When a composer has written well over 500 works, one can assume that there will be some unevenness in his production. Despite the fact that a number of Alan Hovhaness's pieces have entered the standard repertoire and that recording projects turn up interesting, little-heard music by the composer on a regular basis, Hovhaness's production is indeed uneven. Remarkably, those 500 works are just the tip of the musical iceberg. Hovhaness destroyed many, perhaps hundreds or even a thousand, of his earliest compositions when he turned his attention increasingly to Eastern music, including that of India and Armenia, for which he had a natural sympathy since his father was Armenian. (Hovhaness was born Alan Scott Vaness Chakmakjian but changed his name probably to mask his heritage, just as Walter Piston and Paul Creston changed their Italian surnames at a time in America when an ethnic name wasn't a ticket to career success.) Along with his penchant for Eastern music and its sound world came an increasing mysticism and inwardness through which Hovhaness hoped to "inspire all mankind with a new heroism and spiritual nobility."
Given the destruction of so much of his earliest work, it's remarkable that Song of the Sea, a tone poem for piano and strings from 1933, survived. Maybe Hovhaness had a sentimental attachment to the piece since he was the soloist in the first performance in Boston that year. It has few of the individual touches that we associate with the composer, so unlike the other works on this disc, it has mostly curiosity value. Not that the remainder of the compositions represent Hovhaness at his most refined, however. The First Romanian Rhapsody, with its punchy rhythms and percussion writing, is a winning little piece though the other two Rhapsodies have less to offer.
It's fascinating to hear Hovhaness's First Symphony, one of sixty-seven from his pen—fascinating especially since it was written not too many years after Song of the Sea and yet has some of the hallmarks of Hovhaness's mature style: the skittering string figures backed by near-static modal declamations from the brass. It doesn't have the sheer memorability of the Second Symphony, Mysterious Mountain, but at least Hovhaness was on the right track in his Exile Symphony. The work pays tribute to the victims of the Armenian Massacre under the Ottoman Turks during World War I. It rises from a somber opening movement to an epic and triumphant finale. Premiered by Stokowski in 1943, it was the first of a number of premieres given by Stokowski, climaxing with Mysterious Mountain, which the conductor debuted with his Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1955.
The Concerto for Soprano Saxophone is a relatively late work (1980) in which Hovhaness "harkens back to his earliest musical idiom—that from the 1930s." It's dominated by one of Hovhaness's earliest enthusiasms, for contrapuntal writing, which he employs in a mostly light and light-textured work that's conventionally tuneful in the manner of Song of the Sea. The slow movement, built on dance rhythms, is especially light-hearted; one critic I've read likens the up-tempo middle section to English music hall fare. The finale, entitled "Let the Living and Celestial Sing," returns to Hovhaness's more exalted, mystical style. It's an odd amalgam of different influences; even the choice of the soprano saxophone, more associated with the dance hall than the concert hall, is an odd choice. The sax sounds right for the slow movement, but in the modal music of the finale, it sounds strangely out of place, as if Hovhaness is trying, not very successfully, to turn it into some Middle Eastern folk instrument, maybe a cross between the mellow duduk and the strident zuma. Or maybe that's not his intention at all. At any rate, for me this is far from Hovhaness’s best.
I'd have to say that none of this music represents the essential Hovhaness, as interesting as it is to hear some of his earliest surviving tributes to his Armenian roots. The playing by the dedicated members of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky can't be faulted, however. They receive pretty good recordings in two different locales, though the recordings could have benefited from a bit more depth and transparency. Still, for Hovhaness enthusiasts and for those curious about the earlier works in his canon, this is an enterprise worth exploring.