American Mystic/Hovhaness

November 13, 2011


This new Delos offering (DE 3421) is in celebration of the birth of American composer Alan Hovhaness and features a nice compilation of his material. While this material is previously released it is an excellent overview of his work. If you’re not familiar with his work you’re in for a real treat. Unlike many of his contemporaries Alan offered well thought out melodies and harmonies. Like Howard Hanson some of his material has the romantic 19th century sound to it, although his concept and ideas are quite unique. Born in Massachusetts to a Scottish mother and Armenian father his love of nature and astronomy at an early age had an influence on his musical writing. Quite prolific he has over 500 compositions to his credit.


“Prayer of St. Gregory,”(4:53) op. 62b is a moving religious work that features a trumpet solo from Charles Butler with strings from the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Very solemn and moving, the trumpet is a complement to the strings.


“The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam,” (13:54) op. 308 offers a narrative from Michael York, the accordion of Diane Schmidt, and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra conduct by Gerard Schwarz. The narrative tells the story of the 11th century Persian writer Omar Khayam and the music provides a modern sounding piece that is a showpiece for the accordion. The dances are Greek filled with rhythm, romance and colored orchestrations. Poetry with music.


“The Four Bagatelles,” (8:50) op. 30 is performed by the Shanghai Quartet. The first is a definite Oriental flavor somewhat pentatonic. The melody from the violin is backed by string plucking. The second melody is more complex in nature with a reference given to the melody we heard in the first Bagatelle. It is written in a gentle free spirit form. The third offers a variation of the first melody but this time there is no pentatonic rhythm. The mood is a yearning one with harmony. The fourth returns to the mystery of the Orient with string plucking. It is a variation of the original melody, while the second has a definite Celtic flavor to it.

“Symphony No. 2” ‘Mysterious Mountain’ (17:07), op. 132 is a rather brief three movement seventeen minute work. The first movement, an andante, relates the majestic beauty of nature. A religious melody, right out of a Hollywood epic film the oboe, harp and trumpet are featured. The second movement is a fugue, classic in structure and sound. As I close my eyes I could hear this performed on the organ with the exception being the horn motifs. The third movement returns to another andante this time a very tranquil and peaceful setting. While part of the movement has an eerie feeling from the horns and swirling strings, creating a frantic filled moment it leads to a variation of the first movement theme. It too offers a religious statement as the celestial feeling is felt from the harp. The work is performed by the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz.


“String Quartet No. 2,” (3:09) op. 147 are two of a five movement work performed by the Shanghai Quartet which have a similar style to the Bagatelles which is a single instrument carrying the melody. The first one is pentatonic style while the second offers a yearning theme with string plucking as harmony.


“The Flowering Peach,” (15:04) op. 125 is an unusual combination for chamber ensemble consisting of alto saxophone, clarinet, harp, and various percussion. It is based on a play about Noah’s Ark and tells the story including raindrops and hammering. This is not one of his tonal works. It is performed by the Ohio State Concert Band conducted by Keith Brion.


“And God Created Great Whales,” (12:16) op. 229 uses actual sounds of the humpback whale. This makes this work unique because of this. In addition there are parts where the orchestra is allowed to improvise making a one of a kind symphonic work. The orchestra uses an oriental style but a highlight of the work is the sliding trombones that mimic the sound of the whales in a dissonant sort of way. This recording is also performed by the Seattle Symphony with Gerard Schwarz conducting.


For those who are not familiar with the work of Hovhaness this is an excellent introduction to his material.


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