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.

by Walter Simmons

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.

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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.