These 3 world premiere recordings won't change your mind about the music of Alan Hovhaness, or at least that of his later period. If you already know and love those big chorales, the endless melodies like ragas, the connection with nature, the general feeling of serenity, beauty, and majesty, then you'll want this disc. And if you think his music is repetitive, tedious, overreliant on a limited number of ideas, and far too safe to be interesting, then you'll know what to expect here. Me, I find myself mostly but not entirely in the first camp: I enjoy Hovhaness quite a bit, but at times I'm left wanting more - like I've just eaten a delicious appetiser but then been told that was actually the main course. And this disc doesn't change my mind.
The opening Fanfare for the New Atlantis is a case in point. You probably won't be surprised by the following bald description: it begins with a quiet solo trumpet, then the rest of the brass comes in, then the strings take over, there's a slow build and the brass returns, and there's a big triumphant finish. In other words, it sounds pretty much like you'd expect a Hovhaness piece with this title to sound. The work is utterly obscure - all Hovhaness's widow Hinako Fujihara can say about it in her notes is the date it was completed (1975) and that the composer had an interest in the Atlantis legend. It's a nice piece, though, and deserves further outings.
The second guitar concerto was written in 1985 for Narciso Yepes and is here performed by Javier Calderon, who commissioned the first one. It's an odd beast, in as much as the first, second, and fourth movements are similar in feel and the slow third movement is considerably longer and quite different. Specifically, the shorter movements have very much an Arabic flavour to them and are generally dance-like (though not necessarily lively), whereas the third relies rather too heavily on those big chorale-like string tunes - it sounds a bit too Hovhaness, and I must admit the arrival of the cadenza about 9 minutes in came as something of a relief. This movement seems out of place and rather unbalances the concerto, I think, although the finale restores things somewhat - despite its very odd ending, an insistent trance-y rhythm that suddenly just stops. Take the slow movement out and this is a very enjoyable work. The somewhat Baroque-sounding second movement is a real keeper and could even become a radio favourite.
Hovhaness wrote 67 numbered symphonies; no.63, composed in 1988, was jointly commissioned by the New Hampshire Music Festival and, of all things, the Loon Preservation Society. I don't know if the loon-fanciers felt short-changed: the call of the loon does appear (on piccolo) but Hovhaness is more interested in the hermit thrush, which gets the big tune at the end. Basically the symphony aims to evoke the character of Loon Lake, with plenty of watery ripples and various wind soloists providing long winding melodies. It's a patient, peaceful work and does rather capture the timeless feeling of sitting by a quiet lake, taking everything in - except for (again) those big chorale-like string tunes, which occasionally burst forth, sort of like sitting by a quiet lake and getting interrupted by this fellow Hovhaness who can't help telling you loudly how calm and peaceful it is here. As a result, the symphony feels disjointed - a pity, because so much of it is fine, especially an utterly lovely folk-like tune that makes a too-brief appearance about halfway through the second movement.
Overall, then, something of a mixed bag, but there's really only one big negative - the composer's falling back on the overly familiar - and enough positives to justify a purchase, especially at the Naxos price.