Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Schwarz) – ‘Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountains’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Like the late Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness was an American composer of the twentieth century who turned his back on the dominant ‘academic serialism’ school and created a personal style that joined eastern and western musical styles and philosophies. When criticized by more academic types for writing a great number of easily accessible works, Hovhaness responded, “My purpose is to create music, not for snobs, but for all people – music which is beautiful and healing – to attempt what old Chinese painters called ‘spirit resonance in melody and sound.’” Taken in those terms, Hovhaness’ music proves ideal for rumination and picturing stirring natural vistas. Of course, if you are looking for music of deep personal conflict and restless variety, you’ll be better off with something like Mahler, just as the seeker of meditative music would do well to bypass Mahler and proceed directly to this disc, ‘Mysterious Mountains’, from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz, for many years a noted champion of Hovhaness.

Though Schwarz has recorded most of these works in the past, this new Telarc hybrid disc comes at that critical point a few years after the composer’s death when he is most vulnerable to critics who take potshots at his aesthetic without making any attempt to understand it. The fact that much of this music sounds similar is hardly a point of weakness, rather that is the groundwork that Hovhaness set: A continuity of style that makes any slight departure from it – such as the lively, ecstatic passage for flutes in the first movement of the ‘Hymn to Glacier Peak’ – a significant event. Further value is added to the project by Telarc’s misty, sensuous sound which wraps around the listener like few other recordings of full orchestral music on SACD. Some detail in the middle strings is obscured in the vigorous fugato passages, but the gains in evocative atmosphere are well worth it, especially in music that depends above all else on evocation to work its spell.

The earliest work on the disc is the ‘Storm on Mount Wildcat’ from 1931, one of the few early works that escaped Hovhaness’ brutal purge of over a thousand of his own compositions in the early 1940’s after receiving strong criticism from Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. It was only as the 1940’s progressed and Hovhaness began exploring his Armenian heritage that his mature style developed. Thus, the ‘Storm on Mount Wildcat’ lacks the eastern turns of phrase which populate most of Hovhaness’ works. Instead, it is an unusual synthesis of traditional romantic storm-music and an almost lilting rural waltz tempo. The work is brief enough to keep that novelty from wearing off, and audiophiles will doubtless love the track for its vivid brass interjections. Not a representative piece, then, but certainly a fun ‘bonus’ for this collection.

The other three works are characteristic in their multicultural gestures and nature-worshipping moods. Predominant in each work are hymn-like prayers led by the strings and building up to exalted grandeur. The earliest symphony here is Hovhaness’ first mature symphonic exercise, ‘Mysterious Mountain’, dedicated to Leopold Stokowski, who conducted its first performance in Houston, Texas in 1955. Competing recordings of this work include the classic ‘Living Stereo’ recording that Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony made of the work for RCA in the late 1950’s, and a recording that Gerard Schwarz made with the Seattle Symphony for Delos about a decade ago. The Reiner is often praised for its glowing orchestral sound, and it still charms in that manner, but interpretively, Reiner performances often impress me technically while leaving me strangely unmoved, and there is a degree of that in his performance of ‘Mysterious Mountain’. Granted, as in all Hovhaness’ works, the sense of self is subsumed into a universal grandeur, so there is not a strong element of personal identification for the performer to ally with, but nonetheless Schwarz sounds committed to the music in ways that Reiner does not, thus on musical grounds Schwarz’s main competition is his own earlier recording, which remains a fine performance in its own right. The biggest consideration for listeners wanting a recording of ‘Mysterious Mountain’ comes down then to sound: The Reiner recording boasts the handsome ‘Living Stereo’ sound that RCA achieved in Chicago in the late fifties and early sixties (which led to many recordings that deserve to be reissued in a high-definition digital format). Fortunately, those classic recordings were made before “improvements” shot the sound of Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in the mid-1960’s. The later Delos recording (now available at bargain price on Naxos) sacrifices a little in terms in glow to gain more in atmosphere. This new Telarc recording goes further in that direction, putting the orchestra just far enough away to create a strong amount of hall resonance (and very attractive are the acoustics of Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall). Those who have the other recordings may well be satisfied with them, for fine they are indeed, but the surround-sound program on this hybrid disc features sound of great atmosphere and depth, which would entice any listener. Those who have not yet made the acquaintance of these works should certainly start right here.

