Hovhaness has found a strong advocate in Gerard Schwarz, and about time too. This prolific and at times prolix composer's music, with its expressively limited mixture of bell sounds, modal and Eastern harmonies, and simple counterpoint, can sound naïve and even irritating in large doses. What is so often missing from many performances is committed playing, giving the music the strength, beauty, and confidence that so often makes all the difference between "getting through the notes" and the quality of response that these pieces need and deserve. This disc, all premiere recordings, does the latter, and even if you dislike Hovhaness you might well be impressed by the results.
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Khrimian Hairig is a short, pretty work for solo trumpet and strings much like the composer's Prayer of St. Gregory. It makes a very nice program opener even though it tells us nothing especially new. That certainly isn't true of the larger works. The Guitar Concerto must be numbered among the more successful works in its genre. It has all of the composer's hallmark fingerprints, but it also reveals an astutely judged understanding of how to pit such a weak-toned instrument against a large orchestra. In terms of color, texture, and contrast, the music is wholly beguiling and never overstays its welcome.
The same holds true for Symphony No. 60. At a bit more than half an hour, this is a long work for Hovhaness, but the inclusion of some American folk music makes an interesting contrast with his usual Eastern modes, while the four movements once again offer an unusually broad range of contrast and sonority. Best of all, the entire program is extremely well played, from guitarist David Leisner on up. This isn't difficult music technically, but it must never sound tired or lazy, and here it doesn't. The disc offers what in effect is an entire mini-concert--overture, concerto, and symphony--and you can listen to the whole thing straight through without fear of monotony. Sensitive and coherent notes by the late composer's wife add to the overall appeal, as does the excellent sound, particularly in the difficult-to-balance Guitar Concerto.
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