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Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, November 2010

This CD, recorded on January 30 and 31, 2008, is dedicated to the memory of Lady Evelyn Barbirolli, Honorary Fellow of the Trinity College of Music, who died a few days earlier. One might well ask what, if anything, is the connection between Barbirolli and Hovhaness. It turns out that her husband, John Barbirolli, conducted the premiere in 1966 of Hovhaness’s Ode to the Temple of Sound.

What these three symphonies have in common, of course, is their scoring for symphonic wind ensemble—in other words, an orchestra without strings. I know that the “Ani” Symphony has been recorded at least once before (by the composer, with the Highline and Shoreline College Bands). That disc is still in print. Also, this is not Keith Brion’s first Hovhaness recording; he conducted Symphonies Nos. 4, 20, and 53 for Naxos, along with some fillers, and that disc was reviewed, somewhat positively, in the July/August 2007 issue by Walter Simmons.

“Ani” is a 34-minute work dating from 1972. It is named for the ancient capital of Armenia, “the city of 1,001 cathedrals.” Naxos’s booklet includes a brief and evocative poem by the composer himself eulogizing this now ruined city. In the first movement, the wind ensemble creates impressive organ-like sonorities suggestive of a weighty cathedral. The sound of bells, both great and small, adds color. Later, there is a stoic solo for saxophone, and fluttering flutes suggest birds, interrupted by snarling brass glissandi. Then the chorale theme returns, with fugal development. One is struck by the appropriately rock-solid intonation of Trinity’s woodwinds and brass. Ani’s towers may have fallen, but the structures of Hovhaness’s music stand erect and unassailable in this performance. The second movement, described as a “humoresque” in Naxos’s notes, evokes the sound of a gamelan. Again, birdsong is an interlude. The lengthy final movement recalls much of the preceding material, introduces new material, and slowly builds to a heroic, tintinnabulating catharsis.

The other two symphonies each last just over 14 minutes. “Nanga Parvat” is another of the composer’s literally “mountainous” works—the title refers to a peak in Kashmir. Marked con ferocità and beginning with an extended passage for drums, the first movement seems to depict awe-inspiring and nearly impassable terrains. The second is a march as only Hovhaness could write one: ticklish in rhythm, and a little wild in its evocation of pomp from the Asian hinterlands. The last movement is marked “Sunset” and it brings the symphony to an atmospheric but unsentimental end.

“Ararat” alludes to another mountain, of course—one central to the culture of the composer’s Armenian heritage. The three movements are untitled. Hovhaness distinguishes between these two mountains by composing similarly uncompromising music in very different styles. “Ararat” feels more abstract, more like a psychological portrait than “Nanga Parvat.” In the first movement particularly, the Trinity brass once again give the attentive listener much to be excited about. Threatening bells and drums dominate the second movement. The third movement erupts in a percussive rage, fueled by trumpets, and the symphony doesn’t conclude as much as it simply stops.

The performances are very impressive throughout, and the engineering has a lot of impact. You will want to turn up the volume and let the music thunder over, around, and through you. I’d say that the composer’s heritage has been extremely well served by this release.

Icon, October 2010

While he doesn’t get enough credit, Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000) was a major forerunner of combining the Western classical tradition with folk strains from Europe (especially Armenia) and Asia. Perhaps that’s because when the classical world was getting all “modern” (read: atonal, difficult, “noisy”) in the '50s, Hovhaness insisted on composing music a reasonably intelligent Joe Bagodoughnuts might find “pretty.” The symphonies here, while portions are indeed very pretty, also convey the natural severity of earthquakes and avalanches (specifically of the Kashmiri mountains) and the not-so-natural destruction of Ani, an Armenian city. These three symphonies are an audio equivalent of an IMAX nature documentary—awe inspiringly lovely and harrowing both.

