Hovhaness Orchestral Works
Amiable is the word to describe the music of Alan Hovhaness, as presented in this collection of shorter works. His birth-date, March 1911, came only a few months after Vaughan Williams had completed the masterpiece which seems to lie close behind many if not most of this music, the Tallis Fantasia. It is almost as though in a mystic way the infant composer had captured overtones from across the Atlantic. The longest work here is Mysterious Mountain, the Symphony No. 2, commissioned by Stokowski for Houston in 1955 and consisting of three measured movements lasting in all 17 minutes. ''Mountains and symbols, like pyramids, of man's attempt to know God'', says the composer, and his spiritual purpose is expressed in the modal writing of the Andante outer movements, with overtones of Vaughan Williams pastoral as well as of Tallis, framing a central fugue characteristically smooth in its lines. The finale, at the start sounding like 'Tallis Fantasia meets Parsifal', culminates in a chorale leading to a grandiose conclusion. If Gorecki, why not Hovhaness, one begins to ask, and there is something of the same flavour in this obviously dedicated music. Though Hovhaness, in his extraordinary facility, has written over 60 symphonies at the last count, outdoing even the prodigious Havergal Brian, this No. 2 was written when he was already in his mid-forties, a landmark work for the composer.
The Prayer of St Gregory starts like the symphony with an elegiac trumpet emerging over multiple strings, leading to a simple chorale, while three of the remaining four works bring elaborate fugues, not just those with 'fugue' in the title, but the Celestial Fantasy too, dating originally from 1935 but orchestrated later. The Armenian element in Hovhaness's writing comes out in the occasional augmented interval or chromatic line, and there is a hint of that too in another early work, the Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, dating from 1936. In its ease of expression even that belies the idea of perspiration behind the composer's writing, and like most of the other works it ends on a huge crescendo.
Hovhaness's fondness for huge crescendos, not just at the end, comes out most strikingly in the work which stands apart from the others here, And God Created Great Whales, dating from 1970. With its fluent use of gimmicks, it would be easy to mock this, starting as it does with an aleatory twitter which leads on to pentatonic doodling of a kind that one improvised as a child on the black keys of the piano. Then comes the first of the tapes of the songs of the great humpback whale, recorded specially, followed by the first huge climax, very impressive except that the pentatonic melody which roars out on trombones (leading to whale-song imitations) is not distinctive enough, almost banal, punctuated by glockenspiel. What saves the piece is the obvious dedication behind the performance, a quality which marks the playing of the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz in all the works here. The recording too is full and atmospheric. Who knows, lightning might strike again, just as it did with Gorecki's Third Symphony?'