August 2003

Hovhaness - Symphony No. 2 "Mysterious Mountain," Symphony No. 66 "Hymn to Glacier Park," Symphony No. 50 "Mount St. Helens," Storm on Mount Wildcat
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic;
Gerard Schwarz, conductor.
Telarc SACD-60604
Released: 2003

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

Alan Hovhaness, who passed away in 2000 at the age of 89, was one of our most prolific composers, one whose Armenian heritage gave him a distinctive voice among American musicians. In 1967, he became composer-in-residence for the Seattle Symphony. Young Gerard Schwarz, when named music director of the orchestra in 1985, became a champion of the music of Hovaness, taking up where Leopold Stokowski and André Kostelanetz left off. It is not surprising that Schwarz has chosen an all-Hovhaness program for his debut recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, of which he became music director in 2001.

"Mysterious Mountain" is probably Hovhaness’ most famous work, known to audiophiles from the famous 1958 Fritz Reiner Living Stereo vinyl recording with the Chicago Symphony. Schwarz has recorded it before, with the Seattle Symphony. For that recording, he took what might be argued an unreasonably fast tempo for the first movement. This new recording finds him two minutes slower, even more leisurely than Reiner. The slower speed works -- this new performance has grandeur and majesty that seem entirely appropriate to the work. The double fugue of the second movement crackles and is tight and exceptionally well played. This is a performance worthy to stand beside Reiner’s.

The composer was quite taken with heights, both spiritual and geographical, and ended his days living where he could be near the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. The two other major compositions on this generously filled SACD pertain to peaks. The more exciting work is the Mount St. Helens Symphony. The final movement graphically depicts the volcanic eruptions of 1980 and is a real orchestral tour de force.

Maestro Schwarz has obviously established a good rapport with the Royal Liverpool players. They respond to his direction with singular unanimity. The orchestra sounds top-notch, and its massed sound is quite thrilling. The Telarc recording seems ideal for this music. The overall sound is rich and full, with a solid bass line and a sweet bloom on the upper violins. The dulcet bells and chimes that Hovhaness loved to employ are delineated with uncanny realism. The aural picture is not simply a wash, however; there is ample detail for those fugal passages to exhibit shape and bite. The bass drum is awesome throughout but never obscures detail.

The surrounds reproduce just the right amount of sound to establish a sonic picture of a large, reverberant hall (the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool). Topping off a generous list of assets, the disc is Hybrid, which means it has a very good CD layer you can listen to if you do not have an SACD player at this time. Then later, when equipment is upgraded, the disc is ready to have its glorious 5.1 layer tapped.