Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountains (CD review)

Also, Mysterious Mountain, Hymn to Glacier Peak, Mt. St. Helens, Storm on Mount Wildcat. Gerard Schwarz, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Telarc CD-80604.

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was one of the last of the Romantics, a composer who still believed that music should be enjoyed for its melodies, its harmonies, its sheer beauty of expression rather than any radical experimentation. Apparently, the public appreciated his work, too, because he became one of the late twentieth century's most popular living classical composers.

This Telarc disc from 2003 offers a program of four works on one of Hovhaness's favorite subjects: mountains. As Hovhaness said, "Mountains are symbols, like pyramids of man's attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual world."

The selections begin with his most-celebrated and most-recorded work, the Symphony No. 2, "Mysterious Mountain." Even though Hovhaness had been composing professionally for twenty-odd years before Leopold Stokowski premiered the Second Symphony in 1955, "Mysterious Mountain" made the composer famous, and it remains today probably his most well-known piece of music. The composer's own comment about his music in general applies equally to "Mysterious Mountain":  "My purpose is to create music, not for snobs, but for all people--music which is beautiful and healing--to attempt what old Chinese painters called 'spirit resonance in melody and sound.'"

Maestro Gerard Schwarz recorded "Mysterious Mountain" once before, with the Seattle Symphony for Delos, and this time on Telarc with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic he's a bit slower going about his business, a tad more reverentially cautious. There isn't quite the same dash or thrill in the work, not quite the same majesty we heard earlier. Yet he has replaced it with a tranquility that may suit the piece even better. Perhaps it's age creeping up on Schwarz or just a reconsideration of the work, but in any case the reading makes a good companion performance if you already own the Delos disc because the interpretations are different enough to enjoy both. The same goes if you own the classic RCA Living Stereo edition with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, another first-rate choice.

Coupled with "Mysterious Mountain" are Hovhaness's Symphony No. 66, "Hymn to Glacier Peak" (1991); Symphony No. 50, "Mt. St. Helens" (1982); and a particularly energetic rendering of a short early work, "Storm on Mount Wildcat" (1931). I found the Allegro to "Mt. St. Helens" as moving a piece of music as I've heard in a long time.

The Telarc engineers, recording the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for the first time, produced as smooth a sound as anything they've done. It's not necessarily the most transparent or the most-dimensional sound they've ever recorded, but it is certainly dynamic, natural, and listenable, and it suits the spiritual nature of the music making nicely.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa