HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate.” Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places. Mountains and Rivers Without End. Prayer of St. Gregory. Haroutiun: Aria. Symphony No. 25, “Odysseus.”

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate.” Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places. Mountains and Rivers Without End. Prayer of St. Gregory. Haroutiun: Aria.Richard Auldon Clark conducting the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra; Chris Gekker trumpet. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7221-2Hl [DDD]; 62:41. Produced by Michael Fine

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate.” Symphony No. 25, “Odysseus.” Prayer of St. Gregory. Alan Hovhaness conducting the Polyphonia Orchestra of London; John Wilbraham, trumpet. CRYSTAL CD807 [ADD]; 60:02.

In view of the recency of general remarks that have appeared in Fanfare concerning the music of Alan Hovhaness made by Art Lange (17:3, pp. 206-7 and by me (16:6, pp. 158-9; 12:4, pp 189-90),  1 will try to restrict my comments here to the music at hand. The Koch release features brand-new performances of music that has all been recorded before, except for the aria from Haroutiun (noteworthy when one considers that the composer is up to somewhere around 500 opus numbers, of which fewer than 100 are currently available on recording).   However, having said this, I should immediately add that the Clark/Manhattan performances are exceedingly good, exceeding any previous versions. The Crystal disc consists of reissues of material that was previously available on LPs from the composer’s own company, Poseidon. (With this release, most of the Poseidon material is now available on Crystal CDs.) The reader will note that there is a certain amount of overlap between these two discs; because of this and because of the widely varying quality of the music — and the concession that individuals may differ about this — general purchase recommendations are impossible for me to make.

The most auspicious item here is the Symphony No. 6, “Celestial Gate.”  In my view, as someone who is familiar with about a third of Hovhaness output, this symphony is one of the three or four most inspired and deeply moving works of his known to me. In one-movement and scored for chamber orchestra, this 20-minute piece, composed in 1959, is one of the few that really achieves the sense of fervent mystical rapture, serenity of spirit, and pure spiritual beauty for which Hovhaness has so often strived. Why does this particular work succeed where so few others have? Perhaps mine is a purely subjective reaction but I am inclined to credit it to a coherence of both formal and expressive content, with an integrative relationship — however rudimentary — among its various episodes, and an overall sense of direction, combined with more than the usual degree of contrapuntal interest, and some particularly attractive and memorable melodic material, all of which is tailored with concision that the composer abandoned more than 20 years ago   Of the two performances, the Clark/Manhattan is a good deal more polished, with especially refined solo playing and more subtly nuanced phrasing. The composer’s own reading displays a tad more animation, however. Needless to say, Hovhaness enthusiasts are strongly urged to acquaint themselves with this work, whichever recording they choose.

Both recordings also offer performances of the Prayer of St. Gregory, a short, modal aria for trumpet against simple diatonic counterpoint in the strings, with a hymn-like interlude in the middle. Its convincingly reverent quality has earned for this interlude from the 1946 operaEtchmiadzin a widespread popularity and quite a few recordings. Of the two under discussion, the Koch again displays greater polish and more sensitive phrasing.

Along with these two works, the Crystal disc includes the Symphony No. 25, “Odysseus,” composed in 1973. (Since then, incidentally, Hovhaness has completed more than 40 additional works he labels “symphonies.”) “Odysseus” is remarkable as an example of a secular-dramatic side to the composer’s musical personality that is less widely represented in his output, though somewhat more so in recent years. Again a one-movement work for chamber orchestra, this one is 36 minutes long. Here are encountered the simplistic episodic structure, repetitive, slow-moving harmony, plodding melodies, and two-dimensional textures that can make so much of Hovhaness’ music so excruciatingly boring, although there are some welcome attempts at dramatic contrast.

Turning now to the remainder of the Koch disc, let us confront Mountains and Rivers Without End, which can also be found on a Crystal disc (CD804), in a performance under the composer’s direction. This is a 24-minute “chamber symphony,” written in 1968 and scored for a small group of woodwinds, brass harp, and percussion. Based on material also used in the contemporaneous opera, The Leper King, this work derives from Hovhaness’ “Korean period,” and features much use of trombone glissandi, free-rhythm passages, unison woodwind canons, and a virtual absence of harmony. Partly owing to a recurring 7/4 refrain of mind-numbing banality, I have always considered this piece to hover at the nadir of the composer’s entire canon.  However, I must say that Clark and his group try very hard to make an artistic statement of it, and succeed in so doing, to a certain extent, creating the effect of a dream-like journey through a strange, exotic landscape (which is the composer’s intended effect).

Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places (no one can deny that Hovhaness chooses his titles with great imagination) is a 10-minute piece for trumpet and wind ensemble that was available at one time on a Mace LP, with Gerard Schwarz as trumpet soloist. The piece comprises materials in both quasi-Armenian and quasi-Korean styles, written during different periods of the composer’s career, from the 1940s through the 1960s, yet hangs together fairly well, concluding with the hymn that ends the incidental music to The Flowering Peach.  Again, the performance here is superb.

Haroutiun is a l0-minute aria and fugue for trumpet and strings, composed in 1948. Why the producers decided to omit the fugue from this recording is beyond me, as this is one piece that has never been recorded. However, the incantatory aria will sound familiar to some, as the melody appeared later in Meditation on Orpheus, though in a different sort of context.

With this release and the Cowell disc that appeared a few months ago, Richard Auldon Clark and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra appear to be convincing advocates for some little-known but highly accessible American music, which they are presenting with rare sensitivity. There is plenty more waiting to be discovered, and I hope that consumer interest will prompt further explorations. The orchestra has dedicated the Hovhaness disc to the memory of Maureen Snyder, a talented and much-beloved young horn player who was killed in an automobile accident shortly after making this recording.

In closing, amid the current plethora of highly uneven Hovhaness recordings, I thought it might be useful to mention those current CDs that contain what I feel are the composer’s most indispensable works, in addition to the Symphony No. 6: Crystal CD810 for Alleluia and Fugue, Anahid, and Concerto No. 8; Crystal CD806 for Lady of Light and Avak the Healer; and MusicMasters 7021-2-C for Lousadzak and Mysterious Mountain.

A final post-script: Crystal ought to know that Stokowski’s name ends in an i, while someone needs to tell Koch how Otto Luening’s name is spelled.