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Approaching the music of Alan Hovhaness can be a daunting prospect for new listeners, as it would be for any prolific composer from Antonio Vivaldi to Bohuslav Martinö . Hovhaness's 467 opus numbers include 67 symphonies, 22 concertos, 67 sonatas for various instrument combinations, and 7 operas, and there are 48 CDs including his music on the market. This overview discusses recordings listed in the 2001 edition of Schwann Opus which I have found most rewarding.

Because he considered atonal music to be unnatural, Hovhaness eschewed serialism which held sway in intellectual musical circles and, instead, followed his own path. Though his music often included dissonance, it was always within the context of (frequently modal) tonality. Influenced by Sibelius early in his career, Hovhaness retained long melodic lines and transparent harmonies in his music. During the 1940s, he absorbed his Armenian musical heritage along with Renaissance and Baroque fugues, canons and arias, medieval and Greek modes, Byzantine polyphony, as well as Indian, Japanese and Korean classical music. These many influences never obscured his own voice. He did not ignore contemporary trends, using prepared and quartertone piano as well as contrasting rhythms which he called orbits. His early experiments with aleatoric music, what he referred to as Oriental spirit murmur, precipitated John Cage's fascination with chance in music. But, above all, Alan Hovhaness strove to communicate beauty through his music.

Hovhaness's two most recorded works, and among the most rewarding, are his Symphony No. 2 "Mysterious Mountain" op. 132 with lush sweeping melodies like an oriental-tinged Sibelius, and Prayer of St. Gregory for trumpet and strings (or organ) op. 62.

By far the best performance of Mysterious Mountain is the 1958 recording by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA V61957  AmazonUK   AmazonUS) although Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony have a fine rendition (Delos 3157 Amazon UK  AmazonUS). The Delos recording also includes Alleluia and Fugue op. 40 No. 2, And God Created Great Whales op. 229 No. 1, Prayer of St. Gregory, and Prelude and Quadruple Fugue op 128 (see below). Those enjoying Mysterious Mountain would likely appreciate Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony's versions of Symphony No. 1 "Exile" op. 17b, Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints op. 211 for xylophone and orchestra, and Meditation on Orpheus op. 155 (Delos 3168 AmazonUS). They might also like Vakhtang Jordania and the Korean Broadcasting System Symphony Orchestra's recording of Symphony No. 3 op. 148 (Soundset SR1004 - you can order this directly from Soundset at

The Prayer of St. Gregory op. 62b, an intermezzo from his Etchmiadzin op. 62 opera with the trumpet's prayer over plaintive, hymnal strings, is a moving spiritual piece that has already become a staple in the trumpet repertoire. It is simple and always affecting but no one performance stands out in my mind.

Later symphonies were often more experimental and frequently included instrumental or vocal soloists. In 1 to 24 movements, they were scored for string orchestra, wind band, winds and percussion as well as the traditional orchestra. Symphony No. 6 "Celestial Gate" op. 173 and Symphony No. 25 "Odysseus" op. 275, reflect Armenian influences. Both can be found with the composer conducting the Polyphonia Orchestra on Crystal 807 AmazonUS. In a single movement, Symphony No. 6 turns from a great and sorrowful song to a dervish dance in the dust that leads to peace and enlightenment. Symphony No. 25 evokes the sweeping landscapes of Asia Minor with the sensation of traveling immense distances.

Symphony No. 11 "All Men Are Brothers" op. 186 (Crystal 801 AmazonUS ) is a powerful call for love among all living things. Symphony No. 21 "Etchmiadzin" op. 234 (composer conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Crystal 804 AmazonUS), a fine example of Hovhaness's synthesis of Byzantine and aleatoric styles. It is coupled with the powerful free-canon tribute to the 15th century Florentine painter of celestial musicians Fra Angelico op. 220, the flowing Mountains and Rivers Without End op. 225 which was inspired by Korean landscape scroll-painting and used a theme from his The Leper King op. 219 opera, and Armenian Rhapsody No. 3 op. 189. Symphony No. 46 "To the Green Mountains" op. 347 (Vakhtang Jordania and the KBS Symphony Orchestra, Koch International 7208) contains a beautiful pastoral third movement "River and Forest Music".

Other exceptional orchestral works include the Meditation on Orpheus op. 155 (William Strickland and the Japan Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, Citadel 88122 AmazonUS) though a fine performance can also be found on Delos 3168 (see above). And God Created Great Whales op. 229 No. 1 for orchestra and taped humpback whale song wonderfully invokes the mysteries of the deep ocean (Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, Delos 3157 AmazonUK  AmazonUS is advocated over Crystal 810). Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints op. 211 played by Ron Johnson, marimba, with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony on Delos 3168 is highly recommended over the deleted Etcetera release. Also enjoyable is Concerto No. 7 for Orchestra op. 116 (Rudolf Werthen and I Fiamminghi, Telarc 80392) which is in the same sound world as Symphony No. 25 "Odysseus".

