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  Classical Editor: Rob Barnett  
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American Masterworks
CD 1
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Capricorn Concerto
Walter PISTON (1894-1976) The Incredible Flutist
Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920) Poem for Flute and Orchestra
Kent KENNAN (1914-2003) Three Pieces for Orchestra
William McCAULEY (1917-1999) Five Miniatures for Flute and Strings
William BERGSMA (1921-1994) Gold and the Señor Commandante - Ballet Suite
CD 2
Charles IVES (1874-1954) Three Places in New England
Charles IVES (1874-1954) Symphony No. 3 "The Camp Meeting"
William SCHUMAN (1910-1992) New England Triptych
Peter MENNIN (1923-1983) Symphony No. 5
CD 3
Morton GOULD (1913-1996) Spirituals
Morton GOULD (1913-1996) Fall River Legend - Ballet Suite
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Medea - Ballet Suite
CD 4
George Whitefield CHADWICK (1854-1931) Symphonic Sketches
Edward MACDOWELL (1860-1908) Suite for Large Orchestra
Johan Friedrich PETER (1746-1813) Sinfonia in G
CD 5
Douglas MOORE (1893-1969) Pageant of P. T. Barnum
John Alden CARPENTER (1876-1951) Adventures in a Perambulator
Bernard ROGERS (1893-1968) Once upon a time - Suite of Five Fairy Tales
Burrill PHILLIPS (1907-1988) Selections from McGuffey's Reader
Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson
Rec. rec. 1956-1963, Eastman Theatre, Rochester, NY, USA. ADD
MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 475 627-4 0 MM5 [5CDs: 72:02 + 77:08 + 63:14 + 69:16 + 74:13]

We tend to forget in this time of plenty how much Howard Hanson did for American music during the 1950s and 1960s.

This collection of five discs presents a miscellaneous assemblage of Eastman Mercury tapes. There are twenty orchestral works here ranging from symphonies to suites. The big 20th century names are represented by Barber (2 items); Schuman, Piston and Mennin (one a-piece). These jostle with Ives (two pieces) and, from yet earlier generations, MacDowell and Chadwick. All these items have been recorded in more recent years although rarely with such raw and vibrant engagement as by Hanson and the Mercury team.

Apart from its documentary and nostalgia value the set is valuable for the rarities. The earliest is the Johann Peter Symphony - an early Moravian symphony. Later come the Moore, Phillips, Rogers, Carpenter, Griffes, Kennan, Bergsma, Gould and MacCauley. Many of these, apart from the visionary impressionist Griffes, might be said to belong to the US equivalent of the Cheltenham generation in the UK. So far the great ruthlessly random sweep of history has left them beached and desiccated. Some of them deserve better: Bernard Rogers for one. There are others.

Ives’ astonishing and resolutely experimental Three Places in New England were recorded with the more convention-complicit but still fresh Third Symphony at the same sessions on 5 May 1957. They carry the standard Mercury Living Presence auditory signature - a close proximity to the orchestra and a completely unapologetic grip on the listener. This produces a living presence indeed if hardly a realistic concert perspective; not that this is what we necessarily want anyway. The Schuman Triptych is a confident trilogy based on hymns by William Billings but shrouded in Schuman’s self-distinguishing originality. Have the drum taps at the start of the middle movement When Jesus Wept ever rung out with such atmosphere and impact? I think not. The strident woodwind of the Chester movement have never stepped out with such tautly bustling muscle and imposing pep. This is a 1963 recording - the latest included in the box. Then comes the 22 minute Fifth Symphony by Peter Mennin with its tide-surging energy at times like Vaughan Williams (Symphonies 4 and 6) and Rubbra (Symphonies 1, 3, 4, 5). The central movement is a typical Mennin Canto - he was fond of the word and the mood. It is not an easy cantabile. One gets the impression that the right to sing has been hard won and costly. The Symphony was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony and its premiere was conducted in Dallas in April 1950 by Walter Hendl. The composer set out to be direct and terse in his communication perhaps a little like Randall Thompson in his Second Symphony although Thompson allows himself more romantic breathing space than the athletic Mennin. It has been something of a nostalgic exercise to hear this version of the Symphony again because the Mercury LP SRI 75020 was an import purchase I made into the UK during the very early 1980s. I was struck then by the resonances of the finale with the collana musicale celebrations of the finale and their unwitting linkage with Rubbra’s own Fifth Symphony..

The Pulcinella-dry clatter of the Capricorn Concerto by Barber is accentuated by this spry and close-up recording from 1959. After such a start Piston’s own much ‘wetter’ take on neo-classicism is very welcome. Interesting to compare the twelve movement ballet suite with the fairground knockabout of Moore’s Barnum Pageant. Of course the Piston has the inestimable advantage of a classic early Piston melody-bolero 1930s heard in the Tango of the Merchant’s Daughters and The Flutist echoing Ravel and Constant Lambert’s Horoscope. That melody is one for the scrapbook just like the melodic coups he pulls off in the Second and Fourth Symphonies. The Incredible Flutist in this version is Joseph Mariano. This is one of the most likeable recordings I have heard. The Griffes Poem again has Mariano in a work poles apart in idiom from the Piston. This is luscious, fantastic and dreamy piece written at about the same time as The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. The dedicatee and first soloist was Georges Barrère. Kent Kennan studied composition with Rogers and Hanson at the Eastman. This was recorded in 1957 and is prone to a rather sharp ‘blade’ to the string sound. In 1936 Kennan won the Prix de Rome and spent three years at the American Academy in Rome. Kennan is very much the neo-classicist with the suite studded with Stravinskian tributes. Mariano takes centre-stage again with McCauley’s Five Miniatures for flute and strings. This is a sincere, charming and poetic suite with the flute musingly chaste as well as excitable and flighty across the five movements. This is a much more personal and impressive work with some of the mood pictures suggesting the bleak world of Frank Bridge. Only in the Capricious finale does McCauley lose grip with some al-purpose Hindemithianisms. Bergsma was a pupil of Hanson’s at Eastman from 1940 to 1944. It was Hanson who in 1942 premiered the suite Gold and the Señor Commandante (based on the Bret Harte story The Right Eye of the Commander). Bergsma is a substantial composer with a grand imagination ands this rather Prokofiev-like score prepares the grounds for much more lyrical works such as his opera The Wife of Martin Guerre - highlights from which were issued on LP by CRI but never made it to CD.

