by Walter Simmons
HOVHANESS: And God Created Great Whales. Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra. Elibris. Alleluia and Fugue. Anahid. David Amos conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. CRYSTAL RECORDS CD810 lDDD]; 69:53. Produced by Peter Christ.
At last Crystal Records, custodian of the Poseidon series of Hovhaness recordings, has issued a release of the composer’s music that can be recommended wholeheartedly. Under the sympathetic leadership of the enterprising and adventurous conductor David Amos, the Philharmonia Orchestra offers new performances of some of Hovhaness’s finest works—some never recorded before, others, long out-of-print. Most welcome of all is the Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra, final installment in a genre that drew Hovhaness’s attention during the 1950s. The Concertos for Orchestra, which are in no way virtuoso showpieces in the Bartók manner, are among the most consistently successful works in the composer’s enormous canon. Best known are the Concerto No. 1, “Arevakal” (once available on Mercury MG-50078), which Concerto No. 8 resembles in style, and the uncharacteristically symphonic Concerto No. 7 (once available on Louisville LOU-5454). Concerto No.8 may be regarded as a first recording, although it did appear, along with the Symphony No. 16, on the very first Poseidon release, issued privately during the mid-1960s. Similar to others in the series, the Concerto No. 8 alternates between solemn incantations that draw upon the Armenian cantorial style and uplifting polyphonic hymns featuring diatonic counterpoint enhanced by frequent use of reverent suspensions. An Armenian-style march (played a little too slowly) and a very uncharacteristic, Satie-like but charming “pastoral dance” provide contrast. Solo trombone fulfills the cantorial role, while imaginative instrumental touches enhance the sonorous aspect. In this generally excellent performance, the Concerto No. 8 is the sort of work that attracted so many followers to Hovhaness a couple of decades ago.
Also gracing this release is the reappearance of Anahid, a brilliantly exotic fantasy for chamber orchestra in undiluted Armenian style, available thirty years ago in a superb performance on MGM’s astonishingly discriminating (and thus predictably short-lived) contemporary music series. Listeners who have sat through any of Hovhaness’s recent, bloated, half-hearted, interminable symphonies, wondering what was the appeal of this man’s music, will be stunned by the blazing splendor, subtle delicacy, and wild ferocity found in this work from the mid-l940s, when the composer’s explorations into his Armenian heritage were still fresh and new. It is wonderful to have this work available again, now in a modern recording. Unfortunately the all-important timpani patterns during the final dance, which feature intriguing cross-rhythms, are not captured distinctly in this otherwise fine performance.
A piece with special significance for me is Alleluia and Fugue, another work from the 1940s, once available on the same MGM release (E-3504) that featured Anahid. This was the piece through which I was first introduced to Hovhaness’s music, back at an age when I had barely entered puberty. I was captivated by its rich parallel triads in organum style, by its haunting modal melody with primitive imitative counterpoint, accompanied by open fifths, and by the vigorous Handelian fugue that followed. (Perhaps) prematurely jaded by the predictable rhetoric and narrow expressive range of mainstream classical music, I found this unfamiliar language (I hadn’t yet heard Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia) to be a revelation from the very first note. Its apparent independence from time or place and its awe-inspiring sense of pure spirituality held out the promise of a magical gateway into hitherto unimagined expressive realms—a promise that was fulfilled by my subsequent immersion in twentieth-century music. I have since learned that Hovhaness’s music has played a similar role in the musical lives of other young people, and this is a role to which it is well suited. In any case, returning to the release at band, the performance of the fugue is rather disappointing: Not only does Amos take an excessively slow tempo, but the inner contrapuntal lines arc muffled and indistinct, making for a rather slurpy effect.
Elibris, a ten-minute “concerto” for flute and strings, appears here in its first recording ever. Dating from 1944—the same year as Anahid—it consists of a slow, incantational section, followed by a dance-like finale, both in Armenian style, with clear thematic affinities to such other works as Lousadzak and the St. Vartan Symphony. It is good to have this work available, although Christine Messiter’s flute playing, while adequate, is a little short on color, character, and vitality.
The biggest surprise on the disc is And God Created Great Whales, dating from a time (1970) when Hovhaness had been concentrating on Japanese and Korean sources of musical inspiration for some time—in fact, to the point of exhaustion and redundancy. This was also the time when whales—and, particularly, the discovery that they created “music”—sound patterns with distinct, definable shapes—were very much in the news. Thus, when introduced by Andre Kostelanetz at a summer concert of the New York Philharmonic, this new work, which combined pre-recorded whale “songs” with themes found in prior works by the composer, seemed to smack of blatant gimmickry and opportunism (a motif in Hovhaness’s career that has always jarred uncomfortably with the image he conveys of existing apart from the mundane world). A subsequent recording featuring the same forces (Columbia M-34537) did nothing to alter the impression. However, in this new performance and recording (which uses entirely different and much more interesting whale sounds), the work is remarkably powerful. While there is no denying its fundamental lack of substance, the sheer sonic impact of Hovhaness’s orchestral effects, played here with tremendous conviction, and the skillful way they complement the whale sounds, creates a remarkable sense of drama.