Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 21, The Nordic, (1922)
"Merry Mount" Suite, (1938)
Symphonic Poem - Pan and the Priest, Op. 26 (1925/6)
Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns
recorded 20/4/99 and 24/10/99, in the Andrew Jackson Hall, Tennessee Performing
Arts Centre Nashville. DDD
Here is a genuine American composer who writes in a Scandinavian style (his
ancestors were Swedish). Hanson had a long and distinguished career as composer,
teacher, administrator and conductor. He developed the Eastman Rochester
Orchestra into a first rate ensemble, making many recordings of primarily
American works for the Mercury label in the 1960/70s.
What we have now is Naxos doing much the same thing for American music, but
using a variety of ensembles from various parts of the world. Sometimes this
approach does not quite work, as there is a distinctive rhythmic pattern
to many American works in which foreign orchestras don't quite seem completely
at home. We don't have a problem with this issue however, as the orchestra
is American, and the work does not display American characteristics to any
great extent. The Nashville Symphony Orchestra (for which this is its Naxos
debut) is a first rate ensemble, strong in all areas, and with a vitality
in its playing (under music director Kenneth Schermerhorn) which I find most
attractive. The sleeve note promises more discs from the orchestra, and I
eagerly await hearing these.
Competition comes from Gerard Schwarz (Seattle Symphony) on Delos, and Howard
Hanson himself (Eastman Rochester Orchestra) on Mercury. The Hanson recording
is unique as often composer lead recordings are, but it is missing from the
current Philips catalogue. So we are left with Gerard Schwarz in a superb
modern recording on Delos.
Schermerhorn shows up extremely well in comparison with Schwarz, the recording
quality as good as the more expensive issue. The major point of issue is
the finale of the symphony which under Schwarz is an orchestral tour de force
whereas on Naxos, the atmosphere is much less exciting. However this is the
interpretation rather than the Tennessee orchestra being stretched, so I
would urge you to listen to the comparative recordings at this point to decide.
The price of the Naxos issue may be the deciding factor, plus its easy
availability. Indeed at the slightly slower tempo, the symphony takes on
a more craggy atmosphere, and given the title of the work this may not be
a bad thing.
The couplings are the suite from the opera "Merry Mount", a tale of witchcraft
and sexual obsession in seventeenth century New England, Pan and the Priest
and the Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns. Both are very
tuneful and very worth an outing, but the main item of interest is the Symphony.
Inspired by Sibelius, and written in Italy, where the composer was being
taught by Respighi, the symphony has a northern grandeur which I find very
satisfying. We often hear critics mentioning how exceptional the first symphonies
of composers such as Tchaikovsky and Sibelius are. Whilst I would hesitate
to put Hanson's in such exalted company, the comments about first symphonies
apply in abundance.
Well done Naxos and the Tennessee forces - more please!