July 26, 2012


Alan Hovhaness: Symphonies Nos. 1 (“Exile”) and 50 (“Mount Saint Helens”); Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints. Ron Johnson, marimba; Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwartz. Naxos. $9.99.

Peter Mennin: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 7 (“Variation-Symphony”); Moby Dick—Concertato for Orchestra. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Peter Maxwell Davies: Symphony No. 3; Cross Lane Fair. Mark Jordan, Northumbrian pipes; Rob Lea, bodhran; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Maxwell Davies. Naxos. $9.99.

      The symphonic form, altered and reinterpreted and thought dead and repeatedly resurrected and reinterpreted and remade in every possible way, continues to attract composers worldwide – including ones whose “symphonies” bear very little resemblance to the works in the form as used in the Classical and Romantic eras.  Some composers, though, have found ways to make the symphony their own even while maintaining ties to what the work used to be.  Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) is one such, and a very prolific symphonist he was.  He wrote 67 numbered symphonies between 1926 and 1992, plus others that remain in manuscript, and may well have destroyed still others when he burned hundreds of his early works.  Hovhaness was initially influenced by the music of American composers and by music from Armenia (his father was Armenian); later he became highly interested in the traditional music of nations such as India, Japan and South Korea.  Like many 20th-century American composers, he was accretive; but he also developed a sound of his own, largely through his assimilation of non-Western works.  His First Symphony, which dates to 1926 but was revised in 1970, has the title “Exile” in commemoration of the fleeing of Armenians before the Ottoman Turks after World War I – an event still producing controversy and deeply conflicting feelings today.  Expressive and passionate, this symphony blends grace with intensity.  A different tradition, that of Japan, infuses Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints, which prominently features a xylophone or marimba in a work of considerable charm.  In contrast, Symphony No. 50 is intended to evoke both the violence of nature (commemorating the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980) and its majesty.  This work strives somewhat unconvincingly toward mysticism and a feeling of meaningfulness underlying the event that brought it into being, but it is effectively orchestrated – as Hovhaness’ music usually is – and has some elements of real power.  The Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz plays the music with clarity and skill, if perhaps a little less comfort in the Armenian- and Japanese-influenced works than in the “Mount Saint Helens” symphony.

      Schwarz and his players also do a generally fine job with the very different symphonies of Peter Mennin (1923-1983).  Like the Hovhaness CD, this is a re-release of a Delos International recording: the Hovhaness performances date to 1990-92, the Mennin ones to 1994-95.  Both discs show the commitment of Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony to works by American composers – Mennin being one whose style developed primarily in the 1930s and 1940s.  His Symphony No. 3 is highly rhythmic, rather bold and brassy, and quite energetic in its outer movements – but with a central Andante moderato that sounds like an extended song without words.  The one-movement Symphony No. 7 bears its title of “Variation-Symphony” well, being essentially an extended set of contrasts among various sections of the orchestra as well as a lengthy group of variations on a theme.  Moby Dick is a more emotional work, intended to evoke not so much the sea, the quest of Captain Ahab and the doom of the Pequod as the impact that Herman Melville’s book has on the reader.  In all three pieces, Mennin shows himself to be an effective tone-painter and skilled craftsman, although the overall emotive ability of his music is somewhat limited – the orchestration is lush enough, but the feelings it evokes are on the thin side.

      Another symphonic re-release, this one from “across the pond” in England, shows yet a third 20th-century composer wrestling with new ways of handling symphonic form.  Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Third Symphony and Cross Lane Fair were originally recorded in 1994-95 and released by Collins Classics.  The symphony, written in 1983, harks back to architectural principles of the Renaissance in its construction, but listeners will more likely hear in it the influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams: it combines a tonal painting of the sea with reproductions of birdsong and an overall contrast between the forces of Nature and the attempt by humans to impose order on them through careful proportion and elegant design.  A long and somewhat over-ambitious work (it runs nearly an hour), the symphony produces an overall impression of expansiveness and time stretching toward infinity, with prominent Lento and Adagio passages in its very lengthy first and fourth movements – each of which is longer than the two middle movements put together.  Despite the broad reach of the music, the third movement, interestingly marked scorrevole e bisbigliando (“smoothly and whispering”), has some of the work’s most effective writing.  Cross Lane Fair, which dates to 1994, is a much lighter piece that uses only a chamber orchestra – augmented by Northumbrian pipes and the Irish drum called the bodhran.  This work’s sound is comparatively exotic, and its mood upbeat throughout, as befits music inspired by memories of a fair that the composer went to when he was a child.  Short transitional sections, reminiscent structurally of those in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, separate pieces that represent the fairground as a whole and such exotic features as a bearded lady, five-legged sheep and juggler.  Bright and forthright, Cross Lane Fair makes an effective contrast to the altogether darker and more meditative Third Symphony – and both performances here are as definitive as can be.

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