Hovhaness Mysterious Mountains
It is easy to dismiss the music of Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000). For starters, he was suspiciously prolific, with opus numbers nearing 500. But despite such sustained productivity over more than seven decades, his work is stylistically consistent – so much so, in fact, that some only half-jokingly claim he wrote the same symphony 67 times. Certainly, the profusion of sing-song fugues and modal, hymn-like tunes throughout his output can give a feeling of predictability.
And, yet, listening to the opening movement of the Mount St Helens Symphony (1982), it’s difficult not to be entranced, and even awed, by the music’s sheer sensuous beauty – those luminous clouds of strings, that majestic rising theme in the horns, then, a little later, the delicate spinning of the harp and a procession of ecstatic, exotic woodwind solos. Perhaps the depiction of the volcano’s eruption is a bit primitive, though it’s fascinating that Hovhaness seems to view the explosion not only as an elemental event but also as a ritualistic one.
This is Gerard Schwarz’s second recording of this Symphony, and it’s appreciably tauter. I only wish he had inspired the RLPO’s percussion section to play as ferociously as their counterparts in Seattle. On the earlier recording, the initial explosion hits you right in the gut. The conductor also recorded the Mysterious Mountain Symphony (1955) previously (also for Delos), yet this time there is no doubt about the superiority of the new version. Schwarz still does not match the hell-for-leather intensity of the double fugue in Fritz Reiner’s famous Chicago recording, but otherwise this is a lovingly-shaped, absorbing performance.
I’m also quite taken with Hymn to Glacier Peak (1992), the composer’s penultimate symphony. As the title suggests, it has a preponderance of hymn-like melody, yet there’s a valedictory quality to the music that I find touching. The finale is particularly effective, moving from hymn to one of Hovhaness’s most tuneful fugues via a darkly atmospheric interlude.
Warmly recommended: this would make an excellent introduction to Hovhaness’s music.