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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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