Hovhaness' Wind Symphonies
The late Alan Hovhaness (1911 - 2000)has received considerable popular attention but too little critical appreciation. Hovhaness was a prolific composer of 67 symphonies and over 400 works in a variety of forms. He wrote a great deal of music for band, and his output includes eight wind symphonies. Three of these symphonies are offered on this CD. Keith Brion conducts the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Wind Orchestra. Brion first conducted Hovhaness' wind music in 1964 with a high school band and recorded an all-Hovhaness disk with Gerard Schwartz on the trumpet in 1969. He has also made extensive recordings for Naxos of the music of John Phillip Sousa.
Hovhaness' symphonies are generally short and programmatic. The three wind symphonies on this CD emphasize the mystical, spiritual music of the composer. They consist of long choral passages for brass intertwined with solos for many different wind instruments, and for gongs, bells, cymbals, and drums. Much of the music, for the solos in particular, is modal in character, and it is contrasted with tonal passages in the larger ensembles. (Jean Sibelius did the same thing at times and Sibelius was a great influence on Hovhaness.) Hovhaness makes extensive use of counterpoint. The music is, and was composed to be, immediately accessible to a broad audience.
The three movement Symphony no. 4, opus 165, probably Hovhaness' best-known wind work, was composed in 1958. It contrasts brass chorales for trombone and trumpet with long solo themes in the bass clarinet and bassoon. It closes with an extended fugue. The unusual second movement features a haunting solo for xylophone extending the length of the music. It reminded me of a Milt Jackson solo for the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was active at the time this work was composed. The final opens with an extended brass chorale followed by solos for trumpet and winds. Bells and gongs give a mystical character to this symphony throughout.
Hovhaness' three -movement symphony no. 20, "Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain" opus 223 dates from 1969 and was one the composer's works commissioned and performed first by a high school band. Each movement represents a pilgrimage. The tripartite first movement opens with a clarinet solo, followed by an English horn solo, and a long, lyrical climactic section. The second movement begins with a long solo for alto saxophone, and the band gradually joins in over a low droning theme and the roll of drums. The finale features a brass chorale and fugue. Here again percussion and chimes add much to this piece.
The final symphony on this disk, the two-movement "Star Dawn" opus 377 dates from 1983. Hovhaness apparently was fascinated by the possibility of space travel, an interest I find it best to disregard in hearing the music. Chorale sections are contrasted with long, flowing solo passages for clarinet in the first movement. A drum-roll opens the second movement followed by a long reedy solo and a fugal close. The accompaniment of bells is to represent the stars or, perhaps,human yearning.
The CD includes two short Hovhaness works for band. The "Prayer of Saint Gregory" is a short piece Hovhaness arranged from an earlier composition for trumpet solo, played here by John Wallace, and band The trumpet solo predominates in this brief work with a meditative, searching character. The other short work, "Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places" also features John Wallace on the trumpet. The work opens with a piercing trumpet solo, followed by a loud helter-skelter passage for the ensemble. The second movement also is lead by the trumpet and is a call to rebuild the world from chaos.
This CD and its earlier companion will introduce the listener to the music of Alan Hovhaness. Naxos has released several additional CDs of Hovhaness' music all of which are welcome in preserving his works. Naxos is performing a real service to lovers of music in its ongoing "American Classics" series.