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Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Op.128 (1936, rev.1954) [6:59]
Soprano Saxophone Concerto, Op.344 (1980) [18:59]
Symphony no. 48 Vision of Andromeda, Op.355 (1982) [29:50] *
Greg Banaszak (soprano saxophone)
Eastern Music Festival Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Eastern Music Festival, Dana Auditorium, Guilford College. Greensboro, North Carolina, 2013. DDD
*world première recording
NAXOS 8.559755 [55:48]

If a complete set of Alan Hovhaness’ works is ever released it’ll be as mighty a set as those devoted to the likes of Bach and Mozart. He was after all an extraordinarily prolific composer with over five hundred pieces to his name.  Somewhat ahead of his time he appears to be enjoying a period of rediscovery on the part of music-lovers and there is a wealth of material from which an introduction can be made.  The fascinating thing about American music is that it has been forged in a crucible containing elements from the four corners of the world. The distillation has resulted in some truly incredible works by some of the most original composers in the last eighty or so years.  Hovhaness was born Alan Vaness Chakmakjian, an American of Armenian descent whose father was born in Turkey. His mother was American and of Scottish descent so he himself was as ‘exotic’ as his music which drew its influences from many different cultures.

The Prelude and Quadruple Fugue first saw the light of day in 1936 as a four movement string quartet. It was only in 1954 that he combined the whole into a single movement and orchestrated it.  It starts gently and through continual repetition, with variations, of its core melody, gradually builds in intensity. Finally, like an avalanche, it reaches a climactic close.

The Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings is the only one I’ve ever come across written for this particular member of the saxophone family.  There is something about the tone of it that makes for an especially light and sweet sound. I’m not entirely convinced that it makes for a satisfactory and serious classical work - certainly not of this length. There are relatively few works in the classical repertoire written for the saxophone and it is my contention that this found its proper place in the world of Jazz.  I would like to hear this concerto transposed for the oboe, the instrument to which Hovhaness likened the voice of his wife, Hinako Fujihara. The oboe mightg indeed be more suited to the writing.  However, the music is extremely attractive and deliciously romantic — the most romantic he ever wrote in his wife’s opinion. My scepticism over the choice of solo instrument does not affect my opinion of Greg Banaszak who is a brilliant saxophonist.

It is interesting that it is an oboe that plays a central role at the start of the opening movement of his Symphony No. 48. At first it sounds as if the concerto is continuing as the music is also unapologetically romantic and the oboe sounds perfectly in keeping with the mood.  The overriding impression one gets with Hovhaness’ writing is of vast soundscapes which dominate against which individual instruments point up the specific action.  There is always a feeling of excitement and wonder; not for nothing is this particular symphony titled Vision of Andromeda

I read in the liner-notes that having commissioned Alan Hovhaness to write something for the Minnesota Orchestra to play at The New World festival in Miami in June 1982 the orchestra’s Manager then phoned the composer to criticise the symphony.  I wonder what he can have found that made him do such a thing. The music is truly glorious and toweringly majestic as befits such an all-encompassing subject.  It goes some way to explain why it has taken until now for this symphony to be recorded. The disc appears thanks to the persistence of the composer's widow and the open-minded nature of Naxos’ recording policy. We must give thanks to everyone involved including conductor Gerard Schwarz, a long-time champion of Hovhaness’ music. The composer's lifetime interest in and fascination with astronomy is reflected in this music which holds the listener throughout its half hour length.  It is a perfect showcase for the composer’s natural feeling for tunes which are rich in the extreme. It makes for a veritable feast of gorgeous harmony and sumptuous melody.

Schwarz has his orchestra bring out the best in this brilliantly inventive music serving the composer well as always. The orchestra itself, though little known outside the USA, creates a wonderfully affluent atmosphere with some extremely talented soloists; the oboist and gamelan player being two particular cases in point.  All in all this is a disc to enjoy over many repeated listenings and which will give pleasure every time.

Steve Arloff   

Previous reviews - David Barker and Rob Barnett


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