HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”. And God Created Great Whales. Prelude and Quadruple Fugue. Alleluia and Fugue. Celestial Fantasy. Prayer of St. Gregory. Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. DELOS DE-3157 [DDD]; 59:30. Produced by Amelia S. Haygood and Walter Gray.
This CD brings together a number of Alan Hovhaness’ best-loved works, mostly composed between the years 1935-55, in performances that are technically fine, but variable in interpretive quality. In some pieces Schwarz chooses tempos that are too slow, which can be a real liability in music of such overall simplicity. (The composer himself has always favored brisk tempos when conducting his own work.)
One piece that is decidedly free of this problem is Mysterious Mountain, which c arz moves along at quite a clip in comparison to Fritz Reiner’s venerable and very stately 1958 performance with the Chicago Symphony on RCA, but not as rushed as Dennis Russell Davies’ 1989 reading with the American Composers Orchestra on Musicmasters. (For a fairly elaborate discussion of that and other CDs containing overlapping repertoire with this one, see Fanfare 13:2, pp. 241-5). Of course, it was Reiner’s performance that put this piece — and, to a large extent, Hovhaness’ name and music in general — on the map. I find Schwarz’s reading to be quite moving and effective, making the most of the work’s dramatic moments: for example, he builds the mysterious opening section of the third movement to quite a climax. However, listeners may have variable reactions to a cut of some fifteen seconds of harmonically sequential counterpoint from the rapid second portion of the second movement.
Hovhaness’ other best-known piece s probably And God Created Great Whales, although I suspect that its reputation is more a matter of its being one of the first, if not the first, pieces to employ taped whale sounds than of any particular musical distinction. It was composed in 1970 — quite a few years later than any of the other pieces on this disc — when Hovhaness was preoccupied with such devices as aleatoric waves of buzzing sounds, modal melodies in stentorian unisons, and canons of sliding tones, some of which are based on techniques borrowed from Korean music. Drawing upon these devices, Whales was thrown together rather hastily and, from a musical standpoint, is quite flimsy However, an additional aleatoric dimension is produced by the whale-sound component, which seems left to the discretion of the particular performing entity; hence, the work’s three recordings use entirely different whale “ensembles,” and each has been overdubbed, mixed, and edited to produce a unique result. The whale contributions on the two most recent recordings — Schwarz’s and David Amos’ (Crystal CD810; see review cited above) — are quite compelling in themselves –i ndeed, more so than the music. But together with the music as a backdrop, an aural-spiritual landscape of a primeval natural phenomenon is evoked quite vividly. Schwarz’s rendition of the work is excellent, but I think that Amos’ (with the Philharmonia Orchestra) is a bit more exciting and better recorded.
Prelude and Quadruple Fugue is the only work appearing on CD for the first time. Originally composed during the 1930s as part of a subsequently withdrawn string quartet (which also contained material that figures prominently in Mysterious Mountain), the piece became well known through a fine monaural recording from the late 1950s featuring Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester orchestra. Although much has been made of the contrapuntal feat involved in producing such a rarity as a quadruple fugue, the thematic material is simple enough and designed in such a way that the result falls into place more easily than one may suspect. Rather than a crabbed intellectual exercise, the piece is primarily a dramatic entity with plenty of surface appeal. Schwarz’s reading emphasizes tempo distinctions between the sections of the fugue, while highlighting contrapuntal detail with admirable clarity.
Alleluia and Fugue is the first work of Hovhaness’ I ever heard, some 35 years ago, and I still think it is an extremely convincing example of his early-Christian mysticism in its purest and most fervent form. For strings only, it is the sort of piece that will appeal to listeners fond of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, although it is somewhat more stark, depersonalized, and severe — hence, more authentically Medieval. (I wonder how the Gorecki and Part contingents react to this side of Hovhaness’ work.) Unfortunately, Schwarz follows David Amos in taking the Fugue, marked Moderato, at a slow tempo that significantly reduces the contrast between the sections and robs the music of the noble vigor that is clearly intended. The version conducted by Carlos Surinach on a legendary MGM LP from the mid-1950s had the right idea.
Celestial Fantasy is another piece for string orchestra that evokes a Medieval quality, but one whose ecstatic character has a darker, more somber coloration than Alleluia and Fugue.Originating in 1935 as part of a choral Mass, the piece alternates between deep, melismatic incantations and stately fugal episodes. But again, Schwarz takes an inexplicably slow tempo, in comparison with David Amos’ better paced but somewhat less refined reading with the Israel Philharmonic on an excellent American composers miscellany (Crystal CD508).
In a similar vein to the two pieces just discussed, the very brief Prayer of St. Gregory seems to turn up on most Hovhaness collections these days. The performance here is fine.
Looking at this disc as a whole, I would conclude that admirers of the composer who don’t already own recordings of these pieces (I don’t suspect there are too many) will probably find this to be a rewarding program. But listeners who have previous recordings of them are not likely to find anything so outstanding about these performances as to justify the purchase of this disc
In closing, let me direct conductors and producers to Hovhaness concertos for orchestra. These eight works, of which only three have ever been recorded — and only one on CD — were composed during the 1950s and comprise some of his most consistently inspired and well-tailored music. Instead of re-doing the same old pieces, or dipping blindly into the vast expanse of interminable post-1970 symphonies, why not try these. Listen to David Amos’ excellent recording of the Concerto No. 8 (Crystal CD810) and see whether you agree.