by Walter Simmons
HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 11, “All Men Are Brothers”. Armenian Rhapsody No. 1. Prayer for St. Gregory. Tzaikerk. Royal Phil. Orch., Alan Hovhaness, cond (Symphony). Thomas Stevens, trumpet; Gretel Shanley, flute; Eudice Shapiro, violin; Crystal Chamb. Orch., Ernest Gold, cond. CRYSTAL CD 801 (compact disc)
One of the complaints voiced most often with regard to compact discs concerns playing time. While touted for their capacity for more than an hour of music, few releases from the major companies do more than merely duplicate the contents of their analog-disc counterparts. But inasmuch as the public response to CDs has been so strong, the large companies, which dominate the market almost exclusively, have little motivation to offer more. Now, as the smaller American companies begin to enter the market, some are wisely recombining the contents of earlier releases into new, longer programs. A case in point is this new CD from Crystal, featuring the music of Alan Hovhaness.
For the past few years, Crystal has been distributing Poseidon Society discs, which are devoted almost exclusively to the music of Hovhaness. This CD contains the entire contents of Poseidon Society 1001, in addition to selections from Crystal’s own all-Hovhaness disc (S-800), adding up to a rather diverse but representative program of the composer’s music, lasting 53 minutes (still less than the CD’s capacity).
Hovhaness is a composer one either accepts on faith or not. His pure, simple efforts to evoke states of mystical rapture have at times resulted in works of striking originality and great spiritual beauty, flavored with a captivating exoticism; at other times he has created music of such awkward, simplistic amateurishness and numbing banality as to boggle the mind and move one to question one’s more favorable judgments. The Symphony No. 11, “All Men Are Brothers,” a 32-minute work in three movements, can be viewed both ways. Ostensibly composed during the 1960s (the chronology of Hovhaness’ output is notoriously chaotic), the symphony is stylistically incongruous with the composer’s other works from that decade. In fact, the work’s first appearance on discs during the early 1970s was something of a shock, because its simple-minded chromatic melodies, accompanied by a crude sort of chromatic harmony, which culminated in grandiose romantic gestures and sonorities, harked back to the kind of music the composer wrote during the 1930s—music reputed to have been destroyed in a great, self-purging fire. To the bewilderment of Hovhaness specialists, this early style was to become the basis for the painfully inflated and phlegmatic music that the composer has produced since the early ’70s. Thus, the 11th Symphony may have anticipated this stylistic change. But the work contains features from other periods as well: The long, central movement contains a striking Armenian processional, with dance-like and fugal elements, and there is much of the Christian hymn-like music that was common during the 1950s. While there are moments in which the music’s fervent intensity is convincing, much of it is strenuous but empty bombast. Listeners’ reactions to Hovhaness’ music vary greatly; readers will have to decide for themselves.
Those whose interest is engaged by the foregoing should be encouraged to learn that the digital reprocessing of the original analog tapes and their transformation into CD format have resulted in sound quality that is vastly superior to the miserable old Poseidon pressings. The performance was always fine anyway, but now its effect is greatly enhanced by the absence of background noise and a fuller, more brilliant sonority. (Hovhaness enthusiasts will have much reason for excitement if the same treatment is accorded the Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate,” which is probably the best piece of music to be recorded by the Poseidon Society, if not the greatest of all Hovhaness works—and, I might add, perhaps the worst of all the Poseidon pressings.)
The three other pieces are relatively modest efforts from the 1940s, representative of the composer’s mainstream Armenian style. The Prayer of St. Gregory is one of his most popular pieces—a lovely hymn for trumpet and strings that has appeared several times on recording. The Armenian Rhapsody No. 1is one of the few Hovhaness pieces to use actual folk melodies, and is no more or less effective than other pieces of this kind. Tzaikerk is an 11-minute fantasy for violin, flute, and strings—pretty, but too long and drawn out for its material. These pieces hold few difficulties for the performers, who do a perfectly acceptable job.
More interest and value will be injected into the CD scene as other small companies enter the fray. Hopefully they will follow the practice exemplified here, of longer programs, created in ways that offer alternatives to the analog disc releases. My only complaint concerning the format of this disc is that the movements of the symphony are not tracked individually.