probably better known as a critic than as a composer. (He used to write for Fanfare, among other publications, and now has his own journal, Turok’s Choice.) His brief Threnody dates from 1979 and, to my ears, suffers from a lack of distinctive personality. Britten-cum-Hindemith is the general flavor.

The highlight of Modern Masters III is Responses, Hosanna, and Fuque, by Arnold Rosner (see interview/discography in last issue). This is a 20-minute work for string orchestra and harp, composed in 1977. Inhabiting an expressive realm initially charted by Vaughan Williams in his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, and further mined by Alan Hovhaness in many of his works, Rosner’s piece more than holds its own in this company. Of course, the presence of two Hovhaness works on this CD makes a comparison inevitable, especially when one recalls that Rosner is the author of the entry on Hovhaness in The New Grove and one notes that the works featured here by the two reveal the aspect of each composer closest in style to the other. In my view, the comparison favors Rosner, whose work — here and elsewhere — displays greater depth, expressive range, melodic appeal, harmonic interest, and sense of formal direction. While perhaps a trifle over-extended relative to its substance, Responses, Hosanna, and Fugue is a work whose spiritual fervor will certainly appeal to admirers of both composers.

The two Hovhaness works appear to be first recordings also. Psalm and Fuque is scored for string orchestra and dates from the early 1940s, when the composer was concentrating on modal polyphony, ecclesiastical in character and without the middle-eastern exoticism that soon appeared in his work. Like Alleluia and Fuque, composed about the same time (and recorded by Amos on Crystal CD810), Psalm and Fuque evokes a slightly mournful, yet warmly devotional mood. Shepherd of Israel appeared about a decade later, when Armenian religious and folk elements had entered Hovhaness’ creative palette. Somewhat reminiscent of Avak the Healer, with thematic similarities to Talin, Shepherd of Israel comprises six short movements in which the string orchestra is augmented variously by a flute, a cantorial singer, and a trumpet. The middle-eastern melos, the Hebrew language, and the title of the work give it an appropriately Israeli quality (it was written to commemorate the founding of Israel), although the music itself is standard early-1950s Hovhaness.

And finally, there is DelIo Joio’s Meditations on Ecclesiastes, rounding out a CD that seems to be unified by spiritual concerns. This half-hour work for strings was composed in 1956 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year. It was recorded for CRI by the Oslo Philharmonic under the direction of Alfredo Antonini, a performance that has been re-issued on CD by Bay Cities (BCD-I017). The work has been choreographed by Jose Limon, with the title, There is a Time. It is in the form of a theme and variations, with each biblical line represented by a variation. Again, I must confess something of a deafness to DelIo Joio’s virtues. Its language strikes me as at once harsh and treacly, emotionally lukewarm in a way that conjures 1950s American culture at its most ordinary. Amos’ performance is somewhat broader than Antonini’s, which is fine as well, but Harmonia Mundi’s sonics are, of course, vastly superior.

The performances on these three CDs are generally solid, fervent, and committed. The sound quality is splendid, with a fullness and richness never at the expense of clarity. Some of the soloists — especially, cantor Sheldon Merel in Shepherd of Israeland violist Karen Elaine in Dello Joio’s Lyric Fantasies — are rather uncertain. Program booklets are handsomely produced, with excellent photos of the composers, although accompanying notes could be somewhat more elaborate.

MODERN MASTERS I. ROZSA: Tripartita. MENOTTI: Triplo Concerto a Tre.GOULD: Folk Suite. LAVRY: Emek. David Amos conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. HARMONIA MUNDI–HMU 906010 [DDDJi 72:59. Produced by Tim McDonald.

MODERN MASTERS II. CRESTON: Partita for Flute, Violin, and Strings. DELLO JOIO: Lyric Fantasies for Viola and Strings. WARD-STEINMAN: Concerto No.2 for Chamber Orchestra. COWELL: Hymn for Strings. TUROK: Threnody. Yossi Arnheim, flute; Nicholas Ward, violin; Karen Elaine, viola; David Amos conducting the City of London Sinfonia. HARMONIA MUNDI–HMU 906011 [DDDJi 59:31. Produced by Robina G. Young.

MODERN MASTERS III. ROSNER: Responses, Hosanna, and Fugue.HOVHANESS: Shepherd of 1sraelPsalm and Fugue. DELLO JO1O: Meditations on Ecclesiastes. Sheldon Merel, cantor; Kenneth Smith, flute. David Amos conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. HARMONIA MUNDI–HMU 906012 [DDDJi 76:35. Produced by Robina G. Young. .

HOVHANESS: Piano Music

HOVHANESS: Piano MusicSuite for Piano; Pastorale No.1; Two Ghazals; Hymn to a Celestial Musician; Achtamar; Child in the Garden; Twelve Armenian Folk Songs; Visionary Landscapes. Sahan Arzruni, piano. HEARTS OF SPACE HS11024-2 [ADD]; 57:06. Produced by Sahan Arzruni and Louise Simone. (Available from P.O. Box 31321, San Francisco, CA 94131)

Alan Hovhaness, possibly the most prolific composer of the twentieth century, has not neglected the piano as a focus for his incredibly creative fecundity. Indeed, his output of solo piano music alone must be approaching a hundred works by now, the year of his 80th birthday. Hence, the eight compositions offered on this CD, originally released on LP four years ago, account for a small, though representative, sample of his work for this instrument. The program consists of pieces composed roughly between the mid-1940s and the mid-1960s.

Hovhaness’ writing for piano has consistently eschewed the massive sonorities, dense textures, and virtuosic cascades of scales and arpeggios that have characterized the literature for this instrument since the early 1800s. Instead, he has primarily attempted to evoke the pure, contemplative beauty found in much music of the mid- and far-east. The earlier pieces — Achtamar, for example — often emulate the sounds and instrumental techniques of Armenian dulcimers, while the later ones — Suite for Piano and Visionary Landscapes, for example — draw upon the sounds of Japanese, Indian, and Korean music. The main focus of the music is melody — modal and diatonic — often presented in simple canonic imitation or accompanied by atmospheric bell-like effects. This simplicity of presentation enhances its effectiveness, far more than the musically imperialistic morass of conventional textural density and rich chromatic harmony that often devours delicate and exotic material in less sensitive treatments. The listener who is well acquainted with Hovhaness’ output will note some familiar melodic material in these pieces, as the composer has never hesitated to re-use ideas in pieces for one medium that he has already used in music for another. So the Suite for Piano contains a melody also found in the orchestral piece, Fra Anqelico, while Two Ghazals is primarily based on material used in Floating World–Ukiyo.

Taken as a whole, this program is quite attractive, and will probably appeal readily to the listener who enjoys the radio program, “Music from the Hearts of Space,” or the piano pieces of Gurdjieff and de Hartmann. Pianist Sahan Arzruni, who has been associated with Hovhaness’ music for several decades, provides marvelously sensitive performances, imbuing works that are not in themselves especially imaginative in their treatment of the piano with a broad range of timbral richness and textural variety.

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 4. GIANNINI: Symphony No. 3. GOULD: Symphony No. 4, ‘West Point`

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 4. GIANNINI: Symphony No. 3. GOULD: Symphony No. 4, ‘West Point`. A. Clyde Roller and Frederick Fennell conducting the Eastman Wind Ensemble. MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE–434 320-2 [ADD); 64:52. Produced by Wilma Cosart Fine.

Here is the latest release in the extraordinary series of Mercury/Eastman reissues, featuring three major American wind symphonies from the 1950s — a Golden Age for art music composed expressly for band by American composers. The exemplary recordings made by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under its founder and conductor from 1952 to 1962, Frederick Fennell, were both a result of this significant activity and a stimulus for its further expansion.

Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 4 (of a canon that now numbers about 70) is one of his most beloved and most widely played compositions. Actually, it is not truly a band work, as saxophones and other exclusively band instruments (e.g. baritone horn) are not used   Composed in 1958, the work resembles other pieces by Hovhaness dating from this period: reverent triadic chorales and exultant Handelian fugues alternate with long, modal melodies that feature extended solos for such instruments as bass clarinet and contrabassoon, accompanied by spacey bell-like effects from outside the tonality. Other striking instrumental usages include an almost frightening passage in which tromboneglissandi in opposite directions cross each other. Despite its similarity to other works by the composer, the Fourth Symphony makes a strong impact, partly owing to the stunning performance provided by the Eastman players (aside from an egregiously wrong French horn chord in the first movement) and partly because the work itself is unusually (for this composer) concise and well-balanced.

Vittorio Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 is actually the fifth of his seven in that form; two unnumbered symphonies precede No. 1. This work was also composed in 1958, but is aesthetically light-years away from the Hovhaness. (While Hovhaness was simulating “the bells in the thousand towers of the lost Armenian city of Ani,” Giannini wrote his piece “because I felt like it,” motivated only “by what I heard and felt at that time.”) The work is smoothly and skillfully wrought, but thoroughly conventional in layout and style, and rather pedestrian in expressive content. Only the heartfelt and wistful slow movement rises above the pleasant but ordinary remainder. Although many band musicians love the work, the symphony is an example of the sort of Gebrauchsmusik upon which Giannini concentrated during the 1950s.  Ironically, this portion of his output has been most widely heard and has colored his reputation for many listeners unaware of the fervor and passion of his operatic music or the searing intensity of his late works from the 1960s. In fact, a deeper and more artistically significant band work is the Variations and Fugue from this latter period, but it has never been recorded commercially.

Morton Gould composed his “West Point Symphony” in 1952 upon commission from the band of the United States Military Academy. Although permeated by military parade-like musical symbolism, the work is really quite abstract and subtly constructed, with an unusual and quite interesting formal layout and some really spectacular effects of scoring. However, as with most of Gould’s works, it is quite cold and impersonal — primarily a product of musical intellect and craftsmanship,

The performances hers maintain the breathtakingly high standards set by previous Eastman Wind Ensemble recordings. A. Clyde Roller, conductor of the Hovhaness and Giannini works, replaced Fennell in 1963, when the latter chose to pursue orchestral conducting for a time. Roller did not remain very long; this was his only recording with the group, and it was their last (made during his first year) to appear for some time The sound quality of these later recordings the Gould dates from 1959) just about reaches Mercury’s apex, and the CD transfers are glorious. This release is a must for all Eastman enthusiasts (as they no doubt already know), but will thrill many other listeners as well.

HOVHANESS: Piano Music.

HOVHANESS: Piano Music. Marvin Rosen, piano. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7195-2H1 DDDI; 71:21. Produced by Marvin Rosen.

Dance Ghazal (1937). Slumber Song 1938). Macedonian Mountain Dance 1938).Mountain Dance No. 2 (1941). Achtamar (1948). Fantasy on an Ossetin Tune (1952).Orbit No. 2 (1952). Sonata Mt. Ossipee 1977). Sonata Fred the Cat 1977). Sonata Prospect Hill (1980 . Sonata Mt. Chocorua (1982)

HOVHANESS: Piano Music. Wayne Johnson, piano. CRYSTAL CD813 [DDD]; 66:32. Produced by Kearney Barton.

Mystic Flute (1937). Dance Ghazal 1937). Macedonian Mountain Dance (1938) Mountain Dance No. 2 (1941). Fantasy (1952). Sonata Ananda (1977). Love Song Vanishing into Sounds of Crickets (1979). Blue Job Mountain Sonata (1986).

“The first time I heard Hovhaness’s music was on the radio. As soon as it began, I stopped what I was doing and listened, not having any idea who wrote it. This was truly the most beautiful piece that I had ever heard in my life. Hearing his music…was for me a profoundly moving, even spiritual experience.”  This is how pianist Marvin Rosen recounts his discovery of the music of Alan Hovhaness. It is interesting to me that his exact words describe my own discovery of Hovhaness. Over the years I have met a surprising number of musicians and listeners who report the same sort of conversion experience around Hovhaness’ music — usually during their early teens.  I was 13 at the time; I wonder how old Rosen was. For me, Hovhaness revealed realms of musical experience I had never imagined: direct access to an ecstatic spiritual state where no music had ever led me. I realized that the emotional experience of concert music was not limited to the conventional platitudes and pieties represented by classical tonality and its finite canon of masterpieces; I realized that great music was still alive and being created right now by living people. 1n these ways Hovhaness’ music changed my life forever. So when the program notes state, “The music of Alan Hovhaness has influenced every aspect of pianist Marvin Rosen’s life,” I think I know what that means.

Because of Hovhaness’ importance to me during my formative years, I have always retained a great affection for his music, and I suppose I always will. However, I see the early attraction to Hovhaness from different perspectives as well: the simplicity and directness of his music makes it immediately accessible to an inexperienced listener and a natural point for a radical departure from conventional musical expression. Also, I had never heard the music of Josquin, for example, or middle-Eastern or Indian traditional music, or other 20th-century styles — music that might have reduced the impression of utter novelty in Hovhaness’ work. As the years went by, my devotion to Hovhaness weakened and became tinged with cynicism: I discovered other music that revealed profound spiritual realms, some more profound than Hovhaness; I realized that many of his compositions recycled the same material over and over, and that when it wasn’t identical material, it was so similar that it might just as well have been identical; I grew to discover that their simplicity of structure caused once-beloved pieces to pall after a while; I admitted that much of it was just plain boring — especially the music he composed after about 1970. I don’t know how many other youthful Hovhanessians became similarly disenchanted, but I have met some.

So, today I :Listen to Hovhaness’ music with a mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment, affection and impatience, approaching a new recording with the hope that some of it will ignite a sense of excitement — which brings us to the two CDs at hand. First, however, I should remind the reader that there is a previous all-Hovhaness piano CD: Hearts of SpaceHS11O24-2, featuring pianist Sahan Arzruni (see Fanfare 15:1, p. 241).  That one is probably better, on balance, than either of these, from the standpoint of musical and performance quality. I have listed the complete programs — with composition dates — of these new CDs, so that the reader can see the way the programs are distributed with regard to compositional periods, which can be quie revealing with Hovhaness, and also that there is some slight overlap between the two programs.

Basically, each disc consists of some short early pieces and some lengthier pieces of more recent vintage. It should be stated here that although he has composed reams of it, piano music does not represent Hovhaness` most inspired work. Although there are exceptions, most of it is pretty poor, sounding like the kind of pseudo-exotic trifles that turn up at children’s piano recitals. In fact, much of this music is capable of being played by beginning pianists, although Mystic Flute is said to have been used as an encore by Rachmaninoff. Of the shorter pieces, Achtamar and Orbit No. 2 show same real sparks of originality and inspiration.   (Incidentally, Sonata Fred the Cat was commissioned by radio personality and former Fanfare columnist Jurgen Goths, on behalf of his recently departed pet.) The later pieces use essentially the same devices as the earlier pieces — modal and/or pentatonic melodies, often in a 7/4 rhythmic pattern that fits the syllables Al-an Hov-ha-ness, imitation-dulcimer effects, the familiar “jhala”-style, simple polyphony — but in some cases drawn out to much greater length. The chief musical innovation in the later pieces is the use of half-diminished seventh-chords, treated in a nontonal manner. One has the impression that Hovhaness exuded this music, like a biological product, rather than composing it: there is little sense of conscious intervention; the pieces are generally interchangeable in effect; titles seem chosen simply as means of identification; three of the shorter pieces might just as easily be one longer piece, or vice versa. There is very little to this music that cannot be grasped in a single hearing.

