Friday, March 13, 2015

Alan Hovhaness, Symphony No. 48 "Visions of Andromeda," Eastern Music Festival Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz

Some composers from last century were so prolific that we are still trying to catch up with their output. That is most certainly true of Armenian-American Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) who wrote 67 symphonies and countless other works. I had the good fortune to discover him early in my listening days, I believe it was 1966 or 1967, when I happened on a cutout of his music that had a strong influence on me and remains one of my favorites among his recordings.

Hovhaness throughout his career has made use of his Armenian heritage but also of the music of the East and Asia as a whole in fashioning works that are tonal but more world-inspired than looking back to the classical tradition, though counterpoint and other classic devices are usually present.

Gerard Schwarz and the Eastern Music Festival Orchestra have devoted themselves to a program of Hovhaness scores that have not been often heard. The centerpiece, his Symphony No. 48 'Vision of Andromeda' (1982) (Naxos 8.559755) enjoys its world premiere recording here, and there are two other works that are nice to hear, the early "Prelude and Quadruple Fugue" (1936, rev. 1954) and the "Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings" (1980).

"Symphony No. 48" has an Eastern sort of mystical quality that is not untypical of the composer. There is an Eastern minor-mode tonality that has some affinities with Eastern Orthodox Chant as well as lots of orchestral color and contrast. It is well-crafted, inspired and performed with the spirit and verve one might expect from Gerard Schwarz.

The "Prelude and Quadruple Fugue" has all the earmarkings of typical Hovhaness, yet the early provenance of the short work shows a perhaps more thoroughly neo-classical stance than the typical mature Hovhaness. It is fascinating and well-wrought.

The "Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings" holds great interest for the Hovhaness acolyte. It too is filled with Eastern qualities. The solo part is played well by Greg Banaszak. As with many classical sax players he retains a strongly present vibrato that takes a bit of getting used to. Once one does there is much music to appreciate.

This would not be my first choice if I were to choose a handful of indispensable recordings, but at the Naxos price it is well worth having, even if you have not been previously exposed to the composer. Schwarz and the Eastern Musical Festival Orchestra give us their all and the music is of a uniformly high quality. I for one am glad to add it to my Hovhaness collection. Buy it with no qualms. It is well-done.

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