Over the last three years, a large number of discs of music by Hovhaness have been released (amongst contemporary composers, only Henryk Górecki is likely to have been more visible). At last count, there were more than twenty discs available with a substantial Hovhaness "presence"… that being said, the sheer volume of Hovhaness's body of work means that the material presently available is less than representative of his entire career; with the skew blatantly towards the orchestral work and away from his operatic and vocal works (of his ten operas, only the stageable oratorio "Lady of Light" has been recorded… similarly, only a handful of his choral works available; and only the "Saturn" cycle of his songs).
There are also a number of key recordings presently lost in deletion – most obviously the Kostelanetz recordings of the 1970s (which include the original version of "And God Created Great Whales"). Pioneering recordings with the MGM String Orchestra/Surinach and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra/Hanson also await rediscovery.
The majority of Hovhaness recordings are presently on the Crystal, Delos and Koch International Classics labels. The Crystal set is the largest; and includes the complete catalog of "Poseidon" recordings supervised and conducted by Hovhaness in the 1970s as well as more recent recordings by Amos, Schwarz, Gold and Hovhaness… unfortunately, Crystal discs can be difficult to obtain outside the US. They also tend to suffer from less than useful tracking – extended works such as "Majnun", "St Vartan" and "Odyesseus" symphonies are restricted to two tracks only (as previously mentioned, the "St Vartan" symphony consists of 24 separate sections). It should also be noted that Hovhaness is one of those composer/conductors who takes his own music more ruggedly than anyone else would dare to; so these recordings should not necessarily be seen as ideal introductions to his work.
The Delos and Koch International releases have all been recorded in the last few years. Recordings have been spread over a number of different ensembles with a consistently high quality. Liner notes are generally useful. The pick of the new ensembles seems to be Delos' Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz combination and the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra/Richard Auldon Clark on Koch International (Marvin Rosen – who writes the liner notes of the Koch International discs – is also developing a cycle of solo piano discs for the label (see below)).
The list which follows is not intended to be exclusive; but offers a reasonable introduction to the available music of Hovhaness….
"Exile" symphony (Symphony No. 1) - Delos DE3168
(with The Rubaiyat, Meditation on Orpheus, Fantasy on Japanese Woodcuts) Michael York (narrator); Diane Schmidt (accordion); Ron Johnson (marimba); Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
The recording of "The Rubaiyat" suffers from an overly twee narration by Michael York; but the other three works receive strong advocacy from the Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz et al.
"Lousadzak" (Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra) - MusicMasters 7021-2-C
(with "Mysterious Mountain" symphony (Symphony No. 2); "Elegaic" symphony (Symphony No. 2) by Lou Harrison)
Keith Jarrett (piano); American Composers Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies
Keith Jarrett is, perhaps, not an obvious choice as an Hovhaness pianist; but "Lousadzak" is a critical work in Hovhaness's musical development. The "Elegaic" symphony by Lou Harrison is superb.
"Mysterious Mountain" symphony (Symphony No. 2) - RCA Victor Living Stereo 09026 61957 2
(with The Fairy's Kiss: Divertimento by Igor Stravinsky; Lieutenant Kije – Symphonic Suite by Serge Prokofieff)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
Hovhaness once likened the "Mysterious Mountain" of his symphony to "the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distances by fliers in Tibet"; and for Hovhaness collectors, the vinyl version of this disc was the surest proof that this phantom peak actually existed (copies traded hands for amazing figures). Freshly reissued under the RCA Victor Living Stereo label, this recording remains an Hovhaness classic.
"Mysterious Mountain" symphony (Symphony No. 2) - Delos DE3157
(with Prayer of St Gregory, Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, And God Created Great Whales, Alleluia and Fugue, Celestial Fantasy)
Charles Butler (tr); Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
Something of a "greatest hits" album; with the Telarc disc (see below) the ideal introduction to Hovhaness's musical world.
Mountains and Rivers Without End - Koch International Classics 3-7221-2H1
(with "Celestial Gate" symphony (Symphony No. 6), Prayer of St Gregory, Aria from Haroutin, Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places)
Chris Gekker (tr); Manhattan Chamber Orchestra/Richard Auldon Clark
The first of two superb recordings by the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra/Richard Auldon Clark of music by Hovhaness. Like the Delos disc above, has something of a "greatest hits" quality, with a more self-consciously elegaic feel.
"Celestial Gate" - Telarc CD-80392
(with "Celestial Gate" symphony (Symphony No. 6), Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Tzaikerk (Evening Song), Prayer of St Gregory, Alleluia and Fugue, Concerto No. 7 for Orchestra)
Paul Edmond Davies (f); Arnold Kobyliansky (v); Randy Max (?) (timpani); Benny Wiame (tr); I Fiamminghi (the Orchestra of Flanders)/Rudolf Werthen
The tempos on this disc are notoriously slow (the "Prayer of St Gregory" here is a 5:37 cosmic rapture against Hovhaness's own 4:22 lean, mean theological machine (see below)) and only the "Concerto No. 7" for orchestra isn't duplicated elsewhere; but the rapt commitment of I Fiamminghi and conductor Rudolf Werthen, extended (79 mins) playing time and a wonderful Telarc recording may make this the best single-disc introduction to Hovhaness's music presently available. This is Hovhaness as the sumptuous New Age mystic writ large – by no means the only way to handle his music; but a wonderful listen nonetheless. But is the timpanist really called Randy Max?
"St Vartan" symphony (Symphony No. 9) - Crystal CD802
(with "Artik" – concerto for horn and string orchestra)
National Philharmonic Orchestra of London/Alan Hovhaness ("St Vartan" symphony); Meir Rimon (hn); Members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/David Amos ("Artik" concerto)
The "St Vartan" symphony is an extended symphonic suite in two parts and twenty-four distinct sections… unfortunately (as mentioned above) only the two parts have separately tracked (the "Artik" concerto – in eight short movements – receives one track only). Despite this inconvenience, this is a "must get" disc featuring two of Hovhaness's most interesting works.
"Symphony for Metal Orchestra" (Symphony No. 17) - Koch International Classics 3-7289-2H1
(with Khrimian Hairig, The Holy City, Psalm and Fugue, Kohar)
Chris Gekker (tr); Manhattan Chamber Orchestra/Richard Auldon Clark
The second Manhattan Chamber Orchestra/Richard Auldon Clark release features the remarkable "Symphony for Metal Orchestra" (see above)… in Hovhaness's hands, the unlikely combination of six flutes, three trombones and metallic percussion (including some wonderful gongs) creates a world of extraordinary beauty. I trust the metallurgists were impressed.
(Note: the tracking information on the back cover of this disc is incorrect – "Kohar" extends over two tracks (4-5), making the "Symphony for Metal Orchestra" tracks 6-10 (not 5-9 as listed). Correct tracking details are included in the liner notes, though.)
"Vishnu" symphony (Symphony No. 19) - Crystal CD805
(with "Requiem and Resurrection" for Brass Choir and Percussion)
Sevan Philharmonic ("Vishnu" symphony); North Jersey Wind Symphony ("Requiem and Resurrection")/Alan Hovhaness
The "Vishnu" symphony is one of Hovhaness's favorite works… and this sweeping cosmological creation mythology in one movement also appealed to another scientific mystic, because extracts from the "Vishnu" symphony were used in Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" television series. Unfortunately, the premiere (under Kostelanetz) was something less than a success; so the "Requiem and Resurrection" was written as a simplified "touring version" to help reclaim the lost symphony. A slightly redundant pairing, therefore; but striking and powerful.
"Majnun" symphony (Symphony No. 24) - Crystal CD803
Martyn Hill (t); John Wilbram (tr); Sidney Sax (v); John Alldis Choir; National Philharmonic Orchestra of London/Alan Hovhaness
A choral symphony on the Near East starcrossed love story of Majnun and Layla – with the "Magnificat" (see below) perhaps the masterpiece of the Hovhaness material presently available on disc. Significantly both works have a significant vocal element… what then are the unrecorded operas, choruses and songs like?
"Odysseus" symphony (Symphony No. 25) - Crystal CD807
(with "Celestial Gate" symphony (Symphony No. 6), Prayer of St Gregory)
John Wilbram (tr); Polyphonia Orchestra/Alan Hovhaness
One of the problems with the skew in Hovhaness material presently available on disc is the number of duplicate recordings (this is the fourth "Prayer of St Gregory" – a fifth version is also available – and the third "Celestial Gate" symphony on this list)… but this Poseidon/Crystal release is worth it for the vigor of Hovhaness's conducting and the wonders of the "Odysseus" symphony.br />
"Mount St Helens" symphony (Symphony No. 50) - Delos DE3137
(with "City of Light" symphony (Symphony No. 22))
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz ("Mount St Helens" symphony); Alan Hovhaness ("City of Light" symphony)
Hovhaness says that he didn't see the first detonation of the "Mount St Helens" eruption – he heard it; and the bass-drum thwack which launches the volcano section of the finale would make anyone sit up and take notice. What follows outdoes Saint-Saëns's famed "Bacchanale" as an orchestral showstopper, with Hovhaness useing yawning trombones, swaggering percussion and a strict triple canon in twenty voices to rip his symphonic mountain apart. The central "Spirit Lake" movement is simply gorgeous. More than any other recording, the "Mount St Helens" disc relaunched Hovhaness to a non-American audience… with good reason (it's one of the most wonderful symphonies ever written).