Here are some exceptions to the generalizations above: the nearly half-hour Sonata Mt. Chocorua resembles Hovhaness’ recent symphonies more than his other piano pieces. In fact, it sounds like a piano reduction of an orchestral work, with full block-chord passages that are rather ineffective on the piano. Blue Job Mountain Sonata is probably the most musically interesting of the six pieces labeled sonatas on these discs, with some uncharacteristic figurations and some harmonic exploration. Probably the most interesting piece of all is the 20-minute Fantasy. This is a sort of apotheosis of Hovhaness’ piano music from the late 1940s and early 50s, a kind of abstraction and summation of the various techniques he developed during this period to transform the piano into a giant middle-Eastern zither. If one attempts to cull the works of more enduring value from all this music that is so similar in effect, the Fantasy  and Blue Job Mountain Sonata, along with the shorter Achtamar, would be the likely choices.

From the standpoint of piano performance, I would have to give the edge to Wayne Johnson, whose playing is a bit more polished. Crystal’s sonic ambience is more appealing as well. Rosen’s playing seems restricted to an awfully narrow dynamic range and is expressively restrained as well, contributing to a very monotonous effect. In view of Johnson’s somewhat more interesting selection of pieces, I would recommend the Crystal to the collector who wants to choose only one of these two new releases.

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate.” Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places. Mountains and Rivers Without End. Prayer of St. Gregory. Haroutiun: Aria. Symphony No. 25, “Odysseus.”

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate.” Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places. Mountains and Rivers Without End. Prayer of St. Gregory. Haroutiun: Aria.Richard Auldon Clark conducting the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra; Chris Gekker trumpet. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7221-2Hl [DDD]; 62:41. Produced by Michael Fine

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate.” Symphony No. 25, “Odysseus.” Prayer of St. Gregory. Alan Hovhaness conducting the Polyphonia Orchestra of London; John Wilbraham, trumpet. CRYSTAL CD807 [ADD]; 60:02.

In view of the recency of general remarks that have appeared in Fanfare concerning the music of Alan Hovhaness made by Art Lange (17:3, pp. 206-7 and by me (16:6, pp. 158-9; 12:4, pp 189-90),  1 will try to restrict my comments here to the music at hand. The Koch release features brand-new performances of music that has all been recorded before, except for the aria from Haroutiun (noteworthy when one considers that the composer is up to somewhere around 500 opus numbers, of which fewer than 100 are currently available on recording).   However, having said this, I should immediately add that the Clark/Manhattan performances are exceedingly good, exceeding any previous versions. The Crystal disc consists of reissues of material that was previously available on LPs from the composer’s own company, Poseidon. (With this release, most of the Poseidon material is now available on Crystal CDs.) The reader will note that there is a certain amount of overlap between these two discs; because of this and because of the widely varying quality of the music — and the concession that individuals may differ about this — general purchase recommendations are impossible for me to make.

The most auspicious item here is the Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate.”  In my view, as someone who is familiar with about a third of Hovhaness output, this symphony is one of the three or four most inspired and deeply moving works of his known to me. In one-movement and scored for chamber orchestra, this 20-minute piece, composed in 1959, is one of the few that really achieves the sense of fervent mystical rapture, serenity of spirit, and pure spiritual beauty for which Hovhaness has so often strived. Why does this particular work succeed where so few others have? Perhaps mine is a purely subjective reaction but I am inclined to credit it to a coherence of both formal and expressive content, with an integrative relationship — however rudimentary — among its various episodes, and an overall sense of direction, combined with more than the usual degree of contrapuntal interest, and some particularly attractive and memorable melodic material, all of which is tailored with concision that the composer abandoned more than 20 years ago   Of the two performances, the Clark/Manhattan is a good deal more polished, with especially refined solo playing and more subtly nuanced phrasing. The composer’s own reading displays a tad more animation, however. Needless to say, Hovhaness enthusiasts are strongly urged to acquaint themselves with this work, whichever recording they choose.

Both recordings also offer performances of the Prayer of St. Gregory, a short, modal aria for trumpet against simple diatonic counterpoint in the strings, with a hymn-like interlude in the middle. Its convincingly reverent quality has earned for this interlude from the 1946 operaEtchmiadzin a widespread popularity and quite a few recordings. Of the two under discussion, the Koch again displays greater polish and more sensitive phrasing.

Along with these two works, the Crystal disc includes the Symphony No. 25, “Odysseus,” composed in 1973. (Since then, incidentally, Hovhaness has completed more than 40 additional works he labels “symphonies.”) “Odysseus” is remarkable as an example of a secular-dramatic side to the composer’s musical personality that is less widely represented in his output, though somewhat more so in recent years. Again a one-movement work for chamber orchestra, this one is 36 minutes long. Here are encountered the simplistic episodic structure, repetitive, slow-moving harmony, plodding melodies, and two-dimensional textures that can make so much of Hovhaness’ music so excruciatingly boring, although there are some welcome attempts at dramatic contrast.

Turning now to the remainder of the Koch disc, let us confront Mountains and Rivers Without End, which can also be found on a Crystal disc (CD804), in a performance under the composer’s direction. This is a 24-minute “chamber symphony,” written in 1968 and scored for a small group of woodwinds, brass harp, and percussion. Based on material also used in the contemporaneous opera, The Leper King, this work derives from Hovhaness’ “Korean period,” and features much use of trombone glissandi, free-rhythm passages, unison woodwind canons, and a virtual absence of harmony. Partly owing to a recurring 7/4 refrain of mind-numbing banality, I have always considered this piece to hover at the nadir of the composer’s entire canon.  However, I must say that Clark and his group try very hard to make an artistic statement of it, and succeed in so doing, to a certain extent, creating the effect of a dream-like journey through a strange, exotic landscape (which is the composer’s intended effect).

Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places (no one can deny that Hovhaness chooses his titles with great imagination) is a 10-minute piece for trumpet and wind ensemble that was available at one time on a Mace LP, with Gerard Schwarz as trumpet soloist. The piece comprises materials in both quasi-Armenian and quasi-Korean styles, written during different periods of the composer’s career, from the 1940s through the 1960s, yet hangs together fairly well, concluding with the hymn that ends the incidental music to The Flowering Peach.  Again, the performance here is superb.

Haroutiun is a l0-minute aria and fugue for trumpet and strings, composed in 1948. Why the producers decided to omit the fugue from this recording is beyond me, as this is one piece that has never been recorded. However, the incantatory aria will sound familiar to some, as the melody appeared later in Meditation on Orpheus, though in a different sort of context.

With this release and the Cowell disc that appeared a few months ago, Richard Auldon Clark and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra appear to be convincing advocates for some little-known but highly accessible American music, which they are presenting with rare sensitivity. There is plenty more waiting to be discovered, and I hope that consumer interest will prompt further explorations. The orchestra has dedicated the Hovhaness disc to the memory of Maureen Snyder, a talented and much-beloved young horn player who was killed in an automobile accident shortly after making this recording.

In closing, amid the current plethora of highly uneven Hovhaness recordings, I thought it might be useful to mention those current CDs that contain what I feel are the composer’s most indispensable works, in addition to the Symphony No. 6: Crystal CD810 for Alleluia and Fugue, Anahid, and Concerto No. 8; Crystal CD806 for Lady of Light and Avak the Healer; and MusicMasters 7021-2-C for Lousadzak and Mysterious Mountain.

A final post-script: Crystal ought to know that Stokowski’s name ends in an i, while someone needs to tell Koch how Otto Luening’s name is spelled.

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”. And God Created Great Whales. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue. Alleluia and Fugue. Celestial Fantasy. Prayer of St. Gregory.

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”. And God Created Great Whales. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue. Alleluia and Fugue. Celestial Fantasy. Prayer of St. Gregory. Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. DELOS DE-3157 [DDD]; 59:30. Produced by Amelia S. Haygood and Walter Gray.

This CD brings together a number of Alan Hovhaness’ best-loved works, mostly composed between the years 1935-55, in performances that are technically fine, but variable in interpretive quality. In some pieces Schwarz chooses tempos that are too slow, which can be a real liability in music of such overall simplicity. (The composer himself has always favored brisk tempos when conducting his own work.)

One piece that is decidedly free of this problem is Mysterious Mountain, which c arz moves along at quite a clip in comparison to Fritz Reiner’s venerable and very stately 1958 performance with the Chicago Symphony on RCA, but not as rushed as Dennis Russell Davies’ 1989 reading with the American Composers Orchestra on Musicmasters.   (For a fairly elaborate discussion of that and other CDs containing overlapping repertoire with this one, see Fanfare 13:2, pp. 241-5). Of course, it was Reiner’s performance that put this piece — and, to a large extent, Hovhaness’ name and music in general — on the map. I find Schwarz’s reading to be quite moving and effective, making the most of the work’s dramatic moments: for example, he builds the mysterious opening section of the third movement to quite a climax. However, listeners may have variable reactions to a cut of some fifteen seconds of harmonically sequential counterpoint from the rapid second portion of the second movement.

Hovhaness’ other best-known piece s probably And God Created Great Whales, although I suspect that its reputation is more a matter of its being one of the first, if not the first, pieces to employ taped whale sounds than of any particular musical distinction. It was composed in 1970 — quite a few years later than any of the other pieces on this disc — when Hovhaness was preoccupied with such devices as aleatoric waves of buzzing sounds, modal melodies in stentorian unisons, and canons of sliding tones, some of which are based on techniques borrowed from Korean music. Drawing upon these devices, Whales was thrown together rather hastily and, from a musical standpoint, is quite flimsy   However, an additional aleatoric dimension is produced by the whale-sound component, which seems left to the discretion of the particular performing entity; hence, the work’s three recordings use entirely different whale “ensembles,” and each has been overdubbed, mixed, and edited to produce a unique result. The whale contributions on the two most recent recordings — Schwarz’s and David Amos’ (Crystal CD810; see review cited above) — are quite compelling in themselves –i ndeed, more so than the music. But together with the music as a backdrop, an aural-spiritual landscape of a primeval natural phenomenon is evoked quite vividly. Schwarz’s rendition of the work is excellent, but I think that Amos’ (with the Philharmonia Orchestra) is a bit more exciting and better recorded.

Prelude and Quadruple Fugue is the only work appearing on CD for the first time. Originally composed during the 1930s as part of a subsequently withdrawn string quartet (which also contained material that figures prominently in Mysterious Mountain), the piece became well known through a fine monaural recording from the late 1950s featuring Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester orchestra. Although much has been made of the contrapuntal feat involved in producing such a rarity as a quadruple fugue, the thematic material is simple enough and designed in such a way that the result falls into place more easily than one may suspect. Rather than a crabbed intellectual exercise, the piece is primarily a dramatic entity with plenty of surface appeal. Schwarz’s reading emphasizes tempo distinctions between the sections of the fugue, while highlighting contrapuntal detail with admirable clarity.

Alleluia and Fugue is the first work of Hovhaness’ I ever heard, some 35 years ago, and I still think it is an extremely convincing example of his early-Christian mysticism in its purest and most fervent form. For strings only, it is the sort of piece that will appeal to listeners fond of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, although it is somewhat more stark, depersonalized, and severe — hence, more authentically Medieval. (I wonder how the Gorecki and Part contingents react to this side of Hovhaness’ work.)   Unfortunately, Schwarz follows David Amos in taking the Fugue, marked Moderato, at a slow tempo that significantly reduces the contrast between the sections and robs the music of the noble vigor that is clearly intended. The version conducted by Carlos Surinach on a legendary MGM LP from the mid-1950s had the right idea.

Celestial Fantasy is another piece for string orchestra that evokes a Medieval quality, but one whose ecstatic character has a darker, more somber coloration than Alleluia and Fugue.Originating in 1935 as part of a choral Mass, the piece alternates between deep, melismatic incantations and stately fugal episodes. But again, Schwarz takes an inexplicably slow tempo, in comparison with David Amos’ better paced but somewhat less refined reading with the Israel Philharmonic on an excellent American composers miscellany (Crystal CD508).

In a similar vein to the two pieces just discussed, the very brief Prayer of St. Gregory seems to turn up on most Hovhaness collections these days. The performance here is fine.

Looking at this disc as a whole, I would conclude that admirers of the composer who don’t already own recordings of these pieces (I don’t suspect there are too many) will probably find this to be a rewarding program. But listeners who have previous recordings of them are not likely to find anything so outstanding about these performances as to justify the purchase of this disc

In closing, let me direct conductors and producers to Hovhaness concertos for orchestra. These eight works, of which only three have ever been recorded — and only one on CD — were composed during the 1950s and comprise some of his most consistently inspired and well-tailored music. Instead of re-doing the same old pieces, or dipping blindly into the vast expanse of interminable post-1970 symphonies, why not try these.  Listen to David Amos’ excellent recording of the Concerto No. 8 (Crystal CD810) and see whether you agree.

“New York Philharmonic: An American Celebration”

Following the successes of their two previous packages, New York Philharmonic: The Historic Broadcasts 1923-1927 (released in 1997) and New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts (released in 1998), New York Philharmonic Special Editions has just issued their third such deluxe package: a ten-CD set devoted to the orchestra’s performances — previously unreleased — of American music. The contents (listed in toto at the end of this essay) are a collector’s dream: performances of 49 works by 39 composers, led by 21 different conductors, adding up to a total of 13 hours of music. The package is divided into two volumes, each with its own box of five CDs and program book: the first covers repertoire dating roughly from the first 50 years of this century; the second covers the latter half of the century. The performances span the period 1936 through 1999, and include 13 world premieres. Of particular interest are ten performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein of works he never recorded commercially.

Each program book approaches 250 pages, and is filled with essays by Masur (an enthusiastic introduction to the set), by the Philharmonic’s Executive Director, Deborah Borda (a more institutional introduction), by critic Alan Rich (an introduction to the repertoire), by the set’s producer Sedgwick Clark (discussing the factors and considerations that concerned him, followed by brief comments on each selection), and by the engineers who worked on the original source material (describing the issues they faced). There is also an explanation of the prominence given to Aaron Copland (who is represented by eight works), a timeline of important events concerning the relevant musical figures, a complete discography of the orchestra’s commercial recordings of American music (provided by Fanfare’s own James North), program notes on each work, biographies of each conductor and soloist, a roster of orchestra members for each concert, and brief excerpts from interviews with the composers and performers represented, conducted by radio host Robert Sherman.

The chief architect of the set is Sedgwick Clark, who was also producer of the two previous New York Philharmonic recording mega-projects. Clark is a long-time discophile who has played a variety of important roles in the classical music business.  He began collecting records while he was attending Hanover College in his native state of Indiana. Although he graduated with a degree in philosophy, he took a job with Philips as Director of Publicity and Artist Relations. Following this he served as editor of FM Guide, Tape Deck Quarterly, Modern Recording, and Keynote.He has written criticism for the American Record Guide, FI, and Gramophone. Clark was involved from the outset with the highly praised CD reissues of the Mercury “Living Presence” series, as well as with the Sony Classical “Masterworks Heritage” line. Today Clark estimates his personal collection at some 20,000 LPs and 7,000 CDs.

In preparation for this article, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Clark by phone. Portions of that conversation follow, edited for clarity and concision:

How did you get involved with the New York Philharmonic in the first place?

In anticipation of the orchestra’s sesquicentennial celebration, I had proposed the idea of a recording project that would draw upon the orchestra’s archives of previously unreleased material. Henry Fogel had successfully undertaken a similar venture with the Chicago Symphony, and I thought that a project of this kind with the Philharmonic would be a great idea. There was some hesitancy at first, but once they gave me the green light, I began contacting collectors and gathering sources. The result turned out to be so successful, we started on the Mahler project right away.

In planning this American music project, there must have been dozens of performances to choose from. How did you decide what to include?

