Despite his many ambitious works for chorus and orchestra, I really don't think of Hovhaness as a choral composer. He tends to use the chorus as just another color and hasn't been as aggressive in exploring this medium as he has, for example, string or percussion ensembles. In fact, he tends to think of the chorus as a string orchestra that can also deliver words. Furthermore, none of his choral works particularly challenge a choir. Most of them don't go beyond the capabilities of a good high-school group. Still, it's nice to get the chance to immerse oneself in this part of Hovhaness' catalogue.
The St. John's Cathedral Choir level hovers somewhere around high school and college. It seems a volunteer rather than a professional group. The voices in places lack the necessary gas to get through and can sound forced or worn out. Intonation is less than spot-on. Still, it's hard for performers to ruin this music.
The major work on this disc, the Magnificat, I know in one other recorded performance – the University of Louisville Choir and the Louisville Orchestra, led by Robert Whitney (Crystal Records CD808). The recorded sound is slightly muddy (in fact, I in effect heard a remarkable opening passage for string basses for the first time, because of better engineering), but the Louisville choir and soloists have it over the Delos forces. They are more incisive, the lines have greater impulse, they stay more tightly in tune, and the soloists invest their turns with real ardor, as if the text actually meant something.
Hovhaness, for the most part, follows Bach's breakdown of the Magnificat into numbers; he misses only a separate "Deposuit." Still, I can't imagine two more dissimilar works. To take just one element, the use of melisma (singing several notes to a syllable) I think stands as an emblem of distinction between the two composers' artistic psyches. Vaughan Williams once theorized that melisma in plain chant (where the term originates) represents an overflow of emotion, an intensification of mystical feeling at that point in the line. Certainly, we see this in the opening phrase of Bach's masterpiece. The electrifying first syllable of the first word ("Magnificat") just about melismatically explodes in high-spirited joy. The body can hardly keep from dancing. In the words of the old carol, the mother of God calls her "true love to [the] dance." For Bach, mysticism seems to intensify the emotions of this world. Heaven is like earth, only unimaginably more so. On the other hand, Hovhaness' melisma unwinds evenly, measuredly, like unspooling thread. His mysticism is a matter of tuning out the "noise," of paring away layers, like an onion, going further inward to the heart of things. Heaven is literally "unearthly." In Bach, melisma upsets the balance of things and leads to new musical areas. In Hovhaness, melisma represents the balance of things; in fact, the run of notes often ends at the place it starts. When Hovhaness portrays "the new heaven," he usually does so with harmonic progressions wrenching out new consonances. In the Magnificat, this happens wonderfully at the concluding "Gloria Patri" section.
Hovhaness builds large works from tiny sections. For this reason, excerpts from larger pieces don't often succeed on their own. It's like looking at a single tile from a mosaic and trying to guess the complete picture. You miss the larger context in which the functions and thus its real affect. Presenting the Psalm 23 setting divorced from its surroundings and only the last movement of the Easter Cantata (excising a gorgeous soprano solo, by the way), does Hovhaness no favors. It misses his emotional complexity, for one thing. In the latter case, "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" alone comes off as brainless as a springing lamb. In the Cantata, it's an incredible release after the burdens of crucifixion and entombment. It's the strength of the angel who rolls away the rock.
In "A Rose Tree Blossoms," a minor but nevertheless worthy piece, Hovhaness sets his own text. The composer can't write poetry worth beans. For him, poetry is the immensities seen by the visionary eye. Real visionary poets, like Blake or Whitman, can see immensities in "a grain of sand," in "minute particulars." From the sight of fishermen stuffing the ends of their leggings into their boots before heading out to sea, Whitman can imagine the New Jerusalem of America. Still, his own terrible lyric calls forth music of genuine feeling. Well, Brahms and Schubert too set poetasters with great sincerity and, just as important, great results.
For me, outside of the Magnificat (on an altogether higher plane than anything else on the disc), the most interesting work are fairly straightforward, original settings of Protestant hymnal hits: "Jesus, Lover of My Soul," "O for a Shout of Sacred Joy," and "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." An enterprising church music director would do well to incorporate these into a service. The melodies and harmonies stride forth with vigor, and the middle sections give the church choir a chance to show off, without tripping them up. It's something a director could get up in an hour and a half of practice. Again, the St. John's choristers are a decent volunteer group, so they give a pretty good idea of how these works would come off in "real life." Just once, however, I'd like to hear a crack group like, say, the Kansas City Chorale waste themselves in this repertoire.
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz