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Howard Hanson conducts 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; 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; 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 [5 CDs: 72:02 + 77:08 + 63:14 + 69:16 + 74:13]
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Comparative Review

It’s good to welcome back this assemblage of Hanson’s Eastman-Rochester recordings made for Mercury. The collection consists of five well-filled discs with names great and small, though the album’s title can be taken with a grain or two of salt. Some of these might constitute masterworks but not all by any means, or even most. Hyperbole aside what is more valuable even than the time-accredited masterpieces here, is the collation of lesser works by less well known composers such as Bergsma, Kennan, McCauley, Rogers, Phillips and Moore. This is propagandist work to the great advantage of the listener who will doubtless not need reminding that the Mercury tapes sound splendid to this day and no apology need be made on their behalf.

The first disc is an especially strong one. Barber’s Capricorn Concerto was recorded in 1959. Its occasional spiky brittleness is offset by some neo-classical wind frippery, not least in the Allegretto second movement, and some crisp Stravinskyisms ensure that the finale doesn’t dawdle. Piston’s The Incredible Flutist has received its fair share of recordings over the years but this one with Joseph Mariano has particular zest. Hanson captures just the right kind of solemn entry in the Vendors movement and presents the orchestra’s chattering high winds and sepulchral low brass to fine effect in the Entrance of the Customers. The Siciliano is especially lovely in these hands and adds lustre to the performance as a whole, an entirely sympathetic one. Griffes, one of the big What Ifs of American music, is represented by his Poem for Flute and Orchestra, Mariano once more. Impressionist, yes of course, but with sturdy bardic calls and dancery, a male and female opposition successfully resolved.

This disc also contains those small pieces by Kennan, McCauley and Bergsma. Kennan’s Three Pieces for Orchestra certainly waste no time in getting confident; this is bold and colourful occasional music but any more reflective moments saved for the central Nocturne. McCauley has his Five Miniatures for flute and strings - Mariano again – which is warm in its well-orchestrated fourth movement and flirts with a fugato in its finale, somewhat unnecessarily, as he obviously had the compositional heft to stick to his guns. Bergsma, who died in 1994, was a Hanson pupil and contributes a ballet suite, which has its colour and pantomimic moments very much on show, and with some heady percussion in the Sinister Dance.

You won’t go far wrong with Hanson’s Ives recordings, a brace of which give us the heart of the second disc. Three Places is evocative and the Symphony recording still registers with powerful immediacy even after nearly fifty years. Detached from this set it would make for a solid recommendation even when racked up against the competition. Schuman’s New England Triptych is notable for the clarity of the wind playing and for the percussion, with the beneficent wind choirs in When Jesus Wept being of especial beauty. The hymnal conclusion of the three is recorded with magnetic immediacy – the percussion really blaze. Mennin’s Fifth Symphony is the most recently recorded – May 1962 in, as always in this series of discs, the Eastman Theatre in Rochester. Compact and cogent the Fifth has a trenchant evolutionary logic, not unlike Rubbra’s – it even suggests a certain dourness of scoring – that impresses more and more. Mennin was a disciple of Hanson’s and his teacher was better placed than most to evaluate and present the symphony, which he does with compelling clarity. There are some Bliss-like string moments in the Canto, rapt and evocative, and a punchy, craggy finale full of plausible Rubbra-esque blocks.

The third disc gives us Morton Gould’s Spirituals of which there are five. Gould manages to blend gorgeous liquidity of string lines with a pungent syntax which, for all the searing and occasional brashness, always roots these studies in seriousness. Yes, there’s the easeful charm of the Sermon and also the "pizz and percussion" snap of A Little Bit Of Sin but the Protest reasserts deeper significance before allowing the open air Jubilee to run riot; just a touch too much cow-pokery, perhaps. The full Fall River Legend ballet music has recently been recorded by Naxos but here we get the far more familiar concert suite, cast in six movements. The Church Social remains a high point of Hanson’s conducting, the Copland hues studded throughout never thoughtlessly brought forward, but rather adding their own layer of influence to those of the hymnal and the wistful abstraction Gould so richly evokes. Barber’s Medea appropriately carries on the ballet theme and fuses rhythmic verve with the romantic impress of The Young Princess, the crypto-cinematic with the spare reflectiveness of Kantikos Agonias.

The fourth disc is a pleasing though undemanding one. Chadwick’s Symphonic Sketches are rich in late Romantic burnish, though they do have a more than passing yen for the salon. There’s plenty of natural warmth in the second of four; the third, called Hobgoblin, acts as a Scherzo. MacDowell earns an honoured place by virtue of his Suite, which sounds for all the world like sketches for an unwritten Dvořák opera (at least the opening movement does) – except when he sounds like Schumann and his foresty winds. There’s a pleasant bonus of Johann Friedrich Peter’s little Sinfonia in G, whose overlong presto opening movement is fortunately capped by some spirited and galant writing later on.

The final disc brings us some intriguing work from Douglas Moore. His Pageant of P.T. Barnum is ebullient and colourful but also manages to encapsulate some genuinely noble cantilever with a second movement rich in a spiritual-like melody akin to Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child. The warm winds and lazy string melody of Jenny Lind is captivating and the finale reverts to the rousing Barnum frolics that opened the work. This would make a grand concert piece, were anyone inclined to bring dazzle and vigorous warmth to their programmes. Carpenter is represented by his Adventures in a Perambulator, a suitably up-to-the-minute title for a forward-looking composer. In truth it’s not his most striking work but it’s admirably scored and has a waltz really worth dancing to and also a touch of Impressionist arabesques in the movement called Dogs. Americana is reserved for the finale, which is wistful and certainly the only movement that proclaims the nationality of the composer. To follow we have Bernard RogersOnce Upon A Time, subtitled Five Fairy Tales. These are most deftly done, from musical box rhythmic japes, through the stasis of The Song of Rapunzel, taking in some puckish treble glimmers to the final percussion driven movement, which seems to leave us hanging in mid-air. It’s no great surprise to learn that he studied with Frank Bridge and Nadia Boulanger because this is seriously cleverly scored. And so finally we reach Burrill Phillips, whose Selections from McGuffey’s Reader ends the set unpretentiously, with light-hearted Americana and a deal of romantic warmth. Nothing outstanding - but splendidly performed.

The notes are rather skimpy for a set of this size. Given the relative obscurity of some of the composers we should have had much more. But the discs are well filled and the set is available at a more than tempting price. You can safely purchase this, with performances as authoritative as are Hanson’s and performed with such relish and affection, and so well recorded too.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett




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