We tried to stick basically to the 20th century. I think the only pieces written before 1900 were by Chadwick, MacDowell, and Sousa. I justified them by the fact that all three were active into the 20th century. What I wanted to do was to give people a wide survey of the many various styles in 20th-century American music. Of course these styles were very European-oriented at first, and then in the 1920s all of a sudden burst out in all directions. That was my idea of what to do with this set. People will say there are a lot of things missing, which is quite true, but there also is an awful lot here that will be unfamiliar to most listeners. One of the big discoveries for me was Paul Creston’s Second Symphony. I had never even heard it before. The truth is, there aren’t too many chestnuts in the whole set, but we had to have some. We wanted to appeal to a broader audience than just collectors. But we had a number of other constraints as well.

What sort of constraints?

The first thing that limited us was what actually exists. For example, looking through program listings, I saw that Mitropoulos had conducted a broadcast of Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan. I looked everywhere, and — there is just no trace of it as far as I know. A lot of people don’t realize that broadcasts were not systematically saved. This was part of the understanding between the orchestras and radio stations. Any recordings sent out to the various cities for broadcast were to be played immediately, or destroyed. At least they were supposed to be. The idea was that these broadcasts were for people who had “missed the concert” for one reason or another. That was the purpose of the broadcasts in the first place. The New York Philharmonic, like the other major orchestras, exists to give concerts. Their attitude was, people who want to hear us in recorded form can buy our records. That’s why home tapers were hated so much by orchestras for so many years. They were felt to be stealing the musicians’ work and all that. But the thinking on that changed some time in the 1970s. The orchestras finally realized that this was history and important to preserve, if they believed in the work they were doing.

Were there other constraints as well?

Another factor was that the Philharmonic did no concert broadcasts between 1968 and 1975. This eliminated a great deal of Boulez’s legacy. For instance, he did Copland’s Connotations. Boy, would I love to have that on this set, but it wasn’t taped. But in 1975 the orchestra began broadcasting again and, for the first time, saved its tapes. A set like this is only possible because the orchestra, through the Musicians Union, agreed to reduce its fees from the amount they would normally get for a commercial recording.

But, given what was available, how were the choices made? For example, many commentators, myself included, consider Peter Mennin’s Seventh to be one of the greatest of all American symphonies. George Szell commissioned it for the Cleveland Orchestra, and performed it with the New York Philharmonic in 1964. Yet you did not decide to include that broadcast performance, which I think is stupendous.

There were a couple of reasons that one didn’t make it. For one, the sound of the tape we have is not very good. True, we could have worked on it, but frankly I did not think the piece itself is as good as other Mennin pieces I’ve heard. I happen to like the “Moby Dick” Concertato very much. Also, time was a big factor. To put on a half-hour piece that I don’t think is very good, even with George Szell conducting, … Besides, there are other recordings of the work available. We were trying not to duplicate too much. Obviously, there are some duplications.

Yes, and many of these seem a little superfluous, such as Bernstein doing Harris’s Third, which he recorded commercially with the orchestra just a few years later.

I just found it unthinkable for the New York Philharmonic to release a set of this magnitude about American music and not include a Bernstein performance of the Harris Third. I happen to believe that it’s the greatest of American symphonies. Every time I hear it I’m just amazed by its concision and power. This was Bernstein’s first performance of it with the Philharmonic, and it’s faster than either of the subsequent recordings. I find it a different view of the work and tremendously exciting. Even by 1961 he broadened it out, looking for more grandeur in the piece. But in 1957 he made it quite a taut drama.

What about the 1945 Rodzinski performance of Appalachian Spring?

Well, it was the world premiere, after all. I just thought it was very important and I think it sounds fabulous. Plus it’s important to the New York Philharmonic’s history, and, after all, this is a New York Philharmonic set. Collectors may have a lot of this material from other sources, but we had access to sources that sound better than anything anyone else has–like Voice of America tapes and discs at the Library of Congress. No one else has access to those.

How involved was Masur in making these decisions?

More than in either of the previous sets. He wanted to be involved from the beginning. This is not true of the music directors of other orchestras that have produced sets like this, where the conductors may have been concerned with their own recordings but not with what else goes on the set. Masur cared about everything. So for this set we arranged for five 2 ½-hour listening sessions, and invited members of the orchestra committee as well. Essentially, that’s what they hired me for — to select performances and propose them for Masur and the orchestra to approve in the listening sessions. They listened to all or parts of everything that is on the set, as well as several pieces that, for one reason or another, could not be included. We had some fun little discussions. There were loads of things I considered that there simply wasn’t room for. Some things that we had to leave out were really painful, like Walter Piston’s Second Symphony under Rodzinski. This sort of thing happened when there were other performances that Masur wanted to have included, and I had to juggle things, and some just had to go. At one point I asked for two more discs, so that we could include everything I thought was really important. But the economics just wouldn’t allow it. These pieces will get on later when we do our next set. Absolutely!

How did Masur seem to respond to this music? Was he really able to understand and appreciate the different American styles?

Actually, it was interesting to see how he tuned into the pieces that had a more European influence right away. But one of the exciting things was playing him the more Americana-like pieces, and discovering that some of them really impressed him — he found them really substantial and felt that they demanded to be taken seriously. He’s a very serious guy, actually. But his major concern was that the Philharmonic be represented as well as possible. One of the things that makes these performances so exciting is that most were recorded live, so you get this feeling of walking the tightrope. So there are mistakes once in a while — what of it? It happens in every concert.  But Masur rejected some of these performances when he didn’t feel the playing was good enough. These decisions had to be made. So everything that finally made it onto the set has the OK — the imprimatur — of the New York Philharmonic and its music director. Although a set like this is not a natural seller, Masur, the orchestra, and the board of trustees are all very excited about it. I think we all feel that a set like this calls attention to music that has been overlooked, and makes the point that these pieces are good music that should be played regularly in concerts every year.

Looking over the list of compositions and conductors included in this set will make any collector’s mouth water, one would think — collectors who specialize in conductors as well as those whose interests center around American symphonic music. To touch on some of the high points: For me the single most important performance on the entire set is Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 reading of William Schuman’s Sixth Symphony. Composed in 1948, this is arguably Schuman’s greatest symphony — a work of tremendous power, concentration, and abstract complexity, composed shortly after he assumed the presidency of the Juilliard School and entered the richest creative period of his career. The work has only been available on a recording from the mid 1950s that featured the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. As adequate as this performance may have seemed, Ormandy’s tendency to provide competent, accurate readings robbed of vitality and expressive detail is no secret, although these shortcomings were often difficult to detect and attribute accurately in a work otherwise unfamiliar. But Bernstein was a knowledgeable and persuasive advocate of Schuman’s music, and his reading of the Sixth, though perhaps a little ragged at times, makes vivid and exciting a work that some have viewed as cold and synthetic.

Another high point of the set — though much more modest in scope — is George Szell’s 1950 reading of Samuel Barber’s lovely First Essay. This short piece has enjoyed many fine performances, but I have never heard one maintain such a consistent sense of contrapuntal continuity throughout. Considerably faster than one is used to hearing, Szell’s interpretation never sounds brusque or rushed, because it is founded on a convincing underlying conception. Disappointment about the absence of Mennin’s Seventh Symphony aside, one regrets that this is the only Szell-led performance included in the set: his thorough comprehension of those American composers whose work he embraced has yet to be fully appreciated.

The third notable inclusion is Pierre Monteux’s 1956 rendition of Paul Creston’s Second Symphony, a work whose extraordinary individuality and tremendous appeal was well understood by the French conductor, who championed the piece with a number of different orchestras — in Europe as well as in the U.S. Although he pushes the work’s Introduction a bit, setting too high an emotional temperature prematurely, his pacing of the remainder is excellent, making one wonder how such an exciting and satisfying work could have gone into such abrupt eclipse after the mid 1950s.

If Creston’s Second was the producer’s big discovery, mine is Ernest Schelling’s A Victory Ball. This is no masterpiece, mind you, but it is a fascinating period-piece by a composer whose name was totally unfamiliar to me. Schelling, who lived from 1876 to 1939, inaugurated the Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts in 1924. Celebrated as a prodigious pianist as a child, he concentrated on composition after a car accident injured his hands. His most famous work, A Victory Ball is a 15-minute orchestral fantasy composed in 1922 after a well-known poem of the same name by Alfred Noyes. Based on a conceit somewhat reminiscent of Ravel’s La Valse(composed two years earlier), the piece develops its antiwar theme with bitter irony, in a direct, straightforward musical language that would make its point to the most casual listener. The work evidently enjoyed hundreds of performances in its time.

One of the most unexpected realizations I had was that the most impressively executed performances on the set are those of the past 25 years. Indeed, the orchestra used to have a reputation for sloppy, indifferent playing, unless especially inspired by circumstances of the moment. But from the mid 1970s on, the orchestra simply seems to have gotten better and better. This means that the style — now best understood as something of an aesthetic transition between serialism and the return to tonality — dubbed by Jacob Druckman “the New Romanticism” is especially well represented. Anticipated in such early works as Varèse’s Intégrales and Ruggles’s Sun-Treader, and epitomized by Druckman’s own music, such as Lamia, the style achieved something of an apotheosis in such works as George Crumb’s Star-Child and, later, Joan Tower’s Sequoia, before reaching a dead-end and drowning in its own clichés. Turning away from the haughtily abstract post-Webernian serialism that so enthralled university music departments while alienating most listeners, the “New Romantics” attempted to create an immediate visceral impact through fanciful titles and novel compositional concepts, realized through imaginative, often flamboyant, coloristic orchestral effects, while avoiding any perceptible semblance of traditional tonality, except through the quotation of earlier styles or actual pieces. Even Elliott Carter couldn’t resist the opportunity, in writing for the Philharmonic, to draw upon the orchestra’s tremendous potential for aural sensuality in his rigorously structured Concerto for Orchestra. For whatever reason, the New York Philharmonic had a real flair for this sort of music, and all these works, under conductors as diverse as Bernstein, Boulez, and Mehta, are heard here in performances that must be described as stupendous.

Also especially gratifying are some of the recent performances of older works, such as Copland’s inexplicably neglected Prairie Journal, Ives’s Three Places in New England (perhaps his most fully realized work), and Bernstein’s lovely and increasingly popular Serenade (in a memorial performance done barely a week after the composer’s death). And some of the most recent works, such as the intensely serious, Eastern European-flavored Zwilich Third Symphony, for example, and Rouse’s brilliant Trombone Concerto, are performed with an incisiveness and precision that are truly extraordinary. (Unfortunately, Zubin Mehta’s floundering attempt to manage the orchestral version of Reich’s Tehillim serves largely to underline the proficiency of the hand-picked ensemble that usually showcases the composer’s new works.)

On the other hand, many of the earlier performances — especially of the symphonic music of the 1940s and 50s — are rather disappointing. At first, this may seem surprising, but, upon reflection, is understandable. Consider that when conductors like Munch, Rodzinski, Cantelli, and Steinberg performed American works, they were venturing into idioms that were essentially alien to their backgrounds and experience. Although some of these performances proved to be outstanding, they were the exceptions. In too many cases, e.g., An American in Paris (Rodzinski, 1944), El Salón México (Cantelli, 1955), Appalachian Spring (Rodzinski, 1945) we are hearing the Philharmonic essentially sight-read music that has become second-nature to conductors, orchestras, and listeners today. Those of us who know the recorded history of this repertoire are all too familiar with what I call “first-generation performances” — performances led by conductors who have become acquainted with the scores just prior to the performances, and played by orchestras whose members are reading their parts without knowing how the music “goes.” After all, most recordings of the American symphonic repertoire made during the 1950s and 60s are such “first-generation performances.” What is really exciting is hearing some of the more recent recordings of this repertoire, led by conductors like Leonard Slatkin, who have actually lived with some of this music in their musical minds for many years. And in the cases of better-known works by composers like Barber, Copland, Bernstein, and Schuman, some of the orchestral musicians know how the music “goes.” This distinction is of vital importance in understanding the way new music is grasped and gradually absorbed into the repertoire, and warrants far more consideration than it has thus far been accorded.

Similarly, the program notes for each work were not written especially for the set by a commentator versed in the repertoire, but rather seem largely to have been adapted from the original program notes that appeared in the concert programs when these performances took place. So instead of reading about these works and their places in American musical history from today’s vantage point, we read what was written about this music when it was unfamiliar and the composers’ entire outputs were not yet known. Such contemporaneous commentary may be of historical interest concerning the music of Mahler, about whom there is no shortage of modern commentary, but in the cases of composers like Barber, Schuman, Creston, Mennin, Harris, and Hanson, there exists very little insightful musicological commentary based on a comprehensive knowledge of this repertoire; mostly what one finds are the overly specific details embedded within vague generalities that characterize program notes of unfamiliar music. Perhaps one might argue that Alan Rich’s essays represent an attempt to treat this repertoire from a more contemporary perspective. But unfortunately his comments are brief and terribly superficial, amounting to little more than third-hand paraphrases of uninformed generalizations (e.g.,  Hanson’s music is described as “a folkish amalgam of prairie and Nordic folk-tunes”).

In reflecting on the decisions involved in selecting performances for a set like this, I arrived at three legitimate criteria: 1) important works not otherwise represented on recording; 2) important works presented in performances far more outstanding than what has previously been available; and 3) performances of particular historical or documentary significance. An American Celebration comprises performances that meet each of these criteria, but it is clearly the third that predominates, probably making the set more interesting to conductor-oriented listeners than to those whose chief focus is repertoire. Some may feel that with eleven performances, Leonard Bernstein is over-represented as a conductor. (In his essay, Sedgwick Clark calls Bernstein “the foremost champion of American music in our century”; but elsewhere in the set it is noted that as a conductor, Howard Hanson presented 200 new American works during his 45 years as director of the Eastman School, while Leopold Stokowski is said to have introduced 2000 new works during his long career, most of them by American composers.) Others may object to the emphasis on the already-well-recorded Aaron Copland, represented here through eight works. Personally, I could have done without the aforementioned Appalachian Spring, the ubiquitous Fanfare, and the Lincoln Portrait. But I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to hear Bernstein conduct Copland’s Orchestral Variations, which he never recorded, although he was closely associated with the original piano version. Truthfully, there is nothing on this set not worth hearing—at least once. (I couldn’t wait to hear Bernstein’s reading of Concertato, “Moby Dick,” by Mennin, a composer to whom he seemed to pay little attention throughout his career. The result proved to be amazingly stiff and mechanical.) The question is: How many of these performances does one want in his permanent collection? Individuals will have to arrive at their own answers.


Volume 1 – NYP 9902 (5 CDs: 6:25:47)

BARBER Essay No. 1 (Szell, 1950). BLOCH Concerto Grosso No. 1 (Munch, Hendl [pn], 1948). CHADWICK Melpomene Overture (Bernstein, 1958). COPLAND Appalachian Spring (Rodzinski, 1945). Fanfare for the Common Man(Masur, 1997). Lincoln Portrait (Bernstein, Warfield [spkr], 1976). Music for the Theatre (Leinsdorf, 1985). Prairie Journal (Mehta, 1985). El Salón México (Cantelli, 1955). COWELL Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 2 (Paray, 1956). CRESTON Symphony No. 2 (Monteux, 1956). GERSHWIN An American in Paris (Rodzinski, 1944). GRIFFES The White Peacock (Hanson, 1946). HARRIS Symphony No. 3 (Bernstein, 1957). HANSON Serenade (Stokowski, Wummer [fl], 1949. Symphony No. 2, “Romantic” (Hanson, 1946). HERRMANN The Devil and Daniel Webster Suite (Stokowski, 1949). IVES Three Places in New England(Masur, 1994). LOEFFLER Memories of My Childhood (Barbirolli, 1936). MACDOWELL “Indian” Suite: exc’pts (Bernstein, 1958). RUGGLES Sun-treader (Masur, 1994). SCHELLING A Victory Ball (Rodzinski, 1945). SCHUMAN Symphony No. 6 (Bernstein, 1958). STILL Old California (Monteux, 1944). THOMSON Four Saints in Three Acts: Acts III and IV (Bernstein, soloists, 1960). VARÈSE Intégrales (Bernstein, 1966).