For string or chamber orchestra, I would recommend the Alleluia and Fugue op. 40b with its moving modal alleluia and taut well-written fugue (Rudolf Werthen and I Fiamminghi, Telarc 80392 AmazonUS), not unlike Henry Cowell's Hymn and Fuguing Tunes in its straightforward and heartfelt exposition. Armenian Rhapsody No. 1 op. 45, the lively dance Tzaikerk (Evening Song) op. 53 No. 2 (Ernest Gold and the Crystal Chamber Orchestra, Crystal 801 AmazonUS), and the Armenian Rhapsody No. 3 op. 189 (composer conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Crystal 804 AmazonUS) are fine examples of Hovhaness's Armenian-influenced music. The third rhapsody is one of the few works that quotes directly from folk songs - "Sird im Sasani" (My Heart is Shattered) and "Bagh Aghpiuri Mod" (By the Fountain).

Foremost among Hovhaness's large output for winds is his Return and Rebuild Desolate Places op. 213 for trumpet and wind band. The first movement is an aleatoric expression of violent destruction while the latter, based on the Khrimian Hairig op. 49 for trumpet and strings, is a moving prayer. It is coupled with Mountains and Rivers Without End, Symphony No. 6 "Celestial Gate" and Prayer of St. Gregory in a fine performance by Chris Gekker, trumpet, and Richard Aulden Clark conducting the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra (Koch International 7221 AmazonUS).

Concerto No. 1 "Lousadzak (Coming of Light)" for piano and strings op. 48 is a seminal work and my personal favorite. Delicate melodic lines imitating kanoon and oud are woven into an evocative tapestry that unrolls continuously until it simply ends without climax. Structurally, it bears some semblance to Liszt's Totentanz though soloist and orchestra work together unlike the more familiar Romantic concerto. Unfortunately, Lousadzak is not presently available on CD though two out-of-print discs are worth looking out for. The performance of Hasmig Surmelian piano, with Jean-Jacques Werner and the Orchestre Leon Barzin (Marcal MA951001, also Musisoft or Media7 1001) comes close to capturing the spirit of this work and is coupled with the beautiful Concerto No. 2 for violin and strings op. 89a, played by Annie Jodry, made up of arias and dances. While Keith Jarrett's performance with Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Symphony on Musicmasters MMD 60204K is brilliant, some important moments are lost in the rush.

Some highlights of Hovhaness's chamber output include his String Quartet No. 1 "Jupiter" op. 8, an early and lush work, and 4 Bagatelles for string quartet op. 30, both gracefully interpreted by the Shanghai String Quartet on Delos 3162 AmazonUS. Other noteworthy chamber works are his Sonata for violin and harp op. 406 (Aurora Duo, 4Tay 4010) and a Sonata for solo harp op. 127 worthy of Mozart (Yolanda Kondonassis harp, Telarc 80530 AmazonUS). The latter recording includes the evocative Upon Enchanted Ground for flute, cello, tamtam and harp op. 90 No. 1 and the Harp Concerto op. 267.

Fine examples of his choral works can be found in his dramatic cantatas Lady of Light op. 227 and Avak the Healer op. 65 No. 1 both of which are on Crystal 806  AmazonUK AmazonUS (Patricia Clark, soprano, Leslie Fyson, baritone, composer conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Ambrosian Singers; Marni Nixon soprano, Ernest Gold and the Crystal Chamber Orchestra, respectively). Lady of Light tells the story of a dancing girl who inspires love in others and is perceived as a threat by authorities. The traditional Magnificat op. 157 (Donald Pearson conducting the Choirs and Orchestra of St. John's Cathedral, Denver, Delos 3176 AmazonUS) is also well worth hearing.

Hovhaness's output for solo piano include 26 sonatas and many shorter works. The sonatas, mostly gentle and meditative, resemble Renaissance suites more than Romantic piano sonatas while piano pieces based on Near and Far Eastern folk music are often more energetic. Wayne Johnson shows a great affinity for Hovhaness's piano music on Crystal 813 AmazonUS. This disc includes the rambunctious Macedonian Mountain Dance op. 144a (a bit of an oddity resembling a 'boogie woogie' avalanche), Mountain Dance No. 2 op. 144b, the sprightly Dance Ghazal op. 37 No. 1, the gentle Fantasy op. 16 for prepared piano like a Japanese garden, and the contemplative Piano Sonata "Ananda" op. 303. Another beautiful example of Hovhaness's late piano music is Piano Sonata "Mt. Katahdin" op. 405 played by Martin Berkofsky on Crystal 814 which is coupled with the percussive "Khaldis" Concerto for piano, 4 trumpets and percussion op. 91 and Alan Hovhaness's own performance of his Piano Fantasy. The engaging Allegro on a Pakistan Tune op. 104 No. 6 has just been released on CRI 874 AmazonUS with Robert Helps playing numerous short piano works by contemporary American composers in a recording from 1966.

