Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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ALAN HOVHANESS (1911-) Symphony No. 24 Majnun (1973)     Martyn Hill (tenor) John Wilbraham (trumpet) Sidney Sax (violin) John Alldis Choir National PO of London/Alan Hovhaness Recorded London, 1974 CRYSTAL RECORDS CD803 [48:00]


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Hovhaness often seems as much an outsider as Pettersson, Havergal Brian or Vermeulen. His exotic name has subsisted on the edges of the record catalogue for many years. In fact 'Hovhaness' is simply the Armenian form of 'Johannes' or 'John'.

As for his music, the received wisdom is reflected in the following quote: "One cannot help suspecting that Hovhaness's music is too easy to write and too easy to listen to." This was Wilfrid Mellers's verdict in 'Music in a New Found Land' (London: 1975). This symphony gives the lie to that finding.

The story of 'Majnun and Layla' is the Persian equivalent of the 'Romeo and Juliet' story. Hovhaness's symphony on this legend is amongst the most attractive of his works available on disc: much more accessible than the much vaunted Mystic Mountain symphony.

The first track segment is a canvass of string pizzicato over which solo violin sings sweetly and none too orientally. If anything the reference points are British pastoral with the Lark Ascending and swooping. At other times the composer creates the plushest mattress of strings over which a trumpet incantation takes us drifting from one Quiet City to another and possibly more exotic metropolis. Letters in the Sand sounds like quintessential Algerian Music (do you recall the French film Le Mari du Coiffeuse) heard accidentally as you leisurely traverse the shortwave bandwidth. At other times a speeding pizzicato speaks of the dry and relentless desert wind. Celestial Beloved suggests a drowsy numbness of eyes half hooded and twilit rooms. Martyn Hill is in typically mournful voice but he does inject pastel colouring into his tone. The choir are predictably on-song. Though both have a single text to sing and this they do and it is short so can seem repetitive. The music often seems to suggest a middle-eastern Swan of Tuonela calling out across a lake of strings but instead of a cor anglais it is a trumpet that floats in sallow mystery across the cool waters. The Symphony can be thought of as an Armenian Sheherazade or a modernistic Antar Symphony. It opens the door into strange realms. In days when mystery and beauty was in short supply this symphony deserved a much better fate than it has 'enjoyed'.

There are two criticisms. The first is that the tracking is niggardly. There are only two tracks comprising two very substantial segments. The sections within each segment are played without pause or tracking . The playing time is short although the interest of the music leaves you feeling quite satisfied.

I am now looking forward to exploring the piano music available on both Crystal and Koch.


Rob Barnett

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phone 360-834-7022, fax 360-834-9680




Rob Barnett

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