More dramatic than ‘Mysterious Mountain’ is Hovhaness’ penultimate symphony, numbered sixty-six, the ‘Hymn to Glacier Peak’, a mountain in northern Washington visible from the front window of the composer’s home. Dating from 1991, the piece captures Hovhaness’ adoration of nature in grand form. The beguiling middle movement is a love song to his wife Hinako, featuring solo woodwinds over delicate pizzicato strings, serving as a welcome textural contrast to the hymn-like first movement and the intricate fugue of the last movement which leads to a grand closing hymn. In the busiest string parts in the fugue, some inner detail is a touch vague in this recording, but the spacious sound is so effective in most pages of these works that it is far preferable to the alternative of a dry, analytical acoustic.

Most dramatic of all is the ‘Mount St. Helens Symphony’, Hovhaness’ fiftieth essay in the genre. It was inspired by the memorable eruption of the volcanic Mount St. Helens in southern Washington in 1980 after more than a century of dormant peace. It would certainly be interesting to hear a more personal take on that event – the event marked the first volcanic eruption in the northwest United States since it became a well-populated area, and the psychological effect on the local populace must have been dramatic. But such a piece still waits to be written, as Hovhaness remains generally aloof from personal concerns. Thus the opening movement of the work is yet another grand hymn to the mountain, largely interchangeable with any other grand hymn to the mountains in his other works, but no less handsome for that. The second movement is a portrait of Spirit Lake, the body of water at the foot of the mountain, which was almost completely filled in during the volcano’s eruption. Here, the composer is picturing the site’s pre-eruption charms, but there is unease in the music foreshadowing the coming upheaval. The last movement opens with a subdued hymn in the upper strings over rumblings in the basses. Then suddenly the percussion unleashes the eruption itself. There were two ways Hovhaness could have gone here – he could have gone for a severely restrained ‘symbolic’ eruption, or he could have gone for a very noisy naturalistic portrayal of the event. Characteristically, he refused to make that choice and attempted a synthesis of the two approaches. Unfortunately, the synthesis doesn’t really work. In terms of a stylized picture of an eruption, this one is too long, too random, and too noisy. For a realistic eruption, it’s not long enough, not chaotic enough, and not nearly loud enough. But whatever the pitfalls may be of trying to capture nature in music, the passage is certainly impressive sonically – thundering percussion, slashing brass glissandos, ash-clouds of fluttering strings – just the sort of thing to play to your friends to show off your sound system.

The regular compact disc layer of this hybrid release is a typically fine Telarc product, though it must be admitted that the Naxos bargain-priced reissue of the Delos compact disc on which Schwarz recorded ‘Mysterious Mountain’ and the ‘Mount St. Helens Symphony’ is excellent its own right. The attraction of this release, then, is primarily in the high-definition DSD recording carried via the Super Audio Compact Disc layer. Interestingly, there is a picture of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on stage in their hall in the program booklet. The stage looks wider than it is deep, and the stereophonic spread of this recording across the front speakers certainly reflects its width. But the recording has a three-dimensional depth of sound that is surprising considering the relative lack of front-to-back depth of the orchestra’s seating area. The picture does show additional risers behind the orchestra, though. Perhaps the reflection of sound from the empty rear of the stage helps create the illusion of depth in the sound here. Or perhaps Robert Woods and Jack Renner of Telarc moved some of the players back on the risers to take advantage of the space. That depth is present both in the stereo mix and the multi-channel mix, but it is the surround version that adds the hall ambiance that makes it a joy to slip off into Hovhaness’ meditations on mountain and forest. The recording captures a perfect touch of back-bounce from the rear walls of the hall, just a hair less prominent than some of the initial Telarc multi-channel recordings. As noted earlier, some may want a touch more detail in inner instrumental voices, but the recording still carries much impressive detail – in a couple of places, too much detail, such as what sounds like the knocking of bow-wood on strings or perhaps a player’s sleeve button catching the edge of a cello as it is being played in some of the fast passages. But overall, the wide stereo spread, combined with a moderate orchestral distance appropriate to the composer’s style, and an evocative multi-channel mix, makes this a handsomely attractive disc.