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.
Previous reviews - David
Barker and Rob Barnett