Hovhaness For His Birthday (March 8, 1911)
Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was a prolific and gifted American composer. He enjoyed popular success during his lifetime although he did not achieve the critical recognition he deserved. His work is melodic, accessible and heavily influenced by eastern music, mysticism, and nature.
Naxos has included this CD consisting of Hovhaness' early Concerto for Cello Opus 17 (1936) and his 1971 Symphony, "City of Light" as part of its "American Classics" series designed to introduce the listener, at budget prices, to the range of American achievements in the composition of classical music. Hovhaness merits inclusion in this series (he deserves and has subsequently received more than one disc); and this CD is a good introduction.
The Cello Concerto of 1937 is an early work. The recording here dates from 1999 and features the renowned cellist Janos Starker playing with the Seattle Symphony. The concerto shows Hovhaness, I think, under the deep influence of Jean Sibelius, whom he visited as a young man. The concerto is in three movements with the outer two slow and lengthy movements surrounding a brief allegro movement. There is substantial interplay in the outer movement of this work between the cello and the solo flute together with long orchestral interludes. There are long, melodic lines and moments of lyricism particularly in the third movement. The liner notes repeat a legend that has grown with the telling that Hovhaness destroyed "close to 1000" works in 1940 but spared this concerto. Hovhaness did have a commendable capacity for self-criticism, but my understanding is that this story and the number of works at issue has grown with the years. Be that as it may, this cello concerto is an appealing work.
The second work on the CD, the 1971 "Symphony of Light", Opus 236 is music on a high level. Hovhaness wrote this symphony under a commission from the Birmingham Symphony Orcestra (Alabama). The recording here dates from 1992 and features Hovhaness himself conducting the Seattle Orchestra.
This is a four-movement symphony of about 30 minutes featuring extended slow opening and concluding movements surrounding two exquisite, very short movements. The work well deserves its name "City of Light". It is in an eloquent, elevated, mystical tone throughout. It features long intertwining string themes played by the strings with comments from the winds, and percussion. It has a highly eastern flavor. The climax of this symphony is in its final movement which closes with an extended fugue on a lengthy melody played in the lower strings.
As I listened to the Symphony, I couldn't help remember the Birmingham, Alabama of 1963 in which police dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on Martin Luther King and his followers in the cause of Civil Rights. This symphony, written only eight years after these events, speaks to me of a city of promise and love, dedicated to high ideals and open to all. The music is both elevated and accessible and paints a tonal picture of aspiration for Birmingham specifically, perhaps, but for all our cities as well. This is music of a uniquely mystical and American stamp.
The listener will enjoy getting to know the works of Alan Hovhaness in this CD.