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These symphonies for winds are an audiophile delight. Mercury is famous for their wind band recordings and this is clearly one of their best.
The idea of a symphony performed only by wind instruments (with added harp and percussion) is novel, to me anyway, and I found the music nothing short of enchanting. One of the first wind recordings I fell in love with decades and decades ago was British Band Classics on Mercury with the EWO under Fennell. Whenever a copy comes in I play it and fall in love with it all over again. You may feel the same about this very record.
I’ve been a fan of the Hovhaness piece here for many years. Finding enough clean copies with which to do a shootout took a very long time, but eventually we had enough and this is the copy that emerged victorious.
Side Two – Giannini
My notes say “by far the best” and when you hear it you will surely agree that the sound is fabulous — colorful, rich and real.
Big and clear, with no trace of smear, lively, with clearly reproduced harmonics on every instrument, there is nothing about the sound to fault.
A Demo Disc to be sure.
Side One – Hovhaness
The woodwinds are so rich and natural, with none of the “nasally” quality one hears on so many Mercury records, you know right away that the sound is right.
The brass at the end of the record are full-bodied and smooth in the best tradition of analog.
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Allegro Con Brio
Hovhaness Symphony No. 4
Premiered before an outdoor audience of some 6,000, this symphony is scored for Wind ensemble with added harp and percussion, and remains well known through its Mercury recording by the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble. It is in three movements and the composer enigmatically referred to “spiritual influences of the composers Yegmelian, Gomidas Vartabed and Handel”. A local paper reviewincluded the following:
It was the Symphony of Alan Hovhaness that made the most impression on the audience. It is a superb work carefully wrought by a composer who is both inspired and imbued with craftsmanship. It is really a set of three movements in the form of a concerto grosso with various solo instruments. Mr Hovhaness is a master of color, and his ability to achieve weird and unbelievably beautiful effects with combinations of instruments percussive and wind is uncanny.
Donald Steinfirst, Pittsburgh Post Gazette
The outer movements start with solemn hymns which lead to a majestic fugue. The central movement is in dance-trio-dance form.
The first dance is taken up by solo marimba (19/8 + 20/8). Two ‘trio’ sections follow (woodwind with harp, then woodwind with vibraphone).
The second dance has the xylophone (20/8 + 9/8) taking the place of the opening marimba solo.
The work contains superimposed meters as well as free rhythm sections and many passages which are in prime numbered meters like 7/4 and 11/4. One very noteworthy effect occurs in the last movement when a phrase in the lower trombones is accompanied by crossing glissandi in two upper trombones (first minor thirds, then major seconds). This makes for a very original effect, where two sliding notes momentarily merge into one before ‘diverging’ back out. In the 1960s glissandi became very prominent in Hovhaness’s music, to the extent where they became large segments of musical phrases.
Giannini Symphony No. 3
Here’s how this particular symphony came about: The Duke University Band asked Giannini to write something, and according to the composer, “I can give no other reason for choosing to write a Symphony to fulfill this commission than that I ‘felt like it,’ and the thought of doing it interested me a great deal.” That’s a good enough reason, and Giannini reported that when asked how it feels to compose for wind band (and not for orchestra, chamber groups, or voice), he “can only answer, ‘There is no difference. The band is simply another medium for which I try to make music.’”
Add to that the fact that there’s nothing really puzzling, shocking, or experimental about Giannini’s Third (except maybe that it’s for wind band but isn’t otherwise strange), and you have a vivacious work that wind bands can really use to please crowds and that also carries the dignity and historical weight associated with the name “symphony”. Giannini seemed to want us to hear this composition as a straightforward wind-band play on a classical symphony.
It has four movements, in the standard order of fast-slow-fast-fast. In the liner notes to the Mercury Living Presence recording, he even diagrammed the structure, specifically calling the first and last movements sonata forms. The second is looser, and the third is a scherzo. In other words, Giannini didn’t use the unusual medium as an excuse to do something wild and crazy. And he wanted us to know it.
This might explain why, at times, the Third sounds like a wind band transcription of a symphony for orchestra — and it suggests to me, at least, that Giannini really conceived this symphony as an orchestral piece. When I hear the second theme of the first movement, I wonder if I ought to be hearing soaring strings instead of massed winds. This shouldn’t surprise us — Giannini himself was a violinist. The part I’m talking about is in the following clip, after the hymn-like trombone passage and solo clarinet response. On the other hand, in the finale, the second theme is a solid march, and I think strings would detract from it (here it is the second time we hear it, toward the very end of the movement):
In the second movement, Giannini sensitively blends and contrasts the available wind band timbres. It, too, has its “orchestral” moments, but my favorite parts are when solo instruments play off each other, as in this lullaby-like moment for flute and clarinets:
In the third movement (the scherzo), Giannini gives us some nice range and timbre contrasts (piccolo, flute, and snare vs. bass clarinets, bassoons, and sax) around an undulating clarinet figure — and toward the end of this clip, the brass work their way into the texture:
Unsung Symphonies blog