HOVHANESS Cantata Domino. Immortality. Unto Thee, O God. Triptych: Ave Maria. Simple Mass. From the End of the Earth. 3 Motets. Psalm 143. I Will Rejoice in the Lord. Why Hast Thou Cast Us Off? The God of Glory Thundereth. O Lord God of Hosts • Elizabeth C. Patterson, dir; Gloriæ Dei Cantores; David Chalmers, James E. Jordan, Jr. (org); Kathy Schuman (sop); Phoenix Marcela Catlin (alt); Richard Cragg (ten); G. Luke Norman (bs); Lydia Ingwersen, Stephen Velie (ob); MarianneRead more Wierzbinski, Daniel Pfeiffer (hn) • GLORIÆ DEI CANTORES 52 (75:33Text and Translation)
This CD of religious music by Alan Hovhaness is of such a high quality in performance that it virtually transcends the form of his pieces. In other words, the performers are all so completely wrapped up in this music, and it is sufficiently interesting to maintain one’s attention even if one is not inclined toward religiosity in music, that it commands and holds your attention from first note to last.
A great deal of the credit for this high quality goes to Elizabeth Patterson and her choir, Gloriæ Dei Cantores, the resident choir of the Church of the Transfiguration in Cape Cod. Their blend is clear and well tuned but not creamy-smooth and perfect, and for that I am highly grateful. I’ve had my fill of choirs that sound like their tone was produced on an organ pipe. I like to hear humanity in my choruses, and Gloriæ Dei Cantores fulfills that expectation. (I should also point out that clarity of lines in the chorus also translates, especially here, to clarity of diction, which I also appreciate.) Neither of the two organists on this recording is identified with any specific piece of music, so I cannot tell you who is playing what (there also appear to be unidentified brass players on O Lord God of Hosts), but the organ-playing as a whole is on a very high level.
Hovhaness’s music employs a number of dissonances and chromatics, yet is never purposely abrasive in a way that shuns the understanding of an average listener. Of course, what audiences of the 1940s wanted and expected to hear and what Hovhaness gave them was not always the same thing, and as the liner notes point out, he faced harsh public judgment of some of his most cherished pieces. Happily, as time went on even the most astringent passages in a Hovhaness piece came to sound almost romantic by comparison. Perhaps one reason for the disparity in acceptance between the 1940–50s and today is at least partially explained by the changes that took place in jazz during the late 1950s and early ’60s. Jazz at that time moved away from strictly tonal chord patterns (and, sometimes, chord patterns in general) and toward modes, stacked chords, and atonality in a highly diverse and sometimes “unpopular” style. Public acceptance and acclaim for such highly developed musicians as John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Bill Evans helped to make listening to Hovhaness an enjoyable and accessible public experience.
Certainly, most of the Simple Mass is very tonal and highly expressive and the Three Motets, sung by a cappella choir, even more so. Here, the music almost floats above the ground, an effect Hovhaness creates through his use of higher chord positions that almost never include the root tonic or heavy low notes for the basses (these chord positions also allow him to move either chromatically or modally within chords). Sister Phoenix Marcela Catlin’s alto solo in the second motet is beautifully phrased. I should also give special recognition to the excellent soprano of Kathy Schuman in Immortality and the Simple Mass. Another unaccompanied chorus, I Will Rejoice in the Lord, contains modes and harmonies that sound almost Hebraic.
These appear to be the only available recordings of these works. Whether or not they are first recordings, I cannot say. But if you are inclined toward religious music in general, and/or Hovhaness in particular, you cannot fail to be moved by this disc. It is, quite simply, terrific.