Recommended CD recordings

Towards the end of his life there were almost 50 CDs containing works by Hovhaness. Many were all-Hovhaness CDs, a major achievement for a contemporary composer, and a testament to the communicative power of his music across different geographies. Dozens of LPs were issued in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but are now unavailable, though some have been reissued in CD format. Apart from the USA, new CD releases have come from Britain, Germany and France. Below is a shortlist for those who wish to better acquaint themselves with his works.

Although fine CDs have been released of his piano, vocal and chamber works, this selection clearly favours the orchestral works. Priority went to more striking works (in a catalogue well-laden with striking works) and faithful performances. All too often, conductors have over-interpreted Hovhaness, adding drama which is simply not in the score. For this reason, transferred older recordings conducted by Hovhaness himself have been favoured over more recent digital ones.

 Essential CD Selection

Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No.2) /
plus works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev

Something of a collector's item in its old LP format, this luxuriant 1958 interpretation by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony has made Mysterious Mountain Hovhaness's most famous work. All subsequent recordings fall by the wayside in comparison, even though Reiner takes certain liberties with the score. One reviewer described it as "a work of such aching beauty that once heard, it will be held in reverence forever". Another stated: "Something deep within me was enlightened and moved to tears by this all-embracing, mystically serene and ultimately ravishing and majestic music". The exotically-tinged two outer movements act as pillars to the central double fugue movement. The first fugue is serene, the second here played as a roaring tornado, and the section with superimposed fugue subjects leaves one in complete awe of Hovhaness's contrupuntal facility. Two other Reiner/Chicago classic recordings fill-up the CD: Stravinsky's ballet The Fairy's Kiss, and Prokofiev's charming Lieutenant Kijé Suite. No lover of 20th century orchestral music should be disappointed with this gem of a CD.
BMG 09026 61957 2    Buy it now!
[timing 63:36]

Saint Vartan Symphony • Artik (horn concerto)
The Saint Vartan Symphony is vintage early Hovhaness at its peak, and commemorates the 1500th death anniversary of the Armenian warrior saint. Scored for modest orchestra (including piano, saxophone and vibraphone) its carefully-paced 24 short movements betray novel development of medieval and rennaisance devices, particularly several canons (some in 4-part polymodality) which somewhat anticipate US Minimalists. The work's cumulative intensity and sparseness leaves one simultaneously exhilarated, intrigued and, as the symphony ends on a precipitous climax, ultimately wanting more. The horn concerto Artik is a reflective suite of slow or medium-paced short movements, most of the showcasing this composer's great talent for melody.
Crystal Records CD802 Buy it now!
[timing 61:54]

Concerto No.8 • Anahid • Elibris
Alleluia and Fugue • And God Created Great Whales

One of the best discs representing the composer's finest orchestral music of the 1940s and 50s. The centrepiece is Concerto No.8 for orchestra, whose long intertwined melodic tapestries evoke the vocal masters of the Renaissance. Anahid is rhapsodic, its mood swings ending in a final dance of intensifying ecstasy. Alleluia And Fugue is a beautiful early string work reminiscent of several of Vaughan Williams's pastoral outings. The famous but much later Great Whales piece (1970) incorporates recorded songs of hump-backed whales, but lacks momentum in this performance. Otherwise, faithful performances handled masterfully by David Amos. Recording quality is very good, although the location is a little too reverberating.
Crystal Records CD810 Buy it now!
[timing 69:53]

Concerto No.7 • Celestial Gate Symphony (No.6) •
Tzaikerk • Prelude and Quadruple Fugue, etc.