Volume 2 – NYP 9903 (5 CDs: 6:32:14)

ADAMS Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Masur, 1991). BARBER Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (Mitropoulos, 1956). BERNSTEIN Candide Overture (w’out conductor, 1992). Serenade (Slatkin, Dicterow [vn], 1990). BOLCOM Clarinet Concerto(Slatkin, Drucker [cl], 1992). CARTER Concerto for Orchestra (Boulez, 1975). COPLAND Nonet (Steinberg, 1964). Orchestral Variations (Bernstein, 1958). CRUMB Star-Child (Boulez, Gubrud [sop], 1977). DIAMOND World of Paul Klee (Lipkin, 1960). DRUCKMAN Lamia (Boulez, deGaetani [mez], 1975). ELLINGTON-MARSALIS A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Masur, 1999). FOSS Introductions and Good-Byes (Bernstein, Reardon [bar], 1960). GOULD Dance Variations (Mitropoulos, Whittemore & Lowe [pns], 1953). HOVHANESS To Vishnu (Kostelanetz, 1967). MENNIN Concertato, “Moby Dick” (Bernstein, 1963). REICH Tehillim (Mehta, 1982). ROREM Symphony No. 3 (Bernstein, 1959). ROUSE Trombone Concerto (Slatkin, Alessi [tbn], 1992). SCHULLER Dramatic Overture (Mitropoulos, 1957). SOUSA Stars and Stripes Forever (Toscanini, 1944). TOWER Sequoia (Mehta, 1982). ZWILICH Symphony No. 3 (Ling, 1993).

May be ordered by phone: (800) 557-8268; or via the Internet at www.newyorkphilharmonic.org ; price: $185  

An American Tapestry. HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain.” PISTON: The Incredible Flutist. W. SCHUMAN: New England Triptych. IVES: Three Places in New England. GRIFFES: The White Peacock

AN AMERICAN TAPESTRY.  Andrew Litton conducting the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.  DORIAN DOR-90224 [DDD] ; 73:00.  Produced by Andrew Keener.

HOVHANESS:  Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain.”  PISTON:  The Incredible Flutist.  SCHUMAN:  New England Triptych.  IVES:  Three Places in New England.  GRIFFES:  The White Peacock.

This is an ideal CD for the general listener who avoids twentieth-century American music on the assumption that it is not an area of the repertoire likely to provide immediate gratification.  To the contrary, however, everything on this recent release is likely to appeal to most listeners, regardless of their level of exposure or sophistication.  Moreover, each is a fine piece of music–and generally the best-known work of each respective composer; for this reason, those who are interested in American music will probably own recordings of these pieces already.  The Dallas Symphony plays superbly, although Litton’s tempos are at times a little too fast.  The sound quality is extremely crisp and clear.  

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate”. Concerto No. 7 for Orchestra. Alleluia and Fugue. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue Tzaikerk. Prayer of St. Gregory

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate”. Concerto No. 7 for
Orchestra. Alleluia and Fugue. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue.  
Tzaikerk. Prayer of St. Gregory. Rudolf Werthen conducting I
Fiamminghi; Benny Wiame, trumpet. TELARC CD-SF30392 [DDD];
79:19. Produced by Robert Woods and James Mallinson 

This new release offers an excellent selection of music by Alan Hovhaness. The performances show more interpretive insight than is often the case in programs of this composer’s works, although they display a bias toward a quiet, gentle passivity that is not always as appropriate for this music as many seem to think. In his own words and performances, Hovhaness has always emphasized brisk tempos and a vigorous, assertive spirit, which provide a desirable sense of inner strength. On the other hand the renditions offered by this Flemish ensemble reveal an attention to nuances of phrasing and balance often missing from the perfunctory, under-rehearsed performances of this composer’s music often heard. 

The selections on the program date from the 1940s and 50s — when Hovhaness was producing his most convincing scores — and all have been recorded before. During this period, the composer’s judgment with regard to the parameters of temporal duration and compositional complexity resulted in a higher, more rewarding level of creative expression than he was able to sustain during the subsequent decades. Put more simply, the rate and quality of musical activity held one’s attention. This is clearly evident in the two major works offered here–Symphony No. 6 and Concert No. 7 — which are accorded I Fiamminghi’s most impressive performances. Unfortunately, the shorter pieces receive somewhat less care and attention This is the third recording of the Symphony No. 6 “Celestial Gate,” the most deeply felt and consistently inspired of the dozens of works with which I am familiar that Hovhaness has identified as “symphonies” see Fanfare 17:5, pp. 168 70). Aside from an unfortunate wrong note proclaimed by the trumpet at 12 33, this new performance reveals a quiet intensity and attention to details of phrasing that enhance the work’s sense of ecstatic rapture. The result is a more deeply moving reading than the composer’s own rough-hewn traversal (on Crystal) or Richard Auldon Clark’s more refined but rather bland account (on Koch).

There is no formal or conceptual distinction between those eight compositions from the 1950s that Hovhaness designated “concertos for orchestra” and those 50+ pieces he called “symphonies,” although the former group happens to include some of his finest–and least performed–works. Concerto No. 7 was commissioned in 1953 by the Louisville Orchestra and was recorded by them shortly thereafter. This substantial 24-minute work one of the composer’s most “symphonic” scores, with regard to its employment of a robust orchestral sonority and its sense of cumulative, forward progression, although there is little semblance of classical symphonic form. I find it a more interesting and varied work than the somewhat comparable but more popularMysterious Mountain. The Flemish ensemble offers an optimal balance between delicate refinement and massive strength. This work and the Concerto No. 8 (available on Crystal CD810) are two works of which no admirer of Hovhaness should remain ignorant. 

Tzaikerk is scored for flute, violin timpani, and strings, and inhabits the pure Armenian-derived style Hovhaness cultivated during the mid-1940s Although some of the pieces in this vein, such as Anahid, Khaldis, and Lousadzak are among the composer’s most vivid and exciting works, Tzaikerk rambles aimlessly and monotonously for its 11-minute duration. The piece can also be heard on a Crystal CD that includes the Symphony No 11. “A11 Men are Brothers,” and the ubiquitousPrayer of St Gregory

The three remaining pieces, which might be described among Hovhaness’s “hits,” all appeared on a recent Schwarz/Seattle/Delos disc (DE-3157; see Fanfare 18:1, pp. 216-17), and I have discussed them at length there and elsewhere. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue receives a meticulously refined reading here but it is a bit too sober and reserved. I prefer Schwarz/Seattle’s more outspoken, dramatically contoured account:

Alleluia and Fugue is a personal favorite of mine, and this is its third representation on CD. However, I am disappointed by all of them, as none imbues the music with the passion, vigor and intensity captured by Carlos Surinach in his mid-1950s monaural recording on MGM.  I Fiamminghi’s rendition is especially flat and uninspired. 

Prayer of St. Gregory may be the biggest Hovhaness “hit” of all, with too many recordings to name. The performance here is precious and over-interpreted. The preferred reading is the Clark-conducted recording with trumpeter Chris Gekker (Koch International 3-7221-2H1; see review cited in third paragraph above) that also includes Symphony No. 6.

How to summarize and arrive at a conclusion? If you are a Hovhaness fan, this disc is essential for its superb performances of Symphony No. 6 and Concerto No. 7. If you don’t know Hovhaness, but love music like Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia and Barber’s Adagio, this is a good introduction to the elderly Armenian-American visionary. If you don’t like Hovhaness, you won’t like this disc and you probably haven’t read this review. 