Barry Kilpatrick
American Record Guide, September 2010

Most of the works of Alan Hovhaness (1911–2000) are contemplative and speak a sort of minimalist language. The brass pieces I know fit this description. So does Symphony 23, but Symphonies 7 and 14 do not.

Hovhaness describes the 26,000 foot Kashmir mountain Nanga Parvat (‘Without Trees’) as “serene, majestic, aloof, terrible in storm, forever frozen in treeless snow”. He was thinking about Nanga Parvat when he composed the 14-minute Symphony 7 (1959) for the American Wind Symphony. I is all pounding timpani and bass drums, with occasional comments by woodwinds and brass. II is meant to “suggest wild improvised marches in raucous woodwinds and false brass unisons”. III (‘Sunset’) consists of a beautiful, mournful melody played first by solo English horn, then by the various brass sections. The ending is oddly anticlimactic.

Symphony 14 (1960), also commissioned by the American Wind Symphony, is subtitled Ararat. Hovhaness calls it a “symphony of rough-hewn sounds” and says it depicts the “wild fierceness of volcanic earthquakes and avalanche-shaken mountains, rough stones, caves, rocks sculptured by tornados”. The first sounds are accented, sustained note clusters, uttered first by the clarinet section, then by horns, rumbling timpani, flutes, bassoons, oboes, guttural trombones, and so on (Hovhaness calls them “dragon-fly sounds”). Finally, unison clarinets begin a folk-like melody, accompanied by oboe clusters and a bassoon countermelody. Trumpets take up the melody, with some harmonically supportive bass accompaniment, even as the section clusters continue.

II is darker, with a somber melody and more of the dragon-fly sounds. III, strangely brief at three minutes, closes the work with only pounding drums and a powerful, sustained, soaring melody by trumpets—mostly unison, sometimes splintering into dissonant clusters.

The 34-minute Symphony 23 (1972) tells of Ani, “a ruined city, the capital of ancient Armenia”. It has an opening section with a melancholy melody and harmonious accompaniment, a beautiful clarinet trio, and a lovely saxophone solo. A middle section has pointillistic woodwinds leading to swooping, glissando-ing trombones. The harmoniousness returns. II gives a lively melody to what sounds like alto clarinet, xylophone, and chimes. Next a saxophone takes up the melody, accompanied by timpani, before passing it to a flute, then piccolo. And so it goes. III takes up the warm tones and harmonies of I. These go on, hypnotically and in a state of utter calm, for nearly seven minutes before the mood becomes somewhat more animated.

Kudos to Keith Brion for dusting off what may be a forgotten part of the wind band repertory. If these works offer few technical challenges, they demand perfection of intonation and timbral blend, and the fine Trinity College musicians (of Greenwich, England) deliver exactly that. Many aural pleasures are to be heard in this unusual music.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, August 2010

Hovhaness’s prodigious output runs to some 500 or so published scores each often proclaiming a distinct, immediately recognisable and individual personality. The music is not inspired by organised religion in any conventional sense but is evidently guided by a profound spirituality and a deeply philosophical approach to the world. Frequently colourful and exotic the music is recurrently served by an intense sense of the spiritual beauty of nature and by sound-worlds created by large and broad-ranging orchestral forces.

Hovhaness gave many of his scores descriptive titles of a colourful and often memorable quality: Storm on Mount Wildcat; Symphony No.2 Mysterious Mountain; And God Created Great Whales; Symphony No. 22, City of Light and the Symphony No. 50 Mount St Helens. When requesting this Naxos disc I hadn’t noticed that the music was written for wind orchestra. This came as rather a surprise as I expected three symphonies of a similar instrumentation to that I had grown used to.

The first work on the disc the Symphony No. 7, ‘Nanga Parvat’, Op. 178 was composed in 1959 for wind orchestra with percussion and harp. The title Nanga Parvat, meaning ‘Naked Mountain’, is the name of the ninth highest mountain in the world. A dangerous and gigantic Himalayan peak Nanga Parvat is sometimes known as ‘Killer Mountain’.

