Symphony No. 2 Mysterious Mountain
Symphony No. 66 Hymn to Glacier Peak
Symphony No. 50 Mount St. Helens
Storm on Mount Wildcat
Gerard Schwarz Cond. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
Review by Karl Lozier
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SACD Stock Number: Hybrid SACD-60604
Those perceptive readers (and listeners) fortunate to be very familiar with the music of Alan Hovhaness (or
Hovaness) will notice a "mistake" in the above listed title - but it is not in error. It took awhile to notice it and for it to be decoded in my failing memory cells. The reason for this is that one of his most famous and popular compositions, Symphony No. 2, is most commonly known as the
Mysterious Mountain -- no "s" for plural. So the title's implication is that all the above listed works are "mysterious mountains". The
Symphony No. 2 is not an early work at Opus 132.
He was born in Massachusetts in 1911 and was an extremely prolific composer as well as a very individualistic one. He certainly does not seem to be a copycat of any sort. As with any originating artist whether composer, painter, or writer, successful themes eventually are repeated often. That is true of the works on this disc but with the many (at least four or five) compositional periods many of his works are not to be easily recognized. There are many stories about Hovhaness that I've heard or read about. Probably the most common one is that possibly as a result of criticism by Aaron Copland, Hovhaness destroyed most of his compositions and basically started anew. Probably no one knows, but possibly as many as a thousand pieces were destroyed.
I have read that Hovhaness' music is often easy to recognize but hard to describe. I agree completely. I often hear what I call impressionistic music, but as if it were reminiscent of
Sibelius, not Debussy. I also often believe I'm listening to organ music being performed on an organ and would call it hymn-like and other times I am hearing wordless vocal music. Mysterious, or an appealing sense of rhythmic mystery is so common in his better-known compositions and I love that immensely. His technique is to keep repeating a melody such as the strings quietly playing pizzicato while muted horn sections are relatively quietly playing something entirely differently. Once you have heard it you will always recognize it and it is a lovely "hallmark" of
I was able to quickly pull out three other CDs of Hovhaness' music, which together pretty much covered what is on this particularly fine Telarc recording. The conductor on two of the other recordings is also
Gerard Schwarz! While living, Hovhaness' first "champion" was Leopold Stowkoski who commissioned and premiered
Mysterious Mountain. Gerard Schwartz, conductor of the Seattle Symphony, where Hovhaness had become composer in residence is his last champion (for now).
I first was attracted to Hovhaness many years ago when I heard and then obtained Kostelanetz's recording of
And G-d Created Great Whales. A scientist had done underwater recording of (I believe) the great humpback whales. He gave a copy of the recording to Andre Kostelanetz and he in turn gave it to Alan
Hovhaness. He created music that incorporates whale songs!
I dug up one of my old and famous RCA shaded dog vinyl recordings, which still sounds great with Reiner & Chicago Symphony and the recording legends Mohr and Layton. The album cover notes by Oliver Daniel struck me as very interesting. Briefly, he says that
Mysterious Mountain is calm, meditative and spiritual (remember my hymn-like comment); I agree with him. Also that for
Hovhaness, the mountain or mountains are symbols like pyramids between the mundane and spiritual worlds. In addition to my notes make certain to read the complete liner notes accompanying this hybrid SACD recording playable in surround sound or as a regular CD on any CD player. The notes are outstandingly good and particularly interesting.
Schwarz's performance is as good as usual for him - remember he is "the interpreter, the champion of
Hovhaness' music". No quibbles about the orchestra, which appears to be on an equal footing with the "home orchestra" for
Hovhaness' compositions, the Seattle Symphony. Appropriately sounding distant and muted horn passages and percussion are as clean and clear as could be asked for. As expected, the finale of the Symphony No. 50,
Mount St. Helens, is the third movement and entitled Volcano - all these symphonies are just three movements long, not the traditional four. The Volcano movement is for audiophiles to show off their systems', initiating an eruption from excellently recorded drums.
All in all another outstanding classical release from Telarc - nothing less than my highest recommendation for performance and sound quality. This makes at least three months in a row that I have reviewed what may be unfamiliar music for some listeners - try it, you'll like it. Remember to read the excellent liner notes for an interesting and different perspective of the composer and his music.