HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate”. Concerto No. 7 for Orchestra. Alleluia and Fugue. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue Tzaikerk. Prayer of St. Gregory

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate”. Concerto No. 7 for
Orchestra. Alleluia and Fugue. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue.  
Tzaikerk. Prayer of St. Gregory. Rudolf Werthen conducting I
Fiamminghi; Benny Wiame, trumpet. TELARC CD-SF30392 [DDD];
79:19. Produced by Robert Woods and James Mallinson 

This new release offers an excellent selection of music by Alan Hovhaness. The performances show more interpretive insight than is often the case in programs of this composer’s works, although they display a bias toward a quiet, gentle passivity that is not always as appropriate for this music as many seem to think. In his own words and performances, Hovhaness has always emphasized brisk tempos and a vigorous, assertive spirit, which provide a desirable sense of inner strength. On the other hand the renditions offered by this Flemish ensemble reveal an attention to nuances of phrasing and balance often missing from the perfunctory, under-rehearsed performances of this composer’s music often heard. 

The selections on the program date from the 1940s and 50s — when Hovhaness was producing his most convincing scores — and all have been recorded before. During this period, the composer’s judgment with regard to the parameters of temporal duration and compositional complexity resulted in a higher, more rewarding level of creative expression than he was able to sustain during the subsequent decades. Put more simply, the rate and quality of musical activity held one’s attention. This is clearly evident in the two major works offered here–Symphony No. 6 and Concert No. 7 — which are accorded I Fiamminghi’s most impressive performances. Unfortunately, the shorter pieces receive somewhat less care and attention This is the third recording of the Symphony No. 6 “Celestial Gate,” the most deeply felt and consistently inspired of the dozens of works with which I am familiar that Hovhaness has identified as “symphonies” see Fanfare 17:5, pp. 168 70). Aside from an unfortunate wrong note proclaimed by the trumpet at 12 33, this new performance reveals a quiet intensity and attention to details of phrasing that enhance the work’s sense of ecstatic rapture. The result is a more deeply moving reading than the composer’s own rough-hewn traversal (on Crystal) or Richard Auldon Clark’s more refined but rather bland account (on Koch).

There is no formal or conceptual distinction between those eight compositions from the 1950s that Hovhaness designated “concertos for orchestra” and those 50+ pieces he called “symphonies,” although the former group happens to include some of his finest–and least performed–works. Concerto No. 7 was commissioned in 1953 by the Louisville Orchestra and was recorded by them shortly thereafter. This substantial 24-minute work one of the composer’s most “symphonic” scores, with regard to its employment of a robust orchestral sonority and its sense of cumulative, forward progression, although there is little semblance of classical symphonic form. I find it a more interesting and varied work than the somewhat comparable but more popularMysterious Mountain. The Flemish ensemble offers an optimal balance between delicate refinement and massive strength. This work and the Concerto No. 8 (available on Crystal CD810) are two works of which no admirer of Hovhaness should remain ignorant. 

Tzaikerk is scored for flute, violin timpani, and strings, and inhabits the pure Armenian-derived style Hovhaness cultivated during the mid-1940s Although some of the pieces in this vein, such as Anahid, Khaldis, and Lousadzak are among the composer’s most vivid and exciting works, Tzaikerk rambles aimlessly and monotonously for its 11-minute duration. The piece can also be heard on a Crystal CD that includes the Symphony No 11. “A11 Men are Brothers,” and the ubiquitousPrayer of St Gregory

The three remaining pieces, which might be described among Hovhaness’s “hits,” all appeared on a recent Schwarz/Seattle/Delos disc (DE-3157; see Fanfare 18:1, pp. 216-17), and I have discussed them at length there and elsewhere. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue receives a meticulously refined reading here but it is a bit too sober and reserved. I prefer Schwarz/Seattle’s more outspoken, dramatically contoured account:

Alleluia and Fugue is a personal favorite of mine, and this is its third representation on CD. However, I am disappointed by all of them, as none imbues the music with the passion, vigor and intensity captured by Carlos Surinach in his mid-1950s monaural recording on MGM.  I Fiamminghi’s rendition is especially flat and uninspired. 

Prayer of St. Gregory may be the biggest Hovhaness “hit” of all, with too many recordings to name. The performance here is precious and over-interpreted. The preferred reading is the Clark-conducted recording with trumpeter Chris Gekker (Koch International 3-7221-2H1; see review cited in third paragraph above) that also includes Symphony No. 6.

How to summarize and arrive at a conclusion? If you are a Hovhaness fan, this disc is essential for its superb performances of Symphony No. 6 and Concerto No. 7. If you don’t know Hovhaness, but love music like Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia and Barber’s Adagio, this is a good introduction to the elderly Armenian-American visionary. If you don’t like Hovhaness, you won’t like this disc and you probably haven’t read this review.