Composed in 1960 the Symphony No. 14, ‘Ararat’, Op. 194 (1960) is scored for wind and percussion. The score is titled after the volcanic Mount Ararat in Turkey. According to the Book of Genesis in the Bible after the flood Noah’s Ark came to rest in the Ararat range. The disc closes with the Symphony No. 23, ‘Ani’, Op. 249 from 1972 calls for large wind orchestra and percussion. Situated in Turkey ‘Ani’ is the name of a once great and now ruined medieval Armenian city.

Keith Brion, the conductor of this release, has been involved in recording an acclaimed series of wind band music for John Philip Sousa for Naxos. It seems that Brion first made the acquaintance of Hovhaness back in 1964 and has made recordings with Hovhaness present. Based at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich the Trinity College of Music Wind Orchestra under Brion prove themselves marvellously suited to this remarkable music. These are strong and dedicated performances that feel fresh and engaging with much lovely playing.

This music for wind with percussion accompaniment may be an acquired taste for some. I certainly miss the additional colour provided by Hovhaness’s distinctive and often glorious string sounds. A splendidly performed disc that I suggest will appeal mainly to the more adventurous listener.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, July 2010

An hour’s worth of Hovhaness in ‘wind band plus percussion symphonic garb’ is the raison d’être of this Naxos release. It bears all his most obvious hallmarks, sometimes starkly: vistas, intense tattoos, hieratic brass, convulsive dialogues, chimes, noble perorations, edifices of almost Mayan splendour.

The Seventh Symphony dates from 1959. The purity of its rhythmic percussion tattoos and the hieratic nature of its brass calls give one an idea of the processional intensity of its dramaturgy. The loquacity of his wind writing implies a raft of interior monologues. The writing becomes more concentrated in the central movement where Hovhaness ensures themes are less fragmentary and by the finale things have turned positively Olympian. The percussion is now subservient to the brass calls, themselves more legato and ushering in a sunset glow, and a cooling, reflective consonance.

The following year he wrote Ararat, Symphony No.14. It makes much of ‘dragon fly’ sonorities, bright trumpets and glittering percussion once again but adds a further percussive layer via bell chimes and a buzzy series of terraced sonorities—dramatic, florid, and ground shaking in the central movement. The percussion starts up immediately in the finale but is gradually worn down by the sheer pugilistic insistence of the conquering brass.

The final symphony of the three is written on a much broader canvas than these two quarter of an hour works. But it too is a powerful construction, its chattering winds and terse declamation capturing the ear with great trenchancy. Drunken lowering lower brass add a leering patina as well, as do the aero engine and gamelan evocations. The finale is a wonderful example of nobility and processional tread with repeated figures passed from brass to wind adding a layer of sonic depth. We feel as if some vast castle is being evoked, as the brass calls resound from battlement to crenellation; Gormenghast in music.

Keith Brion has a long track-record with Hovhaness and he directs his forces with great vitality and precision. This splendid disc has been excellently engineered and admirers of the composer need not hesitate.

John von Rhein, June 2010

…this new Naxos disc represents the fourth CD devoted to the composer’s wind symphonies led by the American conductor Keith Brion, as well as the second of two Brion-directed Naxos discs made with British wind bands.

There may be some truth to the familiar criticism that Hovhaness wrote the same symphony 67 times. However, the variety of musical means and expressive gestures on display in these three middle-period works (written between 1959 and 1972) weakens the assertion. Both the Nanga Parvat and Ararat symphonies evoke fiercely beautiful Near Eastern and Asian terrain with a kind of ritualistic grandeur typical of other mountain-themed works by this composer, such as his famous Symphony No 2, Mysterious Mountain. All the fingerprints of Hovhaness’ mature style—modal scales, static melodies, complex metrical patterns, exotically colorful scoring—are present and accounted for…the performances are exceedingly well shaped and wrapped in clean recorded sound…

Gapplegate Music Review, June 2010

…Keith Brion conducts the Trinity College of Music Wind Orchestra in a fine recording of three early to mid-period symphonies of the late American composer, Symphonies Nos. 7, 14 and 23 (Naxos 8.559385). All three works have not to my knowledge been recorded repeatedly, but are not in any sense lesser works for all that.

