Hovhaness' Musical Voices
The Naxos American Classics series offers an excellent point of entry to the sometimes overlooked achievements of American composers of classical music. Among other composers, the series offers the opportunity to explore the music of Alan Hovhaness (1911 -- 2000), a prolific composer whose stature continues to rise. This CD, the sixth Naxos disk devoted to the composer, offers a cross-section of Hovhaness' music, in terms of time and influences, in its three pieces. The CD begins with the composer's first symphony, composed in 1936, which shows the influence of folk music and of Hovhaness' Armenian heritage. The second piece, the "Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints" composed in 1965, reflects Hovhaness' study of Eastern music later in his life. The final work, the "Symphony No. 50, "Mount Saint Helens", composed in 1982, reflects Hovhaness' lifelong mystical approach to mountains and nature.
For all their differences in time and style, the three pieces have in common the use of modal harmonies and scales, the orchestration which emphasizes winds, chorales, and percussion, long sinuous beautiful melodies, and the frequent use of fugue and counterpoint. Each work bears the composer's stamp.
Gerard Schwarz, a champion of American music and of Hovhaness, conducts the Seattle Symphony in these performances. The recordings date from 1990 (first two works) and 1992 and were first released on Delos. Schwarz is a sympathetic and romantic interpreter of the composer. The sound is full and clear, especially in the final work which demands a large sound.
Leopold Stowkowski was an early champion of Hovhaness, and he premiered and recorded the Symphony No. 1, "Exile", Op. 17, No. 2. In 1970, Hovhaness revised this work by writing a new second movement, which is used in the performance here. Hovhaness dedicated his first symphony to Francis Bacon (whom he believed wrote Shakespeare's plays), but the program of the symphony commemorates the Armenian exile and massacre in the early Twentieth Century conflict with the Turks. This three movement symphony has more drama than most of Hovhaness' later, more mystical music. In its instrumentation particularly, the symphony shows the strong influence of Sibelius.
The opening movement has a character of mourning as beautiful long solo passages for oboe and flute alternate with harsher, more jagged passages for brass and percussion. The brief second movement marked "Grazioso" is both lyrical and "dauntless" with melodies in the winds floating over plucked strings and the harp. The triumphal large-scale finale is based on a long slow march theme interspersed with more reflective passages. This early symphony remains one of Hovhannes' best. There is another recent recording of this work by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project which takes the piece at a considerably more deliberate tempo.
In midlife, Hovhaness visited Japan and other Eastern countries several times and incorporated elements of Eastern music. In 1965, he composed a work of about 15 minutes, the "Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints" opus 211. In this, and other music, Hovhaness combines East and West. It is unclear what "woodprints" inspired this music. The work begins slowly with a flute solo and changes tempo and idiom several times. The work features the marimba performed her by Ron Johnson, of the Seattle Symphony's percussion section. The work seems a virtuoso piece for the instrument with long extended scalar and modal passages in a distinctively Japanese idiom.
In 1980, Mount St. Helens in Washington erupted furiously and caused great destruction after a long period of dormancy. Hovhaness composed his Symphony No. 50, "Mount Saint Helens" Opus 360 in 1982. This late work has become one of the composer's most famous. The three-movement symphony is a hymn to the beauty and power of nature, perhaps a work in the tradition of Beethoven's "Pastorale" symphony. The two opening movements are different in character from the finale. The opening movement, a lengthy march-like andante, is peaceful in character with interwoven themes in the winds. Although the music is immediately accessible,it took me several hearings to appreciate the subtlety of the themes. There is a fugal passage at the end of the movement. The second movement "Spirit Lake" is in modal harmony and captures the peacefulness of a lake at Mount Saint Helen's base which was destroyed when the volcano erupted.
The symphony reaches its climax in the third movement. Following an opening hymnlike section, Hovhaness captures in sound the massive eruption of Mount Saint Helens. The eruption begins with long booming tympani passages, glissando passages in the brass, and further rhythmic, rocking percussive cacophony. The tone is one of awe and power but not of fear. Throughout this depiction of the volcanic eruption, the music emphasizes that the force is part of nature rather than somehow outside it. The effect is large and impressive but, I think, benign. After the eruption, the movement concludes with a return of the the hymn music with which it began and by a fugal passage which emphasizes what Hovhaness sees as the peace and unity of nature.
Paul Schiavo wrote detailed liner notes for this CD. With its variety of high-quality works, this CD makes a good introduction to listeners new to the composer. Listeners who already love Hovhaness will want to hear this CD.
Total Time: 65:40