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

by Walter Simmons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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