HOVHANESS: Fanfare for the New Atlantis, Op. 281; Guitar Concerto No. 2, Op. 394; Symphony No. 63, “Loon Lake”, Op. 411 – Javier Calderon, guitar/ Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ Stewart Robertson, conductor – Naxos 8.559336, 59:29 ****:

Alan Hovhaness has been accused of many things; overly prolific so that much of his music is substandard (like Telemann, supposedly), repetitive to the point of recomposing himself over and over (like Vivaldi, supposedly), and sticking with one essential style that is so unvarying it becomes monotonous. I think that if one is honest there is a little truth to all three of these assertions. Personally I have found much to admire in his writing, even though I think his contrapuntal skill overrated, and even though there are moments of great beauty and even thrilling sound, rarely am I moved by this composer. It could be that his chosen stylistic oeuvre lends itself to a certain detachment and objectivity that avoids any sort of deep emotional experience with his music, but I think he would have disagreed with this, as his own full-steam-ahead-and damn-what-the-other-composers-are-doing philosophy evolved in part because he felt that emotional and communicability were missing in large part from the music of the last century.

But it also cannot be denied that he has a vast following of cult-like intensity, and his records keep selling, and great artists kept interacting with him all his life, so there must be something to it that a philistine like me just doesn’t get! I find nothing on this album to change my mind, which means that if you like Hovhaness you will like this, and if you don’t there is nothing here that is so radically different you will wager a reassessment.

Generally I like this album.

Fanfare for the New Atlantis is essentially a small tone poem that describes the emergence of the mythical city from the waters. I think that Debussy did a little more vibrant job with his Engulfed Cathedral but our composer has his own methods and a modal style that make for a piece of limited interest, though not completely devoid of such. When we get to the Second Guitar Concerto we find a work written for the great guitarist Narciso Yepes in 1990. This is more typical of the composer, with a great intimacy between guitar and orchestra, rarely competing and fashioned in a concertante sort of idiom. The second movement is particularly lovely in that vast kind of Hovhanessian spatial dimension, with long winded string lines set against a sparse contrapuntal bass, injected with guitar commentary as the orchestra goes silent.

For many the main interest of this disc will be one of the last symphonies from the composer’s desk, “Loon Lake”, written as a commission from the New Hampshire Music Festival in conjunction with the Loon Preservation Society (evidently loons are found all over the state in its lakes). This two-movement work is intended as a walk down the composer’s memory lane while reflecting on his nostalgia for the New Hampshire countryside. The first movement serves as a prelude to the rest of the symphony, which is, as reminiscences suggest, quite sparsely scored with a lot of meditative moments for solo instruments like the flute. Those typical vast moving block chords (a la Mysterious Mountain) find a way into the score and again seem to reflect the composer’s obsessive magnification of the soul stretching towards something higher, though what that happens to be is kept secret from us.

The performances are exemplary and the sound quite vivid and pleasing. The RSO plays very well indeed, and I can’t imagine better performances. If this rocks your boat, no need to stop now—grab it!

— Steven Ritter