March 2015  Naxos releases 'Andromeda' Symphony, Saxophone Concerto and 'Prelude & Quadruple Fugue'

Naxos has been serving the Hovhaness cause rather well since 2003, releasing six Hovhaness discs under its 'American Classics' banner, comprising both new recordings and reissues of 1990s Delos recordings. Now comes a seventh release, all fresh recordings, and the third to bring us a hitherto unrecorded late symphony. But here's a well-kept 'secret', the driving force behind all new Hovhaness recordings appearing on Naxos has been none other than Mrs Hovhaness, who also publishes his later works. This seems to suggest that, as in the 1970s (when he had his own Poseidon Society record label) royalties from Hovhaness's vast catalogue still make possible new recordings, which in turn presumably add momentum to a virtuous circle. He was never fashionable, but seems to be having the last laugh.

The new disc is programmed rather like a concert, with an overture-like opener, a concerto and finally an unfamiliar symphony, No.48, not heard since its premiere back in 1982. Long-time Hovhaness champion Gerard Schwarz conducts the Eastern Music Festival Orchestra, a North Carolina summer school gathering of professional musicians from around the world.

Curtain raiser Prelude and Quadruple Fugue is, as the title might suggest, a finely hewed work, which in its original 1936 incarnation comprised the opening two movements of the 25 year-old composer's String Quartet No.1. Predating his straddling of east and west, it sees the young Hovhaness consciously honing his counterpoint skills, and probably taking inspiration from either the uncompleted four-part fugue in Bach's Art of Fugue or the quadruple fugue ending Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. Like the latter, it is no mere academic exercise, and similarly proceeds with seemingly effortless invention and cumulative dramatic impact. It may remind some of the tornado-like sweep of the double fugue in his Symphony No.2 Mysterious Mountain — which itself was reworked from the fugal finale of that same early string quartet! The orchestration into Prelude and Quadruple Fugue came in 1954 (a year before Mysterious Mountain) at the request of composer and conductor Howard Hanson, when both men worked at Rochester's Eastman School of Music. This is the work's fourth recording (and second by Schwarz), and hopefully the wide distribution afforded by a Naxos release can finally get this American orchestral showpiece to the ears of conductors and orchestral committees across America and Europe. Whilst Schwarz and his band certainly rise to the occasion, 60 years of advancements in recording technology appear not to have substantially bettered the audible clarity of the fugue's counterpoint that was initially achieved on MGM's 1955 mono recording featuring Hanson and his Eastman-Rochester Orchestra (the work's dedicatees). On the plus side, we do get to discern more of the dexterity required of the double basses.

ALAN HOVHANESS
Prelude and Quadruple Fugue Op.128
Concerto for Soprano Saxophone* Op.344
Symphony No. 48 'Vision of Andromeda' Op.355
Eastern Music Festival Orchestra
Gerard Schwarz, condcutor
*Greg Banaszak, soprano saxophone
Naxos 8.559755 | Timing: 55:48 | DDD



     

1Prelude and Quadruple Fugue
Op. 128 (1936, rev.1954)
6:59
Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings Op. 344 (1980) 18:59
2Andante — Allegretto espressivo — Fuga7:21
3Adagio espressivo — Allegro assai5:03
4Let the Living and the Celestial Sing6:35
Symphony No. 48
Vision of Andromeda
Op. 355 (1982)
29:50
5Andante10:06
6Fugue allegro3:11
7Andante — Allegro moderato4:05
8Largo solenne — Allegro maestoso — Andante maestoso espressivo12:28

With the passing of the storm, the clouds part and we move from a rather neoclassical Hovhaness to what might be termed "Hovhaness light". The 1980 Soprano Saxophone Concerto was a commission from the composer's alma mater, Boston's New England Conservatory. As Mrs. Hovhaness's booklet notes state, this concerto with only a string orchestra was not written "to show off the soloist's skill — but rather as a melodic tone poem or aria". Hence there is little real drama to grapple with, and instead long-breathed melody aplenty. Any nod to the past may lie somewhere between a Baroque suite and a Mozart serenade. Rather surprisingly, this is the work's third recording since 2007 and the second by capable young saxophonist Greg Banaszak. Whilst his tone and technique are fine in themselves, his instrument at times sounds rather flat against the tuning of the strings, which in the higher registers may prove uncomfortable to sharp enough ears.

The 'meat' of this disc, or at least the longest work, is the first recording of Symphony No.48, subtitled Vision of Andromeda. By the early 1980s Hovhaness was producing symphonies at a feverish pace of about three a year, which must have provided him with an ample daily mental workout compared to fellow septuagenarians making do with their morning crossword. Unsurprisingly, these symphonies traverse rather similar sounds worlds and structural devices, so those familiar with, say, the Mount St Helens Symphony (No.50) will find much in Andromeda along similar lines: big-boned unisonal themes in strings and brass, solo woodwinds floating above pizzicato strings, gamelan-like percussion, timpani ostinati and fugal expositions. The overt tunefulness and accessibility of the late symphonies have been scorned by his detractors (as well as some admirers of early Hovhaness) as simply too easy to listen to, but there's a directness and naive honesty about them that appeals to many. Nor can it be denied that, as with all his music, within a matter of seconds textures and quirky techniques are recognisable as those of Hovhaness alone, and no one else.

Like the title of many a Hovhaness symphony, Vision of Andromeda is something of an afterthought and it's clear the music is not particularly programmatic, even if parts of the last movement hint at some kind of epic trek. Ironically, back in 1966 Hovhaness had already penned arguably one of the most 'spaced-out' symphonies ever written, his iridescent Vishnu Symphony (No.19). To paraphrase one Captain Kirk, in that symphony Hovhaness "boldly went where no symphony had gone before", achieving cataclysmic textures brilliantly suggestive of swirling and colliding galaxies. A testament to its musical vision is that Vishnu was used on the soundtrack to Cosmos, Carl Sagan's much celebrated PBS television series. Thus anyone eager to hear a Hovhaness symphony with more convincing cosmic credentials might feel better served seeking out Vishnu rather than Andromeda!

This review is too apposite an opportunity to resist mentioning an anecdote about Andromeda that might otherwise be lost for ever — quite simply the premiere nearly didn't happen. According to Hovhaness's surviving correspondence, conductor Leonard Slatkin (then 37) didn't like or rehearse the work, and threatened to pull it from the concert. Hovhaness offered to step in as conductor, but Slatkin was contractually obliged. The premiere went ahead, but with the Minnesota Orchestra musicians having to sight-read their parts. However according to the composer, the following day's second performance was a resounding success and somewhat won Slatkin over to the piece.

One general annoyance with this disc — more noticeable through headphones — is that most tracks begin and end with the exposed sound of the auditorium's air conditioning in all its glory, or at least on a mezzo-piano setting. I appreciate this was recorded in the heat of early July, but are there not such things as graphic equalization which engineers can use to work their magic in digital post-production editing?

Marco Shirodkar, April 2015

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