Chadwick’s Symphonic Sketches take us back to a Dvořákian style and a pre-Great War innocence. This is matched with the sentimental Elgar-Mendelssohn-Grieg-Edward German style adopted by Edward MacDowell in his Suite for Large Orchestra which at times invokes the orchestral suites of Glazunov (Middle Ages and The Seasons). Hanson knows how to pitch bouncy magic and high spirits when called upon to do so as he is in Forest Spirits and In October from the Suite. Yet further back in time we have the confident and streamingly active classicism of Johann Peter’s Sinfonia. Boccherini is mentioned by Bill Newman in his note as an inspiration but there is some Haydn in there as well. Play this to your friends and then tell them that this was in fact written in Salem, North Carolina in 1789.

Morton Gould’s 1941 Spirituals for string orchestra refers to the essence of the Negro spiritual without actually quoting from any. The first movement is tough - much tougher than you may expect from Gould. Hanson is good both in the serious almost dissonant first movement as well as in the slightly queasy A Little Bit of Sin. This is a much more meaty work than I had recalled. Having heard some of Gould’s more over-the-top works this falls into a quite different category. In 1947 Gould, inspired by the Lizzie Borden story wrote Fall River Legend for Agnes de Mille. The suite extracted from the ballet was premiered in 1952 by the NYPSO under Mitropoulos. Once again there are no lapses of taste and the music is stimulatingly enjoyable without being quite like anyone else. The disc ends with Barber’s seven movement Medea Ballet Suite - with its sumptuous climaxes topped off by drums, xylophone and magnificent raw horns recalling the sound of the horns in Hanson’s recordings of his own first two symphonies. The ballet was first written for Martha Graham under the title of Serpent of the Heart. When revived one year later in 1947 it had a new title - Cave of the Heart. The music is touching (try the lovely Choros tr.15), innocent, minatory and sinister (Medea tr. 16).

Douglas Moore’s Barnum Pageant is one of his earliest pieces from 1924. It is a series of character pieces encapsulating the whimsical world of the Barnum spectacular. The music is affectionate, at one moment Petrushka puts in an appearance. In the case of the Jenny Lind movement the music is poetic with a tender melody for flute and harp with strings. The Circus Parade finale is suitably ebullient. The recording is from November 1958 and has held up very well indeed. The only pity is that Hanson did not take up and record the In Memoriam of 1943 written in memory of the young who died during World War II. Carpenter’s Perambulator Adventures are similarly relaxed and lyrically confident. They date from 1914 and were recorded by Hanson in 1958. There is a more recent recording in the shape of the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine conducted by John McLaughlin Williams on Naxos American Classics 8.559065. There the coupling is the Carpenter’s two symphonies. The most touching movements are The Lake and the Rimskian Dreams; the most lively Dogs and En voiture. Bernard Rogers has the distinction of being a pupil of Frank Bridge. We need much more of him - I rather hope that Naxos will record his orchestral works. If we hear overt Russian influences (especially Liadov, Rimsky and the Stravinsky of The Firebird) in this masterfully imaginative suite of fairy tales this should come as no surprise. In 1925 he visited England and while there wrote his First Symphony Adonais in which Russian romance and Bloch’s impressionism are strongly felt. He returned to the fairy tale theme in 1939 with his own Song of the Nightingale for Goossens in Cincinnati. The Ride of Koschei the Deathless is suitably dread, skeletal and sinister emulating the atmosphere of Liadov’s Baba Yaga, Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain and Poul Schierbeck’s Häxa. The drums and dry percussion are particularly assertive. Burrill Phillips is a really obscure character and not in Rogers’ class at all. However his hick-sentimental suite recorded in 1956 neatly matches a sort of Delian continuum with a cartoon ride for Paul Revere in the finale.

A demerit in this case is the rather inadequate booklet note. This is very strong on atmosphere and period flavour but extremely poor on details of the composers and the pieces played. However the two photographs of Hanson are stunning and unfamiliar. The slightly cadaverous looking Hanson, gimlet-eyed stares out at us pipe clenched between his teeth at one point. This contrasts with a photo taken perhaps ten years later with the composer in his early sixties and here caught smiling avuncular with his once jet black goatee now white but his hair still slicked and black.

The price is certainly right at £25.00 (just slightly over bargain price). The discs are packed reasonably generously with only the third CD raising an eyebrow.

It’s just a pity that Mercury were not able to license in various of Hanson’s own self-conducted tapes like the Merry Mount Suite, Time and Again; the Piano Concerto (with Mouledos) and the Fifth Symphony.

A major and very pleasurable nostalgia trip for Mercury fans and a chance for new listeners to get to grips with the USA’s equivalent of the Cheltenham generation with one or two departures into earlier years all vibrantly recorded. There are discoveries to be made here. Hanson is still leading us into the unfamiliar and doing so full of enthusiasm and ferociously fine judgement.

Rob Barnett

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