Hovhaness’ Image Of Andromeda Has Aspect Of Far East

Composer Alan Hovhaness (photos.instantencore.com)
Almost everything Alan Hovhaness composed was either out of time or ahead of it. Recordings are still catching up.

Hovhaness: Symphony No. 48 Vision of Andromeda, Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, Concerto for Soprano Saxophone. Greg Banaszak (soprano saxophone), Eastern Music Festival Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz (conductor). Naxos 8.559755

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — As a flick of the Wikipedia button will show, Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was prolific beyond understanding, writing some 434 opuses, including 67 numbered symphonies.  Moreover, there are more Hovhaness pieces around than these numbers indicate – and there might have been a thousand more had the distraught composer not destroyed them after humiliating criticism, first from Roger Sessions and then from the formidable Copland-Bernstein cartel at Tanglewood in the ’40s (Bernstein later recanted somewhat).

Alan Hovhaness Sym. No. 48 and other symphonic works (Naxos CD)
Hovhaness’ Symphony No. 48 (1982) gets its first recording.

In any case, there’s a lot we don’t know about this huge corpus, which leaves plenty of room for discovery. Gerard Schwarz, who became a Hovhaness champion when he was music director of the composer’s hometown orchestra, the Seattle Symphony, has come up with something that was never recorded, the 1982 Symphony No. 48 (“Vision of Andromeda”), itself a victim of criticism by some powers-that-be that prevented it from getting much exposure.

The 48th is supposed to reflect Hovhaness’s lifelong interest in astronomy, with the giant distant Andromeda galaxy in the center of his sights. Yet much of the piece evokes his grab bag of Eastern influences – Balinese gamelan music, Asian scales, South Indian raga – more than the stars. Surprisingly, there are none of the delicious trademark Hovhaness aleatoric rustlings that would have given this piece some celestial weirdness.

Gerard Schwarz, longtime Hovhaness champion (Steve J. Sherman)
Gerard Schwarz, longtime Hovhaness champion. (Steve J. Sherman)

There are two larger outer movements surrounding two very short intermezzos, and in all but the second movement, Hovhaness spins expansive modal melodies stretching horizontally for miles, spelled by typical Hovhaness episodes with glockenspiel and chimes. The second movement is the outlier in this scheme, and a delightful one – a dancing modal fugue with pounding drums that could have been at home in an English folk song festival.

From the same stage on the Hovhaness timeline comes the Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Strings (1980), a relaxed stream of endless melody with a playful interlude in the central movement. All of which is a good match for soloist Greg Banaszak’s cool, singing, gentle tone quality.

One of the few early Hovhaness pieces to have escaped his purges, the Prelude and Quadruple Fugue (1936, rev. 1954) has a pronounced Armenian melodic flavor to go with its homage to J.S. Bach. It has received a number of recordings already, starting with one by dedicatee Howard Hanson in 1955 on a vintage Mercury Living Presence LP.  This one, Schwarz’s second recording of the piece, falls a bit short of Hanson’s vigor but makes up for it with lush, scintillating playing by the Eastern Music Festival faculty in Greensboro, N.C.

Altogether, a lovely recording of music that must have seemed completely out of place in the years of these pieces’ premieres. But then, almost everything Hovhaness did was out of time or ahead of it.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.