July 2012  Naxos reissues Mount St Helens and Exile symphonies with Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints

1990s Delos symphony recordings reissued at budget price with Japanese tone poem

The coupling on disc of a composer's first symphony with one written almost half a century later might ordinarily attest to how far his style evolved over the course of a career. Not so Alan Hovhaness, whose long composing career began and ended with rather conservative phases which flanked far more radical utterances - steeped as much in the East as the West, and unwittingly foreshadowing the aleatoric sound clusters of Europe's avant-garde - during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Hence, taken in isolation, this pairing of Symphony No. 1 (1937) with No. 50 (1982) should not be perceived as a stylistic précis of his huge (67-numbered) and hugely diverse symphonic canon.

All three orchestral works on this CD from Naxos were first released in the mid-90s by Delos, a now-defunct label that championed several modern Americans. Delos' 1993 release of the evocative Mount St Helens Symphony — the longest work here — was more responsible than any other recent recording for the international resurgence of interest in Hovhaness during his final decade. The commercial success of that disc (a coupling with Symphony No. 22, already reissued on Naxos) was such that Delos would record another five all-Hovhaness discs.

Symphony No. 50 Mount St Helens is one of Hovhaness's more authentically programmatic symphonies, its third movement portraying the 1980 eruption of the Washington State volcano, whose ashes settled over the Hovhaness house as they completed an entire circuit of the northern hemisphere. Both the musical discourse and sound world of the work are fairly representative of the late Hovhaness symphony: modal and strongly lyrical, alternating sections of hymnal grandeur and fugal or canonic writing, themes rarely metamorphosed in any traditional symphonic sense. Generous splashes of tintinnabulating percussion and strictly-patterned timpani writing add to the mix. The work's dimensions are less expansive than in several other late Hovhaness symphonies, which serves to enhance its accessibility.

Symphony No. 1 'Exile' Op.17 No.2
Symphony No. 50 'Mount St. Helens' Op.360
Fantasy on Japanese Wood Prints* Op.201
Seattle Symphony / Gerard Schwarz
*Ron Johnson, marimba
Naxos 8.559717 | Timing: 65:40 | DDD


Symphony No. 1 Exile Symphony
Op. 17, No. 2 (1936-7, rev.1970)
1Andante espressivo - Allegro7:24
3Andante — Presto8:33
4Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints
Op. 211 (1965)
Symphony No. 50 Mount St Helens
Op. 360 (1982)
6Spirit Lake: Allegro7:25
7Volcano: Adagio — Allegro13:56

The opening movement is a majestic prelude and fugue suggesting the "grandeur of the mountain before [its] destruction", while the second "Spirit Lake" movement alternates a breezy waltz with one of the best evocations of orchestral Gamelan one is likely to hear. Finally comes "Volcano", with its music of "violence and destruction" (watch out for the bass drum thump at 1'45") that eventually gives way to a triumphant fugue and hymn, a trademark late-period Hovhaness summing-up. For many Hovhaness converts back in the 1990s, there was much to savour in this highly accessible score; Schwarz and his Seattle players can hardly be faulted, nor can Delos' sumptuously captured sound. The initial release drew high profile accolades of "…just about the most compelling three-dimensional orchestral image that I have ever heard" (Gramophone), and "Top 5 Classical Album of 1994" (CD Review). Probably not since Fritz Reiner's 1958 recording of the composer's Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No.2) had a Hovhaness recording garnered such international attention.

Beginning the disc is Hovhaness's first official symphony, subtitled "Exile" and completed in early 1937. The title is a nod to the massacres and deportations of Armenians in Turkey during 1915, but curiously the work is dedicated to the English philosopher Francis Bacon, whom the young Hovhaness apparently read avidly. The Exile Symphony remained virtually unheard until Delos made this premiere recording in 1994. More recently, Stokowski's 1942 introduction of the work to American audiences has appeared on disc (with the original central movement), and 2011 saw a fine recording made by Boston's BMOP.

Perhaps betraying the 25 year-old composer's relative inexperience with a large ensemble, Exile shies away from frequent orchestral tuttis, which makes their brief appearances (mostly angry fanfare outbursts or hymn-like climaxes) all the more impactful. Otherwise sparsely scored, the work is most prophetic of the mature Hovhaness in its lyrical, quasi-oriental melodic writing and only rudimentary development of thematic material.

Sandwiched between the two symphonies, and hinting at some of the more radical sonorities Hovhaness pioneered in the 50s and 60s, is Fantasy on Japanese Wood Prints, a tone poem from 1965. Hovhaness truly excelled at drawing unusual colours from an orchestra, and following his visits to Japan in the early 60s, developed some novel orchestral sonorities which might best be described as neo-Gagaku. Actually published for xylophone and orchestra, Fantasy is instead usually performed (and has twice been recorded) with the less harsh-sounding marimba. This lightweight but dramatic mood piece has become a staple of modern marimba concert repertoire, and this remains its best-available recording (at least until the Andre Kostelanetz Columbia recording — even with its omission of one slower section — is made available digitally by Sony Music).


Admirers of the composer's Mysterious Mountain will probably reap rewards from hearing back-to-back these equally tuneful symphonies, although No.50's luscious orchestration is much closer to that of the 1955 work. The Japanese-inspired tone poem provides a contrasting and colourful bonus. Performances and sound quality are good throughout.

If symponies Nos. 1 and 50 make for surprisingly more compatible bedfellows than their distance in years might suggest, they should certainly not be judged as 'book ends' for stereotyping the music of the 48 symphonies that came inbetween — this applies especially to the boldly exploratory earlier ones penned in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Those who find Nos. 1 and 50 too readily digestible, or who simply want to hear more, should seek out Nos. 9, 10, 15, 17 and 19 for an appreciation of the beguiling diversity within one of modern music's most unlikely symphonic odysseys, American or otherwise.

Marco Shirodkar, July 2012

Back to top