This is an important Hovhaness release, and an extremely well executed project by all concerned (top-notch performances, excellent booklet notes and artwork to treasure, thoughtful and high quality packaging and so on..). It is also quite special to me as it brings together (the exception being the inclusion of the oddball but enjoyable Concerto for Soprano Saxophone & Strings - Op. 344 - from 1980) some of Hovhaness's best early works - admittedly well-known and documented in the case of the sultry, splendidly modal and ethnic Armenian Rhapsodies which are based on actual Armenian material including dances and folk songs. As far as I am aware these are the *only* works from Hovhaness's massive output that are not original melodies. The Symphony No. 1 subtitled "Exile" is a tribute to the exile and murder of the Armenian people at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. This grand symphony with it's early exoticism (it does technically predate AH's actual "Armenian" period that comes to be a few years later - but then it was partially revised by the composer, perhaps a decade later, and once again in the 1970s. I confess I'm not sure of the actual dates or years) is exciting and fresh. I especially love its slow introduction, lithe and slithering with the sounds of a hypnotic harp, plucked strings and a melancholy, searching clarinet. The calm is only broken periodically by explosive brass fanfares - this volcanic energy returns in the epic powerful third movement finale. I almost forgot to mention the real curiosity here, which is "Song of the Sea" which AH penned in 1933 (at 22!). Yes Hovhaness composed even during his childhood but to have a work that dates from his twenties when he was really unsure of himself and the directions that he wanted to take - is something really special. The work is for piano & strings and it is simple and beautiful. The main theme from the first movement is (or should) be recognizable: Hovhaness later used it not only in a piano piece but of more significance is that it reappears in the third movement of the sublime Symphony No. 22 "City of Light".
When this disc was released I wasn't sure if I loved this performance of the Exile Symphony as I do the Schwarz account with the Seattle Symphony. The tempos are generally slower under Gil Rose, and altogether it's a difference of an extra 3.5 minutes I believe. Turns out it is a win/win. Both performances are indeed amazing I think - and not to be missed!
(some) of the album packaging:
I am including the superb booklet notes which include a priceless Hovhaness interview from 1981 with Charles Amirkhanian and Dennis Russel Davies.