Review by: David Hurwitz
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 9
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 (particularly in the tiny Allegretto grazioso third movement), and imposing modal counterpoint. This performance originally appeared on Delos with a different coupling, and it’s absolutely first rate in all respects.
The coupling, the only available recording of the early (1936) Cello Concerto, is new to CD and features the redoubtable Janos Starker as soloist. It’s not a great work, but it is an extremely pleasant, interesting, even important one. All of the Hovhaness fingerprints that we observe in the symphony are also present in this piece. Two lengthy slow movements frame a very short central Allegro, and the 25-year-old composer’s writing for the cello doesn’t sound all that grateful to play–although the soloist does get a lot to do. But what makes this piece so fascinating, and so deserving of your attention, is the fact that it does everything that we expect of music by, say, Arvo Pärt or John Tavener, and yet it was composed nearly 70 years ago! Hearing this, it’s no wonder Hovhaness is only just coming into his own, and it’s a fitting historical irony that a composer once denigrated as backward looking should in fact turn out to be a prophet of important musical trends.
It’s also worth noting that about two seconds of this piece sounds 10 times better than anything by “spiritual opportunists” such as Tavener. Yes, the outer movements go on too long, but as with most of Hovhaness’ music, the results fall easily on the ear, and Starker, despite a couple of moments of iffy intonation toward the start of the work, plays eloquently. The sonics in both works are also 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.
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Recording Details:Reference Recording: None
ALAN HOVHANESS - Symphony No. 22 "City of Light"; Cello Concerto