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CD Review

Alan Hovhaness

  • Symphony #6, Op. 173, "Celestial Gate"
  • Prélude and Quadruple Fugue, Op. 128 for orchestra
  • Tzaikerk, "Evening Song" for flute, violin, timpani, and strings
  • Prayer of St. Gregory for trumpet and strings
  • Alleluia and Fugue, Op. 40b for strings
  • Concerto #7, Op. 116 for orchestra
Paul Edmund-Davies, flute
Arnold Kobyliansky, violin
Randy Max, timpani
Benny Wiame, trumpet
I Fiamminghi/Rudolf Werthen
Telarc CD-80392
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I can't recommend this CD, titled "Celestial Gate," highly enough. Major Hovhaness works receive knockout performances, surpassing everyone else's, including the composer's own. If you don't like this disc, you simply don't like Hovhaness.

Hovhaness has written over 60 works which he calls symphonies. I would say that for me, as well as most people, that the symphony is a dramatic or narrative form. That is, a symphony tells its listeners a story - not in the simple sense of program music or tone poems - more accurately, I guess, a kind of meta-story where elements establish tension, heighten tension, ease tension, and finally resolve tension, just as a good narrative or sermon or drama does. The form implies three-dimensionality, chiaroscuro, contour. I can't offhand name a composer less dramatic than Hovhaness. Instead of attending to actors on a stage - as we seem to do with every major symphonist in the classical tradition – we watch the composer unfolding a flat scroll. Each event seems no less important than any other. Here, the composer acts as a mapmaker who traces the boundaries of his visions, for Hovhaness has probably always viewed art as an expression of cosmos. In this, he is extraordinarily unfashionable. We prefer our artists psychological. Mahler's heaven doesn't interest us in and of itself, but as an expression of Mahler's confronting his intellect with his innocence. In contrast, I have no idea of Hovhaness in "real life." His artistic personality is as serene, as balanced, and as impermeable as a bronze Buddha. The music invites the listener to "look here, and look here," but it doesn't compare the points and doesn't evaluate them. All is equally valuable because all are parts of the vision. Mahler struggles to attain balance. Hovhaness' never falls into doubt. If we miss the drama in Hovhaness, where, then, lies the interest?

When I first moved to New Orleans from the industrial Midwest, the song of a particular bird - the mockingbird, I learned later - transfixed me. When I heard my first live nightingale in Europe, I couldn't see why Keats and the others had fussed so much. The mockingbird deserved the poetry. It sang distinctively, sweetly, and with just enough unpredictability to hold my attention. I could easily say the same of Hovhaness - Lou Harrison in print called Hovhaness "a melodist who comes along once every hundred years" - but to that I'd add several more things. I adore his modal harmonies, the arabesque in his lines reminiscent of cantorial chant, the new textures, the lack of strain in his affect, the ability to absorb traditional techniques like fugue and give them back in an individual way, and the ability to invent new techniques without giving off the whiff of the bizarre. Musically, in other words, there's plenty to get involved with. Yet when Hovhaness really, really works for me, I forget all that. The universe opens up for me as an immense glittering thing, with millions of fires and giant hearts beating almost out of hearing, and the music of thousands of spheres like a symphony of crickets or even like a lively cocktail party. How could I not be interested?

The Symphony #6, "Celestial Gate," throughout its single movement plays variation games with four or five simple ideas, including an achingly beautiful melody, first heard on the clarinet and later transformed into fugue. The theme, surprisingly, calls to mind Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia," just to give an idea of its general shape. It's the mockingbird again, and it carries me through the entire 21 minutes.

The Prélude and Quadruple Fugue introduced me to Hovhaness in the form of an old Mercury recording led by Howard Hanson. It immediately put me on the lookout for everything by Hovhaness I could find. It's a compositional tour-de-force - a quadruple fugue indeed, as the themes combine and recombine with powerful ease. Hovhaness convinced me he knew his compositional onions. Even more astonishing, I recently learned that it began life as a movement of Hovhaness' first string quartet (available on Delos DE3162). Werthen and his orchestra play the bejabbers out of the piece.

Tzaikerk has fun with the conflict of complex, asymmetric rhythms against a steady beat. It's a bit like twirling a ball tied to the end of a string, and wondering whether it will fly out of your fingers. The Prayer of St. Gregory takes a very simple idea (and one Hovhaness often resorts to in his concerti) of letting a single instrument soar over a chorale of strings. The catch is that the music had damn well better soar. Here, it takes off into the aether. Wiame, the solo trumpet, could put out more warmth, but the music carries him anyway.

After over twenty years' acquaintance with the piece, I can confidently state that the Alleluia and Fugue has never grabbed me and will unlikely ever do so. To me, it not only goes nowhere, but there's nothing even as remotely interesting as a Dairy Queen in its musical landscape. I Fiamminghi try their best to rouse the music - playing with ravishing tone, but the most they create is a ravishing bore. My interest remained firmly fixed on the playing.

The Concerto #7 for orchestra (the prodigal composer has written at least eight) grows from a delicate flute and glockenspiel duet into one of Hovhaness' lushest and most authoritative scores. Like all of the composer's concerti, it eschews virtuosity, becoming really more a concerto grosso - contrasting solo instruments or small groups with the great orchestra - than the contest of a dramatic hero winning out against large odds. The entire work represents another tour de force as the composer builds, almost fractally, three entire movements out of one very simple idea - a part of the melodic minor scale - culminating in an immense double fugue. Werthen and his orchestra surpass the only other performance I know (Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra, who commissioned the work), delicate and responsive in the quiet parts, passionate and massive in the grander ones. After years of gratitude to off-labels for okay performances and mediocre sound (at least they took a chance and recorded the music), this CD could well spoil me.

Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz