May 2010    Naxos Releases New CD of
Three Hovhaness Wind Symphonies


In 2005 Naxos issued conductor Keith Brion's first CD of Hovhaness wind symphonies, comprising Nos. 4, 20 and 53. Five years on, the follow-up disc has arrived, with May 2010 seeing the release of Symphonies Nos. 7, 14 and 23. Although available for some months as mp3 downloads, many will have waited for this music on CD, complete with program notes and greater audio clarity. Brion's orchestra here is the Trinity College of Music Wind Orchestra from London, England, who were recorded in early 2008.

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Track Listing (Timing 62:12)

Symphony No.7 'Nanga Parvat' Op. 178

  • 1. Con Ferocita [5:54]
  • 2. March - in isorhythmic form [3:37]
  • 3. Sunset [4:44]

  • Symphony No.14 'Ararat' Op. 194
  • 1. [6:58]
  • 2. [4:07]
  • 3. [3:02]

  • Symphony No.23 'Ani' Op. 249
  • 1. Adagio legato espressivo [10:46]
  • 2. Allegro grazioso [6:57]
  • 3. Adagio con molto espressione [16:17]

  • Trinity College of Music Wind Orchestra
    Keith Brion, conductor

    All three symphonies have been recorded before, back in the days of vinyl. Symphony No.23 Ani — named after Armenia's medieval capital — was conducted by Hovhaness himself for his own Poseidon Society record label. Symphonies 7 Nanga Parvat and 14 Ararat — named after the famous mountain peaks — were conducted by Keith Brion and the North Jersey Wind Symphony, for the Mace label. Mace have long since disappeared, their disc never reissued for CD, whereas the 1973 Ani recording resurfaced on a Crystal Records reissue only in 2003.

    Hence, 40 years on, new digital recordings of these three symphonies are long overdue, and will likely be snapped up by wind band enthusiasts in America and beyond. Comparing old with new side-by-side, Brion's new interpretations are anything but re-runs of the old analog ones with added digital lustre. Also different is his reading of Ani from the composer's own — and in both versions Ani has appropriately been recorded by student players, for whom it was commissioned. One thing that hasn't changed from the 1970s recordings is the composer's original liner notes for the three works. Written in Hovhaness's straightforward style, he characteristically flags up unusual time signatures and relates musical events through his own language of musical iconography where one comes across such terms as "dragon fly sounds" and "giant melody". From these notes we also learn that the 35-minute Ani was composed in 18 days, and the more compact Nanga Parvat in just 12.

    The greater interest in this disc lies firmly in symphonies 7 and 14, true sister-symphonies not only due to their scoring and chronological proximity, but because both portray the composer's very personal evocations of the harshness, grandeur and beauty of specific mountains — whereas the titles of other, more famous Hovhaness works like Mysterious Mountain or Vision from High Rock convey a purely symbolic affinity with mountains. Effectively symphonic poems, Nanga Parvat and Ararat are also both rasping and vehement. Hovhaness described Ararat as his "symphony of rough-hewn sounds" and it shows him at possibly his most violent. The finale comprises a choir of six trumpets crying out above a "roaring sea of superimposed drum rhythms" in simultaneous meters of 19/8, 17/8, 13/8, 7/4, 13/4, 23/8. The rebarbative elemental forces Hovhaness conjures up here may surprise even fans of the composer, and perhaps approximate what one might hear if Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man collided with Varèse's Ionisation.

    The later Ani Symphony is a big-boned, more spiritual work, and whilst musically calm by comparison, its expansive course traverses hymnal, gamelan-like and processional terrain, giving conductor and performers, according to Brion, "a whole different set of problems" to the shorter mountain symphonies. It's difficult to know for certain whether the work's title came before or after the music. In Hovhaness's program notes 'Ani' is dubbed the "city of 1001 cathedrals", and the work has its fair share of Hovhaness bells, as well as some threatening free-rhythm brass. The symphony nicely complements the earlier two, its long-limbed melodies and steady forward motion requiring sustained concentration of the listener.

    This disc is a welcome addition to the Naxos Americian Classics series, which now numbers several wind band releases. It is perhaps a more significant release than Naxos's earlier Hovhaness wind disc, as the 7th and 14th symphonies will highlight to those in the Wind Band fraternity, listening to Hovhaness's cataclysmic percussion and wailing brass dissonances, some of the boldest and most individualistic sonorities to be found in the American wind repertoire.

    This release is "dedicated to the memory of Lady Evelyn Barbirolli, a noted oboist, and Honorary Fellow of Trinity College of Music", the academic establishment where the music was recorded. Another Barbirolli connection is that her husband, distinguished conductor Sir John Barbirolli, premiered Hovhaness's 1966 work Ode to the Temple of Sound for the opening of Jones Hall in Houston, Texas.