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

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

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

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

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

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

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