What can we hope for in the future? While labels such as Crystal have done a wonderful job of re-releasing LP incarnations of many of his works, most of Alan Hovhaness's music remains unrecorded. Of his 67 symphonies, for example, 38 have never been recorded at all while 10 have appeared only on LP. Although I have not heard most of Hovhaness's unrecorded works, radio broadcasts and concerts have afforded the opportunity to hear a few of these. From this, three promising candidates among unrecorded symphonies are Symphony No. 8 "Arjuna" for piano, winds, horn, timpani and strings op. 179, Symphony No. 18 "Circe" op. 204a based on his Circe ballet music, and Symphony No. 28 "Armenian II" op. 286. Other symphonies I hope to soon see on CD are Symphony No. 23 "Ani" for wind band op. 249, the drones of which betray hints of Hovhaness's Scots roots, the avalanche-like Symphony No. 14 "Ararat" for winds, brass and percussion op. 194, Symphony No. 15 "Silver Pilgrimage" op. 199 and Symphony No. 20 "Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain" op. 223.

Shorter orchestral works of merit include Janabar (Journey) op. 81, Ode to the Temple of Sound op. 216, the Byzantine Vision from High Rock op. 123, Mountain of Prophecy op. 195 and Meditation on Zeami op. 207. Also much appreciated would be a CD release of Andre Kostelanetz's performances for Columbia Records of many of the tone poems described above.

I hope some label will record the Adoration cantata op. 221, a haunting love song aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the early 1970s. It is surprising that Revelations of St. Paul op. 343 remains unrecorded. It is a powerful choral work worthy of Handel. I suspect that suffered unfair criticism at its premiere because its tonality clashed with reviewers' post-Penderecki expectations. Hopefully, Donald Pearson and the Choirs and Orchestra of St. John's Cathedral, Denver will take on this fine work.

The unrecorded Soprano Saxophone Concerto op. 344 shows off Hovhaness's affinity for the saxophone. Divorcing the instrument from its contemporary jazz connotations, he treats it like a member of the ancient and venerable oboe family. The Guitar Concerto op. 325 is another appealing work that would be effective on CD.

In the 1970s, Alan attempted to obtain the original recording tapes for MGM's LP releases from the 1950s. These included outstanding performances of Concerto No. 1 "Lousadzak" (Maro Ajemian piano, Carlos Surinach and the MGM String Orchestra), Concerto No. 2 for violin and strings (Anahid Ajemian violin), the "Talin" Concerto for viola and strings op. 93 No. 1 (Emanual Vardi, viola, Izler Solomon and the MGM String Orchestra), Alleluia and Fugue op. 40 No. 2, Anahid op. 57 No. 1, Is There Survival? Op. 59 and Tower Music op. 129. Unfortunately, these tapes appear to have been lost.

The Sonata for cello and piano op. 255 is a perfect example of beauty in simplicity that has yet to be recorded. Spirit of Ink for 3 flutes op. 230 is beautifully evocative of dawn birdsong. Sharagan and Fugue for 2 trumpets, horn and tuba op. 58 appeared on 5 independent LPs but has yet to show up on CD.

A CD of Hovhaness's works for 2 pianos - Vijag op. 37, the tumultuous Mihr op. 60 No. 1, Ko-ola-u op. 136 (the seed for And God Created Great Whales), the pastoral Child in the Garden op. 168 (actually for one piano, 4-hands), and O Lord, Bless Thy Mountains for 2 pianos tuned a quartertone apart op. 276 - would be a wonderful addition to the Hovhaness discography. An unrecorded solo piano work I would like to see on CD is the Piano Sonata "Journey to Arcturus" op. 354.

Hovhaness's interest in music of the East is reflected in a length list of unrecorded works for traditional Asian instruments that pique my curiosity. These include Gamelan and Jhala for carillon op. 106, Two Sonatas for koto (or cheng) op. 110, Sonata for ryuteki and sho op. 121, Sonata for hichiriki and sho op. 171, the "Shambala" Concerto for violin, sitar and orchestra op. 228, Nagooran for South Indian orchestra op. 237, Stars Sing Bell Song for soprano and gamelan op. 350 No. 1 and Pleiades for gamelan op. 350 No. 2.

With so much music by Alan Hovhaness unrecorded, there is undoubtedly much to look forward to. Enjoy what has already made its way onto CD while keeping a lookout for new releases.

© Eric Kunze June 2001

See also Rob Barnett's survey Hovhaness on Crystal

A CRYSTAL QUINTET Five Instrumental Anthology Discs from Crystal Records Inc. Each includes a work by ALAN HOVHANESS

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