One doubts that the world will ever wholly manage to come to terms with the music of Hovhaness. The sheer volume of his output – over five hundred works including seven operas and sixty-seven symphonies, and that excludes his music before 1940 much of which was destroyed by the composer – rivals the prolixity of seventeenth century composers such as Bach or Vivaldi. As we get to know more of his works, it also becomes apparent that like Bach or Vivaldi, Hovhaness had a tendency to recycle his music, so that ideas originally conceived for one medium or context will reappear in another later work; but even so, the fact that he was so prolific makes it difficult to grasp his achievement as a whole.
However we can now appreciate that his works seem to fall into three distinct 'periods' – first an early Nordic style influenced by Sibelius, which he abandoned in the late 1930s when he came to terms with his Armenian heritage, much of the music of this period being then destroyed: a second period of twenty years in which he wrote much of what has now become his best-known music such as the second symphony Mysterious Mountain and The prayer of St Gregory, characterised by a fusion of mysticism and strict contrapuntal discipline: and then a third experimental period in which he began to explore wider musical traditions including oriental music. He changed his name from Alan Vaness Chakmakjian initially to Alan Hovaness (without the second h), and only then to the name by which we recognise him today; it is perhaps unfortunate that (according to Jim Svejda) the name "bears a resemblance to an exceedingly vulgar Czech word for the by-product of a basic bodily function."
The works on this disc are nearly all early works, and centre around the three Armenian Rhapsodies written in 1944 – the widely different opus numbers are misleading, since apparently it was only at this period that Hovhaness began to catalogue his works and the assignation of numbers to the music he had already written at the time was largely arbitrary, as he explains in an often amusing interview given in 1981 which is reproduced in the substantial and informative insert booklet. These rhapsodies are conscious efforts to reclaim his Armenian roots and are strongly reminiscent in form of similar works by Enescu and other nationalist composers, following the model of Liszt, to create pieces based on national folksongs. The results are lively and entertaining, but not particularly redolent of what one might now identify as the 'Hovhaness sound'. The Second Rhapsody develops into a series of at first decidedly un-nationalist fugues – although the Armenian influences eventually come to dominate the music before it stops rather abruptly. The Third Rhapsody is particularly beautiful.
The tone poem Song of the sea predates Hovhaness’s assignation of opus numbers to his catalogue of works, and is one of the few works from the 1930s to escape his wholesale destruction of his scores at that time – in the manuscript he gave his name as 'Hovaness'. It opens with a thoroughly romantic piano solo, and it is most certainly not the sort of music that we now associate with Hovhaness: there are elements which remind one of Moeran, of all people, with references to folksong melodies of decidedly Celtic bent. The work was dedicated to the British-born painter Hugh Hegh, and one could perhaps speculate that these overtones might have been a deliberate tribute to him. The title apparently derives from the Book of Exodus, but since Hovhaness in his interview states positively that he always assigned his titles after the music was written - does that contention really apply to works such as the precisely programmatic Mount St Helen's Symphony? - this may or may not be of relevance. It is a really beautiful piece in its own right, and John McDonald plays the solo part with just the right delicacy of touch.
The Saxophone Concerto has a much later opus number than the other works on this disc, and dates from as late as 1980; but the booklet notes refer to it has harking back to Hovhaness’s earliest musical idiom – and one wonders whether here he is recycling music from that period. Indeed the very opening brings hints of Mysterious Mountain with its sequence of unrelated modal chords before the soprano saxophone enters surprisingly in its very lowest register. It is odd how the instrument has developed two such diametrically opposed styles of playing during the twentieth century, with two such totally different timbres. Radnofsky has a very rich and almost jazz-influenced tone; one can imagine this concerto being played to greater advantage with a more etiolated 'classical' style and less 'body'. In the second movement he brings a 'bluesy' swing to the beautiful opening theme that seems very far removed from what one suspects Hovhaness had in mind; although finely done in itself, it seems to be at odds with the music, and the result just does not sound like Hovhaness at all. The finale brings a very Hovhanessian chorale theme on strings alone, but once again the playing of Radnofsky could be less vibrato-laden to the advantage of the music. On the other hand one is grateful to be able to hear the piece at all.
Many of Hovhaness's works were recorded during his lifetime, mainly in recordings conducted by the composer himself where the playing and recording sometimes left a good deal to be desired. The Exile Symphony was also recorded by Gerard Schwarz in the 1990s when he inaugurated a series of Hovhaness recordings for Delos (DE3168) - now deleted but presumably scheduled for reissue by Naxos at some stage. It is therefore only here that this disc comes into direct competition with other recordings. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project has a praiseworthy record for the production of many worthwhile recordings of works otherwise unavailable; and in this symphony their performance is at least the equal of the admirable Schwarz recording. The sound is slightly more distant at the beginning, but beautifully phrased and played. The music can take a number of different treatments. The big orchestral outbursts later have all the power and body that one could desire. There are decided overtones of Bloch in some of this music. Rose is consistently slower than Schwarz in the outer movements - slightly faster in the Grazioso - and overall his performance is three minutes longer than Schwarz's, quite a difference in such a short work. The contrasted recording acoustics make quite a difference, and Rose's players phrase the deceptively simple second movement - added when the composer revised the score in 1970 - with just the right degree of grace. Incidentally there is also a recording by Stokowski and the NBC orchestra available on Guild which includes the original second movement - a piece of mock-Biblical epic music which is not a patch on its replacement - but the abysmal recording quality rules this out totally of consideration. This quite apart from the ridiculously frenetic speed that Stokowski adopts in the final movement, over 30% faster than Rose takes here and 10% faster than Schwarz, allowing the music absolutely no time at all to expand or make its impact.
One might regret that Rose and his players did not take the opportunity to let us hear more early Hovhaness – possibly his beautiful and brief Op.2 Monadnock, given a broadcast performance a few years back by Ken Young with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra but never commercially recorded. Nevertheless Rose's performance of the symphony, giving the music all the time it needs to breathe, is really something that it would have been a shame to miss. Works like the Exile Symphony give the lie in performances like this to the characterisation of Hovhaness as simply 'new age' music that can appeal only to those who share the composer’s fascination with mysticism.
If you love the music of Hovhaness – and it really is very loveable – then this recording is an absolute must. We get a superb performance of the Exile Symphony, three gloriously contrasted Armenian Rhapsodies and a valuable glimpse into Hovhaness's earliest style in Song of the sea. If you are pathologically allergic to Hovhaness, then this disc will not convert you; but then you will be beyond salvation anyway.