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`JOURNEY THROUGH UNIVERSE’ WITH HOVHANESS

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I suppose it should come as no surprise that the music of Alan Hovhaness (or, to give him his full name, Alan Hovhaness Chakmakjian) should enjoy a renewed vogue in the era of Gorecki and the New Agers.

For close to six decades the prolific Massachusetts-born composer has consistently evoked the mystery and elevation of the Earth, the exoticism of the East, the spirituality of the church (specifically the Armenian Church) and other sounds of antiquity.Rich, hymnlike, modal - these are words one finds oneself using again and again to describe Hovhaness' music, with its haunting simplicity and occasional contrapuntal strength.

That very simplicity has put off some listeners, however, along with a certain repetitiveness that suggests that at least some of his 60-plus symphonies are little more than reworkings of their predecessors. His response to such charges is typical: "To the composer," he has written, "music is a sacred art, the pathway of life through a living universe, merging east and west, heaven and earth, addressed not to the snobbish few but to all people as an inspiration in their journey through the universe."

For those who wish to embark on that journey, I can think of no better departure point than the new Gerard Schwarz/Seattle Symphony CD listed above.

Following up on the unexpected commercial success of their "Mount St. Helens" Symphony last year, it gathers together some of Hovhaness' finest and most-often-played pieces in performances of commendable sympathy and understanding.

In "Mysterious Mountain" I still prefer the breadth, majesty and focus of Fritz Reiner's 1958 RCA recording. But at the same fast tempos one noted in his "Mount St. Helens," Schwarz carries the listener through this uniquely compelling opus smoothly and occasionally more subtly, its various string and wind choirs beautifully integrated.

That same finesse is equally welcome in the Vaughan Williamsy "Alleluia and Fugue" from 1941, long a favorite of mine, and the darker and more Mideastern "Celestial Fantasy," which found its orchestral shape three years later.

By contrast I find some of the counterpoint in the Prelude and Quadruple Fugue a bit smoothed over. But Charles Butler's solo trumpet sails evocatively above the massed string writing of the "Prayer of St. Gregory" and, of the various recordings I know of "And God Created Great Whales" (which uses actual humpback whale songs), this is the one that makes the most of the music's Oriental influences.

Chris Gekker and Richard Auldon Clark are no less expert in their "Prayer of St. Gregory" on the above-listed Koch CD, or the wind concerto "Return and Rebuild the Desolate Places," with its various clusters and glissandi and "Alleluia"-like second movement.

The real prize in this collection, though, is "Celestial Gate," its combined serenity and rapture coming right out of Hovhaness' top drawer. Again, Hovhaness' own recording, recently reissued on Crystal as part of that label's ongoing Hovhaness series, seems to me a little more atmospheric. But it is not as well played as this or quite as in tune with the music's more meditative aspects.

For "Mountains and Rivers Without End" the balance is reversed, the added flavor of Hovhaness' recording actually minimizing some of the piece's structural flaws. But if you don't mind the repetitiousness of this Korean-inspired score, you'll probably respond to its "Whale"-like trombone glissandi and intermix of color and rhythm. The fine sound and outstanding solo work don't hurt either.