HOVHANESS: String Quartets: No. 1, “Jupiter”; No. 2 (excerpts); No. 3, “Reflections on my Childhood”; No. 4, “The Ancient Tree.” Four Bagatelles. Symph. No. 1, “Exile”. Meditation on Orpheus. Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints. ZHOU LONG: Song of the Ch’in.

HOVHANESS: String Quartets: No. 1, “Jupiter”; No. 2 (excerpts); No. 3, “Reflections on my Childhood”; No. 4, “The Ancient Tree.” Four Bagatelles. ZHOU LONG: Song of the Ch’in. Shanghai String Quartet. DELOS DE-3162 [DDD]; 69:28. Produced by Amelia Haygood.

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 1, “Exile”. Meditation on Orpheus. Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony; Ron Johnson, marimba; Michael York, narrator; Diane Schmidt. DELOS DE-3168 [DDD]; 59:53. Produced by Amelia Haygood.

For the past half-century, the music of Alan Hovhaness has continued to enjoy recurring surges of popularity, often as a result of fervent championing by influential figures, such as Leopold Stokowski and Andre Kostelanetz (to name perhaps the two most prominent), and by association with other — seemingly incompatible, or at least partly incongruous — socio-aesthetic movements. During the 1940s, he seemed to benefit from association with those West Coast figures — chiefly Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Lou Harrison — who had begun to explore aesthetic alternatives to the Western classical tradition. During the 1950s, MGM Records, under the stewardship of Edward Cole, launched an incredibly bold, adventurous, and imaginative — though short-lived — 20th-century music series that spotlighted Hovhaness’ music in particular. Then, after a brief lull, the counter-cultural movement of the late-1960s and early 70s, drawn to what was perceived as spiritual purity in the music and religions of India and the Far East, discovered Hovhaness anew. Since that time, the anti-Modernists, the Minimalists, and the New Age/Hearts of Space devotees have all embraced Hovhaness as a kindred spirit, to some extent.

Yet all along, many commentators have maintained a certain skepticism, finding much of Hovhaness’ music to be simplistic — increasingly so over the years. Also disturbing has been the composer’s truly profligate fecundity, inflated by a shameless redundancy — of concepts, techniques, and actual material. A vein of opportunism has lurked uneasily within the persona of the inspired visionary pointing the way toward spiritual enlightenment.

However, the rate at which new Hovhaness releases appear suggests that his music is more popular right now than ever before. Here is the latest batch from Delos, whose exploration of other American symphonic music seems to have slowed down, as they concentrate on the 84-year-old mystic. Of the two discs, the string quartet recording is actually the more interesting.

Years ago, the Hovhaness public relations myth included the story that during the early 1940s he had burned thousands of manuscripts deemed aesthetically false, before embarking on the musico-spiritual quest that led him to explore the artistic expressions of Eastern cultures. However, during recent years, a number of these pre-1940 works have surfaced, sometimes in revised form, sometimes as portions of other works. For example, we are offered here the first recording of Hovhaness’ String Quartet No 1, dated 1936. This work contains the original version of what has since become known as Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, as well as the original appearance of the rapid second-subject material from what became the double fugue (second movement) of Mysterious Mountain. Hovhaness later appended the subtitle, “Jupiter” to this quartet, in reference to the
quadruple invertible counterpoint that appears in the finale of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. In view of the essentially rudimentary nature of Hovhaness’ quadruple counterpoint, this appropriation strikes me as presumptuous and self-serving. On the other hand, I was surprised to discover how effective this music is as rendered by string quartet, although the later revisions eliminated some awkward passages.

Only three movements of the seven-movement String Quartet No. 2 are included, for no apparent reason. The three movements are tiny, adding up to less than five minutes, but are attractive examples of the composer’s early 1950s style — one of his most rewarding evolutionary phases.

Quartets Nos. 3 and 4 are welcome discoveries for me. Both were composed in 1964 — not such a propitious period for Hovhaness — and share the same opus number, suggesting that they were written essentially simultaneously. They are certainly similar in style. However, despite the presence of most of the techniques found in the composer’s other works of that time — as well as some devices familiar from earlier works — an introspective intensity and freshness of conviction emerges from these two quartets, accentuated by the precision and commitment of these readings, that elevates them above most of Hovhaness’ music from the mid-1960s.

The four Bagatelles seem to have been written the same year, but exemplify the all-too-familiar rehashing of all-too-familiar material.

Zhou Long is a Chinese composer who studied in New York, and is currently active in both China and the United States. Song of the Ch’in, a nine-minute piece written in 1982, appears to be his best-known work. Bearing little actual resemblance to Hovhaness, it quite successfully accomplishes a comparable fusion of Eastern and Western elements, though the result is somewhat more challenging to the listener.

The Shanghai Quartet was formed in China in 1983, although its Michigan-born cellist must have joined more recently. They play with considerable precision and refinement, allowing the simplicity of Hovhaness’ music to sound pure, rather than obvious.

* * *

The orchestral disc is essentially a re-make of a CBS LP from the mid-1970s that contained three of the works offered here in performances conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. Actually, in view of Hovhaness’ current popularity, it is surprising that Sony has not reissued that LP which, at 65 minutes, was already CD-length — and, indeed, longer than the Delos CD under discussion here.

The unfamiliar work here is the Symphony No. 1 — certainly interesting as the starting point in a cycle of symphonies whose number is exceeded (at this point) only by Haydn. The symphony is dated 1937, although more than 30 years later the composer replaced its cretinous scherzo with an attractive and gracious intermezzo. But the remainder of the work is quite disappointing, consisting largely of banal fanfares, modal or simplistically
chromatic melodies accompanied by ostinato patterns, and pseudo-counterpoint alternating with hymn-like passages in static, non-developmental fashion. Meditation on Orpheus has become, along with Mysterious Mountain and Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, something of a Hovhaness classic. Composed largely in 1957 (though it includes some earlier material and has been further revised, I believe, since its first recording), it exemplifies the sort of impressionistically textured, exotically atmospheric tone-poem that was a major focus of the composer’s attention at that time. Especially notable is its satisfying concision, a quality that Hovhaness seemed to dispense with later on.

Several of Hovhaness’ lesser works have achieved some prominence in the repertoire, largely, it seems, as a result of the exposure accorded them in major venues and on major record labels by Andre Kostelanetz. Among these are And God Created Great Whales (presented also on the previous Schwarz/Seattle/Delos recording) and the two remaining works on this program. Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints was composed in 1965 and features the xylophone in a solo role, which is its chief point of interest. Otherwise, despite its evocative sense of atmosphere, there is little to distinguish it from other works of this period. If I am not mistaken, Kostelanetz’s rendition had at least one substantial cut, restored here.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1977) takes us from the mediocre to the horrendous. As routine and uninteresting as much of Hovhaness’ music is, very rarely does it cross the line of taste into the realm of sleaze. But this piece is one of the exceptions, I’m afraid — and it’s not just a matter of the prominent use of the accordion, a worthy enough instrument whose identity has suffered through over-association with schlock musical styles. But its presence here does not help matters. The work features spoken verses from The Rubaiyat, separated by instrumental interludes. Some of the interludes are not too bad, but some — the penultimate one, for example — are remarkably banal and vulgar, as if Hovhaness were deliberately aiming at a more “commercial” sound. Michael York lends a dashing swagger to his reading of the verses, in marked contrast to the sense of a seasoned, retrospective sensuality created by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., on the Kostelanetz recording. 

None of this music is particularly difficult to play, and performances are quite acceptable. The xylophone arid accordion soloists are exemplary. What bothers me about this disc and the previous Hovhaness/Schwarz disc (see Fanfare 18:1, pp. 216-17 is that, along with the plethora of Hovhaness orchestral music that has never been recorded, among which are some very fine works from the 1940s and 50s (which I have identified often enough in
previous reviews), the decision-makers seem content simply to re-record what has already been done, regardless of its intrinsic merit.