HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 4, op. 165 (1958). Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places, op. 213 (1965). Symphony No. 20 'Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain', op. 223 (1969). Prayer of Saint Gregory, op. 62b (1972). Symphony No. 53 'Star Dawn', op. 377 (1983). John Wallace (trumpet), The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Wind Orchestra/Keith Brion.
Naxos 8.559207 () (DDD) TT: 66:03

Imagined Armenia, Eden made audible. This CD programs Hovhaness's music for symphonic winds, including three symphonies. Hovhaness composed so many symphonies -- 67, I believe -- that one finds among them seven or eight for band. Some of these works, believe it or not, have appeared on record before. For example, A. Clyde Roller and the Eastman Winds gave a terrific performance of the Symphony No. 4, a classic LP of the stereo era. (available on Mercury Living Presence 434340). The only work actually new to me is the Symphony No. 53 "Star Dawn."

Hovhaness wrote quickly. Hovhaness wrote a lot. Not all of his music sticks with you. He is a composer with a manner, or rather several sharply-identifiable manners. You can identify a Hovhaness piece as quickly as you can recognize a van Gogh oil or an E. E. Cummings poem. Sometimes a Hovhaness piece will just lay there, like a beached whale, or an eccentric, garrulous uncle who has outstayed his welcome. You seem to have heard it all before. Yet when it works, it's powerful. Like Mahler, Hovhaness has his personal set of musical images: the chorale, the solo arioso against a chordal mass, the "spirit murmur" (an aleatoric device, usually reserved for strings plucking away at different tempi), the climactic modal fugue. The composer joins this to a visionary point of view, and the visions encompass universes and worlds, much as Hindu and Buddhist ones do. The composer helped pioneer assimilating Eastern musical devices into Western concert music, and indeed actually won a Guggenheim to study in Japan.

The fourth symphony is definitely one of those pieces that work, though if you looked at a score, you probably wouldn't see how. One looks (and listens) in vain for the normal variations on tiny musical cells. Instead, the andante first movement, for example, consists largely of sinuous solo melodies (punctuated by discreet percussion) giving way to sonorous brass chorales, and all capped by a big-breathed fugue. None of these things has much to do with the others, but the quality of inspiration reaches such a high level, the composer takes you along with him, whether or not you feel you should go. The second movement consists of a quick dance for marimba and then for xylophone, separated by a song-like section for solo winds, solo brass, and harp -- a very rough A-B-A structure, at least as orchestration goes. One can also view the structure as A-A'. The composer builds much of the piece on a pedal note (a note in the bass that doesn't change), with the primary lines skirting above it. The marimba skips over one drone (section A), the xylophone (more than halfway into the movement) on another (A'). This could easily step over the line into boring, but Hovhaness has mastered the art of variety. One's interest doesn't flag, despite the lack of harmonic movement. The "andante espressivo" finale serves almost as a mirror to the first movement. Instead of solo lines interrupted by chorales, we get mostly chorales connected via solos. However, the chorales are thematically akin. This back-and-forth lasts until two remarkable passages: a bass trombone soloing below sliding trombones and a glitter of percussion, like fireworks against a night sky. These serve as the bridge to a resonant fugue based on the main strain of the chorale, which caps off the symphony.

I dimly recall that Brion has recorded Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places, at one time also known as the trumpet concerto, before, with a young Gerard Schwarz as the soloist. John Wallace, first trumpet of the Philharmonia and head of the John Wallace Collection brass ensemble, does the honors here. The work is in two movements, which the composers characterizes as a short prelude and a hymn. He also likens the solo trumpet as the voice of Cassandra. Indeed, after the first statement of the trumpet, the orchestra seems to explode, a roar of doom leaving a desert in its wake. The last movement, about three times longer than its predecessor, begins with the trumpet singing gorgeously over a largely chordal accompaniment. Lou Harrison remarked -- with more than a little inflation -- that Hovhaness was the caliber of melodist that came along once every couple of hundred years. If not quite that, Hovhaness certainly could knock out a great line. The movement grows increasingly contrapuntal without the trumpet losing its primacy. The wind writing throughout is extraordinarily beautiful.

Symphony No. 20 'Three Journeys to a Holy Mountain' is laid out very much like the fourth -- two slow movements framing a faster one based on two drones -- and it shares the same rhetorical strategies. However, the composer has expanded his harmonic language. We deal not only with consonant harmonies but tone-cluster dissonances as well. The music also "feels" bigger, although structurally it strikes me as much looser than the fourth. The composer describes the symphony as three very different pilgrim's marches: the first stately, perhaps coming through a mist; the second livelier with the sound of cymbals, bells, and drums; the third, a chorale and fugue. The third movement interests me the most. The chorale as such lasts less than half the piece. The fugue shoulders the brunt of the movement. However, the fugue practically sneaks in, as it were, before Hovhaness throws in a pot-load of contrapuntal toys: stretti, canon, augmentation and diminution, and so on. Nevertheless, it turns out that the chorale provides the material between successive fugal statements and in fact caps the movement.

Prayer of St. Gregory serves as an intermezzo in Hovhaness's opera Etchmiadzin. It's probably the only music from the opera I've heard. It exists in two forms: solo trumpet with strings and solo trumpet with winds. I prefer the string version. Because the CD is devoted to wind music, we get the B version. Nevertheless, this piece heads straight for the heart. Again, it features the familiar Hovhaness device of an arioso solo instrument against a chorale. The composer describes the music as "a prayer in darkness." Within its brief span, the trumpet climbs its own stairway to heaven.

The possibility of Mars colonization inspired Hovhaness's Symphony No. 53 'Star Dawn,' in two movements, which the composer thinks of as "journey" and "arrival." Doesn't sound like a particularly promising source, but you don't always get what you expect. This is no Star Trek soundtrack. Indeed, it's Hovhaness doing familiar things: chorale, monodic arioso, fugue. Yet, it is no more a rehash of old ground than any two Mahler symphonic marches are. This really is new music. I think particularly of an amazing passage in the first movement: a solo clarinet line against a delicate backdrop of tubular chimes, timpani, and tam-tam (gong). On paper, it comes across as a tour-de-force. In performance, it sings with a weird beauty, emphasis on the beauty part, even though some small voice whispers beneath the music, "How the hell did he think of that?".

Brion has long been recognized as a top wind man. From his Scottish players he gets not only precision but deep musicality. It's hard to keep the (at times) near-glacial movement of Hovhaness's music going, but it does indeed move, and Brion sees to it. John Wallace plays at the level you expect from one so eminent, but, really, every soloist (and there are a lot of them in these works) invest their lines with the same artistic forethought and care.

The sounds of the band are rapturously beautiful, and it's on Naxos. How can you resist?

S.G.S. (February 2006)