Hovhaness writes beautifully for brass, and one finds plenty of characteristic passages in these symphonies. There are searching, mysterious moments, moments of grandeur, and long expressive chorales (note especially the first and following movements of Symphony 23).

All three works are good examples of the Hovhaness style and since they cover a span of time from 1959–1972, give the listener a handle on its development.

Brion’s interpretive performances are sharply focused, etched with clarity. The sound is terrific, the wind band brightly sonorous or murkily brooding as appropriate to the music at hand. In short, this is first-rate Hovhaness. It will give the newcomer to his music a good introduction; it will be a most welcome addition to the collection of Hovhaness admirers. He was one whose death in 2000 I personally mourned. But the music lives on, sounding as new and original as it did back when I first put that Heliodor LP on my father’s clunky old turntable.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2010

Alan Hovhaness was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, completing sixty-seven symphonies before his death in the year 2000. The present release is an appropriate coupling of three scores for wind orchestra inspired by the ‘wild fierceness of volcanic earthquakes and avalanche-shaken mountains’. I know over the years I get wildly enthusiastic and just as often disappointed as I review discs of Hovhaness, but here I am fascinated by sound pictures written over the period 1959 to 1972. In Kashmir the mountain, Nanga Parvat (Without Trees), rises twenty-six thousand feet and is forever shrouded in frozen snow, the Seventh Symphony visiting its changing moods in the three movements. Mount Ararat is very different as the inspiration for the Fourteenth, for here the sight is of rough stones, caves, rocks sculptured by tornados and the threat of a volcano. Those pictures are expressed in the most obtuse time signatures as Hovhaness shapes the jagged scene. Though living and working in the States, he had come from a strange mix of Armenian and Scottish descent, and it is to Ani, the ruined city and capital of medieval Armenia, that we journey for his Twenty-third symphony completed in 1972. Before its destruction it was said to be a place of a thousand and one cathedrals. Bells echo through the landscape, and if you hear folk melodies, then they are those written by the composer, the final movement an extended song of hope for the future. It must have been a very daunting disc to perform, and the young musicians of London’s Trinity College are to be complemented on the clarity they bring to complex writing. They have the Hovhaness specialist, Keith Brion, conducting, the earthiness of the scores well realised.

Stephen Eddins, June 2010

One incontrovertible fact about Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness is that he was an individualist. His idiosyncratic music, which eclectically incorporated Medieval through contemporary styles and procedures, as well as a variety of world musics, was put together in a way that blithely ignored the standard notions of what constituted good form or, sometimes, good taste. His deeply personal vision led him to produce at least one masterpiece, his Second Symphony, “Mysterious Mountain,” but there is a broad spectrum of quality in his over 400 works, which include 67 symphonies. Mountains remained an ongoing source of inspiration, and at least 10 of his symphonies have names related to mountains. This album featuring fine performances by Trinity College of Music Wind Orchestra led by Keith Brion (their second release of Hovhaness symphonies for Naxos), includes three symphonies, two of which are mountain-themed. The symphonies are typical of Hovhaness in that they sound more like tone poems than symphonies, have a generally mystical tone, rely on lots of repetition, and incorporate an array of musical styles and techniques, including the extensive use of Western and non-Western modes, arcane Renaissance procedures, big swaths of gamelan-like percussion, and unabashedly sentimental chorales, all assembled with varying degrees of coherence and credibility. It’s undeniably evocative program music, and reading the program notes helps considerably in appreciating what exactly is going on because it is not always evident from a purely musical standpoint. Not all of the composer’s symphonies have been recorded, and this CD helps fill the gap; these are the first recordings of Symphony No. 7, “Nanga Parvat,” and No. 14, “Ararat,” and…the second recording of No. 23, “Ani.” Naxos’ sound is clean and clear, but nicely atmospheric. This CD should delight the composer’s advocates and could be of interest to fans of 20th century music for symphonic band.

David Hurwitz, May 2010

These three symphonies for wind orchestra treat some recurring themes in Alan Hovhaness’ work: mountains (Symphonies Nos. 7 and 14) and his Armenian heritage (Symphony No. 23, evocative of the medieval city of Ani, “The City of A Thousand and One Cathedrals”). The later work is by far the most substantial, but all of them constitute worthy additions to the repertoire for winds and percussion. They are very well played here by the Trinity College ensemble under Keith Brion, who has lived with this music for many decades. Perhaps the English horn soloist in “Sunset”, the last movement of Symphony No. 7, is a touch “quacky”, but this and any other criticisms would be mere quibbles. The brass play with confidence and the sort of imposing serenity that Hovhaness so often requires, while the drums, bells, and tam-tam punctuate the texture atmospherically. Sonics are very fine, and the entire production is dedicated touchingly to the memory of Lady Evelyn Barbirolli (d. 2008), who some readers may recall was a noted oboist in her day. Recommended to fans of the composer, and of good music for concert band.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, May 2010

Keith Brion is no stranger to the music of Hovhaness; the two first met in 1964…The present disc features two compact three movement symphonies inspired by Mountains—one of Hovhaness’s idées fixes and a 35 minute symphony inspired by the ruined city of Ani—the capital of medieval Armenia which rejoiced in 1001 cathedrals. The city and its glories were laid waste by invaders.

Nanga Parvat refers to the dangerous and tree-less Kashmiri mountain of that name. The music conveys a sense of inhumanity and of the forbidding enormity of nature. The style is easily recognisable: rolling brass figures amid a firmament mapped out by the Venetian Gabrielis, the dissonance of the 20th century and the exoticism of hypnotic harp, drum, flute and oboe. Ararat was also a commission by the American Wind Symphony of Pittsburgh PA and again is between 14 and 15 minutes duration. Trumpets call out in typically elongated melodic outlines seeming to limn the horizon. Bells, gong and drums provide commentary and underpinning structural substance. The music buzzes and hums. In the central movement bells and groaning deep brass suggest threat. The finale evokes the earthquake and avalanche-riven Mount Ararat through urgent drum cannonades and piercing trumpet blasts…Ani was a commission from the Smithtown Central High School Symphonic Band and their conductor Lawrence Sobol. It progresses from mysterious sounds to long-limbed slowly unfolding hymns. We move to birdsong evocations that might just have influenced Reich and Nyman to groaning trombones typical of Hovhaness’s most extreme dissonant style as encountered in the Odysseus (25) and Vishnu (19) symphonies to modal nobility. While the other two symphonies are strong on atmosphere but leave the impression of being short on symphonic moment this symphony has an expansive air and a strong but unconventional sense of continuum. After a pattering gamelan-influenced central movement there is a majestically unfurled adagio finale. This is in effect a grand processional and paean all in one. It somehow manages to be reverent as well as imposing. That it is invocatory of the great ancient city seems entirely apposite—clearly a city thronged, savage, civilised, dangerous, threatening, rich and strange. How refreshing that music of this ilk was being written in 1972.

The disc is dedicated to the memory of the distinguished oboist Lady Evelyn Barbirolli (1911–2008).

The concise liner-notes are by the composer as is the included brief poem Lament to Ani.

Hovhaness’s strongly atmospheric muse reflected in three symphonies for wind band. Surrender to the music and you can be transported to realms undreamt or at least dreamt only by Hovhaness.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group