"And God Created Great Whales" - Crystal CD810
(with Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra, Elibris (Dawn God of Urardu), Alleluia and Fugue, AnHovhanessid)
Christine Messiter (fl); John Chambers (viola); Sue Bowling (Eng. hn); Philharmonia Orchestra/David Amos
In the absence of the Kostelanetz original, this must be the pick of the two recordings of Hovhaness's cetacean celebration… not that the Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz loses anything to the English Philharmonia Orchestra and the terribly underrated David Amos – more that Crystal has better whales (in a piece like this, your soloists matter). The first of the "new generation" of Hovhaness orchestral recordings; and still one of the best.
"Lady of Light" - Crystal CD806
(with "Avak the Healer")
Patricia Clark (s); Leslie Fyson (t); Ambrosian Singers; RPO/Alan Hovhaness ("Lady of Light"); Marnie Nixon (s); Thomas Stevens (tr); Crystal Chamber Orchestra/Ernest Gold ("Avak the Healer")
Two choral works ("Lady of Light" is generally listed as an opera-oratorio – in other words, a stageable oratorio); which show one again the strength of Hovhaness's writing for the human voice. Marnie Nixon may not have been an obvious choice as Hovhaness soprano; but the strength of her voice overcomes a lot. "Lady of Light" suffers from the regular tracking problem on Crystal discs: one track for an eighteen movement work of 43 mins duration).
"Magnificat" - Delos DE3176
(with Psalm 23 – Cantata from Symphony No. 12; A Rose Tree Blossoms; Jesus, Lover of my soul; Jesus Christ is Risen Today; The Lord's Prayer Peace be Multiplied; Orchestra For a Shout of Sacred Joy; Out of the Depths; Orchestra God, Our Help in Ages Past)
Eric Plutz (organ); The Choirs and Orchestra of St John's Cathedral, Denver/Donald Pearson
The pick of the Hovhaness choral discs presently available. The "Magnificat" is one of Hovhaness's masterpieces; and the supporting selection is excellent. The recording (in the choirs' "home church", St John's Episcopal Cathedral, Denver) is deep and powerful; and the voices match it every step of the way. A wonderful disc.
"Shalimar" - Fortuna 17062-2
(with Ghazal No. 1, Komachi, Sonata – Prospect Hill, To Hiroshige's Cat (first movement), Love Song Vanishing into Sounds of Crickets)
Alan Hovhaness (piano)
Fortuna Records is part of the Celestial Harmonies New Age/World Music collection of labels; so the commissioning of this disc of piano solos by Hovhaness in 1987 was very much a "statement of intent". A skilled pianist, Hovhaness remains his best interpretor on disc.
"Fred the Cat – Half a Century of Piano Music", etc – Koch International Classics 3-7195-2H1
(with Dance Ghazal, Slumber Song, Achtamar, Fantasy on an Ossetin Tune, Orbit No. 2, Mountain Dance No. 2, Macedonian Mountain Dance, Sonatas – Mt Ossipee; Fred the Cat; Prospect Hill; Mt Chocorua)
Marvin Rosen (piano)
The first of Marvin Rosen piano recitals features an extended selection from Hovhaness's musical career. The short (9 mins), four movement "Fred the Cat" sonata is an absolute delight.
"Spirit Murmur" - Delos DE3162
(with Bagatelles; String Quartet No. 1 (Jupiter); Gamelan, Spirit Murmur, Hymn from Quartet No. 2; Quartet No. 3 (Reflections on my Childhood); Quartet No. 4 (The Ancient Tree); Song of the Ch'in by Zhou Long)
The only selection of Hovhaness's chamber music presently available, these string quartets receive strong advocacy from the Shanghai Quartet. The "Song of the Ch'in" by Chinese composer Zhou Long is a curious but fascinating makeweight.
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