Spellbinding Hovhaness

Record Reviews: Mysterious Mountain. Stravinsky: Divertimento. Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije (suite) Chicago Symphony / Fritz Reiner First released: 1958 (RCA Victor "Living Stereo" 09026 61957-2)
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New Age simplicity visits ancient chant. True, Alan Hovhaness's aurally spacious Mysterious Mountain symphony would seem ripe for populist consumption, yet its wholesome spirit, uncluttered design and luminous harmonies suggest a more permanent appeal. This particular recording was made in a single day back in April 1958 and still sounds fairly seductive, with sweetly piping woodwinds, twinkling celesta embellishments and a wild rush of bowing in the central fugue. It's a strangely moreish piece - tuneful, expansive (though not too long) and strongly reminiscent of film scores to Biblical epics or archaeological travelogues.

And if you need further confirmation of Fritz Reiner's conducting expertise, then just consider that these same sessions also produced what is surely the gentlest, best played and most expressive account ever of Stravinsky's Fairy's Kiss divertimento. The music itself was refashioned from lesser- known Tchaikovsky works and Reiner's classical exegesis reminds us of Tchaikovsky's own debt to Mozart. The Scherzo and Pas de deux are particular delights, the latter parading more heart than we're used to hearing in Stravinsky. Lastly, there's Lieutenant Kije - dapper, unruffled, jaunty and rich in atmosphere. You come away spellbound by the sheer perfection of it all.

Tchaikovsky; Symphony No 5; Solitude; Song without Words,

Op 40 No 6; 1812 Overture

Philadelphia Orch / Leopold Stokowski

First released: 1928-1937

(Biddulph Recordings WHL O15)

Stokowski goads Tchaikovsky into blatant confession. This is the "real thing" - a taut, fiercely pulsing Fifth, with elastic tempos and strings that soar straight to the heart. The opening five minutes tell all: a sullen tread, then a gradual process of acceleration that's so artfully judged that we barely sense we're speeding.

Thereafter, the cards are down. The first movement rails and relapses like a jilted lover, the second positively cries, and while swooping strings betray the stylistic trappings of a bygone age, their expressive force is overwhelming. The Valse is both seductive and graceful, and, yes, the finale is cut but there's enough left to balance heartache with a sense of struggle and, ultimately, triumph.

The Philadelphia Orchestra responds to a man, though goodness knows how they coped with Stokowski's vacillating rubato. It's worth remembering that this is a continuous performance: Victor used two cutting tables, which meant not having to stop between "78" sides. As to the fill-ups - an exciting, albeit black-and-white 1812 and two scorching song transcriptions - all three really "cook". The originals date from between 1928 and 1937 and Biddulph's transfers yield remarkably good sound. True, surfaces occasionally fry - but then think of the heat!