HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 4. GIANNINI: Symphony No. 3. GOULD: Symphony No. 4, ‘West Point`

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 4. GIANNINI: Symphony No. 3. GOULD: Symphony No. 4, ‘West Point`. A. Clyde Roller and Frederick Fennell conducting the Eastman Wind Ensemble. MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE–434 320-2 [ADD); 64:52. Produced by Wilma Cosart Fine.

Here is the latest release in the extraordinary series of Mercury/Eastman reissues, featuring three major American wind symphonies from the 1950s — a Golden Age for art music composed expressly for band by American composers. The exemplary recordings made by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under its founder and conductor from 1952 to 1962, Frederick Fennell, were both a result of this significant activity and a stimulus for its further expansion.

Alan Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 4 (of a canon that now numbers about 70) is one of his most beloved and most widely played compositions. Actually, it is not truly a band work, as saxophones and other exclusively band instruments (e.g. baritone horn) are not used   Composed in 1958, the work resembles other pieces by Hovhaness dating from this period: reverent triadic chorales and exultant Handelian fugues alternate with long, modal melodies that feature extended solos for such instruments as bass clarinet and contrabassoon, accompanied by spacey bell-like effects from outside the tonality. Other striking instrumental usages include an almost frightening passage in which tromboneglissandi in opposite directions cross each other. Despite its similarity to other works by the composer, the Fourth Symphony makes a strong impact, partly owing to the stunning performance provided by the Eastman players (aside from an egregiously wrong French horn chord in the first movement) and partly because the work itself is unusually (for this composer) concise and well-balanced.

Vittorio Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 is actually the fifth of his seven in that form; two unnumbered symphonies precede No. 1. This work was also composed in 1958, but is aesthetically light-years away from the Hovhaness. (While Hovhaness was simulating “the bells in the thousand towers of the lost Armenian city of Ani,” Giannini wrote his piece “because I felt like it,” motivated only “by what I heard and felt at that time.”) The work is smoothly and skillfully wrought, but thoroughly conventional in layout and style, and rather pedestrian in expressive content. Only the heartfelt and wistful slow movement rises above the pleasant but ordinary remainder. Although many band musicians love the work, the symphony is an example of the sort of Gebrauchsmusik upon which Giannini concentrated during the 1950s.  Ironically, this portion of his output has been most widely heard and has colored his reputation for many listeners unaware of the fervor and passion of his operatic music or the searing intensity of his late works from the 1960s. In fact, a deeper and more artistically significant band work is the Variations and Fugue from this latter period, but it has never been recorded commercially.

Morton Gould composed his “West Point Symphony” in 1952 upon commission from the band of the United States Military Academy. Although permeated by military parade-like musical symbolism, the work is really quite abstract and subtly constructed, with an unusual and quite interesting formal layout and some really spectacular effects of scoring. However, as with most of Gould’s works, it is quite cold and impersonal — primarily a product of musical intellect and craftsmanship,

The performances hers maintain the breathtakingly high standards set by previous Eastman Wind Ensemble recordings. A. Clyde Roller, conductor of the Hovhaness and Giannini works, replaced Fennell in 1963, when the latter chose to pursue orchestral conducting for a time. Roller did not remain very long; this was his only recording with the group, and it was their last (made during his first year) to appear for some time The sound quality of these later recordings the Gould dates from 1959) just about reaches Mercury’s apex, and the CD transfers are glorious. This release is a must for all Eastman enthusiasts (as they no doubt already know), but will thrill many other listeners as well.