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Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, August 2009

Hovhaness did not lack for celebrity supporters. Although solo concertos were nowhere near as profuse in his output as symphonies, his 1976 Violin Concerto Ode to Freedom was premiered by Menuhin with Kostelanetz, Symphony No. 36 had an extensive solo role for Jean-Pierre Rampal and here we have Janos Starker launching the Cello Concerto’s world premiere recording.

This Concerto is part of an extremely small number of works that survived the composer’s 1940 ‘bonfire of the vanities’ in which some one thousand of his works of the 1930s went up in smoke. The Cello Concerto is music noticeably in the Hovhaness idiom. Do not expect dynamic concentration. Instead we get a meditatively rhapsodic work with gestural drama provided by a swingingly portentous gravity. The central panel is briskly and flowingly rhapsodic aided by hallmark pizzicato and woodwind decoration. The string writing combines the yearning tension of Barber’s Adagio with Oriental modality. Hovhaness is not always sweetly inclined and works such as Mountains and Rivers Without End and the Vishnu Symphony freely use groaning dissonances. Much of the concerto is extremely easy on the ears. Only the central ‘panel’ with its grand and almost minatory brass-emphasis provides tension and contrast. The work ends in a rapidly gathering skein of stormy darkness.

The writing in the Cello Concerto has a barren Presbyterian quality by comparison with the 1971 Symphony. City of Light is in four movements and was written for the Birmingham (Alabama) Symphony Orchestra for that city’s centennial celebrations. The first movement deploys plush-lush string harmonies, lustrous and full-toned, and elaborates sedately-moving material with the awed tones of tam-tam and hieratic brass. The fast-shuddering and brief Angel of Light largo calls up the composer’s childhood vision of Christmas. The third movement allegretto grazioso is also short (2.42) with a ‘Vaughan Williamsy’ quick-trudging theme developed from a melody Hovhaness wrote for an early operetta, Lotus Blossom. Again there is plenty of pizzicato and high-wheeling music for the piccolo. The ‘Hymn of Praise’ largo maestoso finale is again portentous without quite the wrenching blackness that marks the main climactic statements in the Cello Concerto. Dancing violins and antiphonal effects (5.50) prepare the way for a finale in which one of Hovhaness’s whirlwind mosaic storms bids the listener farewell (12.30).

These two recordings are part of the Naxos Seattle series most of which derive from Delos CDs from the early-mid 1990s. The Cello Concerto has not previously been issued in any commercial format. This recording of the Symphony first appeared on Delos DE3137.

A contrasting couple of works, stunningly recorded and well annotated by Steven Lowe. The spare and rare Cello Concerto played by the world renowned—and rather breathy—Starker and the composer-directed Symphony No. 22, an artefact of his lush-plush mystical 1970s.

Gramophone, September 2004

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Anthony Burton
BBC Music Magazine, July 2004

The veteran János Starker, impeccable and expressive as ever, takes the lead in a sympathetic performance, well recorded in the Seattle Symphony’s own Benaroya Hall.

David Hurwitz, April 2004

Making a welcome reappearance on CD, Symphony No. 22 “City of Light” contains some of Hovhaness’ most extended thoughts, particularly in its extremely grand finale. The combination of elements is typical: sumptuous chorales, gentle dance music with an oriental flavor, and imposing modal counterpoint. This performance originally appeared on Delos with a different coupling, and it’s absolutely first rate in all respects.

The sonics are first rate. It was certainly a coup for Naxos to secure this recording of the Cello Concerto, and listening to it is more than just enjoyable in and of itself: it’s cause for reappraisal of Hovhaness' historical position, and it’s a useful commentary on the work of some important contemporary musical voices. Do try to hear it.

American Record Guide, July 2003

With a composer as prolific as Hovhaness, there’s always something new to discover. But the cello concerto is more surprising that most. It is his Opus 17 and was written way back in 1936. I particularly like his early works, when his Armenian roots were just coming to the fore. There is a freshness and sense of excitement and discovery that lends enchantment to his style. The Concerto is a major work lasting half an hour. It has an improvisatory, exploratory quality, colorful and imaginative orchestration, and is most enjoyable.

It is good to hear Starker continuing to learn new scores. He is in fine fettle in this primarily lyrical work, and it is hard to imagine a more effective presentation from all angles. The recording was made in 1999.

“For Symphony 22, City of Light, we go back to 1992 and a reading conducted by the composer…It is a lovely work with a good deal of contrapuntal activity holding together the meditative sections. Naxos is one of the few companies whose prices are low enough to support a recommendation of a disc containing only half new material, but I am enthusiastic enough about the cello concerto to say this is worth getting even if you already have the symphony.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, May 2003

Starker plays the work brilliantly, and Schwarz and the Seattle players make about the best case possible for this score. Overall, this is a fine work, and the Seattle Symphony, under the composer’s insightful direction, turn in a splendid, spirited performance. Again, the sound is excellent and this disc can be heartily recommended to Hovhaness and American music enthusiasts.

StarTribune, May 2003

Dennis Russell Davies, former music director of the St Paul Chamber Orchestra and a longtime Hovhaness advocate, conducts a fine performance of the concerto with the Seattle Symphony and Janos Starker as soloist, part of Naxos’ distinguished American Classics series, and the concerto’s first recording. From the start—a sweet, lonely sounding tune the cello shares with the solo flute—all the way to the ruminative final movement, Davies and Starker deliver the music’s nobility and its pungent lyricism.

Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times, April 2003

The early Cello Concerto, given an outstanding performance by Starker and Davies, has many of those Asian hallmarks and already reveals an inspired melodist and contrapuntalist. The Naxos CD is filled out by a welcome issue of the composer’s own, first–rate performance of “City of Light.”

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