Concerto No.7 for Orchestra is one of Hovhaness's masterpieces, melding the composer's expertises in counterpoint, Indian rhythmic concepts and effective sonority. It looms as one of the finest American orchestral works of the 1950s. The Prelude And Quadruple Fugue is a whirlwind contrapuntal tour de force, orchestrated from a 1936 string quartet. In the folk-flavoured Tzaikerk, or 'evening song', a lively flute-driven dance eventually yields to a sombre violin meditation set against lulling pizzicati. Alleluia And Fugue is a beautiful early string work reminiscent of several of Vaughan Williams's pastoral outings. Prayer Of St. Gregory is an aria-like intermezzo for solo trumpet and strings from the 1940s. The fine Symphony No.6, whose subtitle gives the CD its moniker, is here not given as good a performance as by Hovhaness (see below), but the clarity of the recording is superior.
Telarc CD    Buy it now!
[timing 79:19]

Vishnu Symphony (No.19)
Requiem And Resurrection

The Vishnu Symphony represents Hovhaness at his most avant garde. This symphonic tone poem is an "unfolding giant melody of adoration to the immensity and sublimity of limitless stellar universes". It is both beautiful in its overtly Oriental cantatory qualities, and foreboding in its dark quasi-aleatoric sections representing "explosions ... of giant galaxies of stars when millions of suns explode simultaneously". The startling sonorities and visionary grandeur of this work led, rather appropriately, to extracts being used in Carl Sagan's epic 1970s TV series Cosmos. The Requiem and Resurrection is a contemplative, quasi-religious shorter work, scored for brass orchestra and percussion.
Crystal Records CD805 Buy it now!
[timing 44:37]
Odysseus Symphony (No.25)
Celestial Gate (Symphony No.6)
Prayer Of St. Gregory

Composer-conducted definitive recordings of two very accessible symphonies, of which the earlier Celestial Gate (1958) is one of his finest. Serene and pastoral in nature, it transports the listener to a time and place quite unearthly, eventually resting us up into beautiful high violin clusters evoking the work's apt sub-title. Although not a literal retelling of Homer's Odyssey, the Odysseus Symphony has programmatic qualities, eg, some eerie storm music. It is overtly Romantic yet somehow neo-archaic, with the rich harmonic palette typical of early 1970s Hovhaness. The Prayer Of St. Gregory is described an intermezzo for solo trumpet and strings from the 1940s opera Etchmiadzin. This is Hovhaness' most-recorded work.
Crystal Records CD807 Buy it now!
[timing 60:01]

Fra Angelico • Mountains And Rivers Without End
Etchmiadzin Symphony (No.21) • Armenian Rhapsody No.3

Definitive composer-conducted recordings of four diverse works. Most arresting is the haunting meditation Fra Angelico, in which a deceptively simple minor-keyed melody begins and ends the work on celestial sounding violins, and in between is given out to the orchestra in various guises. Despite its modest thematic material, the work holds the listener transfixed throughout its 16 minutes. The Indian-flavoured Etchmiadzin Symphony is ceremonial, with drums and bells throughout. Mountains and Rivers Without End is an exotic free-form "chamber symphony". The recurring trombone theme is interspersed with threads of Oriental sonic beauty. Not by accident, one Japanese commentator has compared Hovhaness's music to an unfolding Japanese scroll, rather than the "photographic print" which typifies most Western music. The Armenian Rhapsody No.3 (of three) quotes, rarely for Hovhaness, actual melodies of Armenian folk music, and is scored for strings.
Crystal Records CD804 Buy it now!
[timing 63:54]

Ode to the Temple of Sound • Vahaken Symphony (No.10)
Floating World - Ukiyo • Meditation on Zeami

This 2008 CD is something of a rarity in that it highlights the composer's neo-Oriental works of the 1960s - specificially his responses to the traditional music of Japan (Gagaku) and Korea (Ah-ak) which he learned on his Far Eastern trip of 1962. All but Floating World appear in premiere recordings, although this work here gets both its first complete recording and appearance on CD. Orchestrally, the works are very appealing, but contain dark sonorities where Hovhaness trademark ad libitum rhymthless textures reverberate throughout the whole orchestra to create what he calls "controlled chaos". Ode is immediately appealing and has some very beautiful pentatonic melodic writing. Meditation on Zeami is essentially an explorarory work in timbre. Floating World is perhaps the most satisfactory of the three, beginning in murky depths and rising to a heroic climax. Stylistically separate from these three works is the earliest, Vahaken (Symphony No.10) with its distinctly Indian hues - an almost entirely melodic work that bears useful comparison with Henry Cowell's Madras Symphony.
Centaur CRC 2954 Buy it now!
[timing 58:00]