I first properly
got to know the music of Howard Hanson through the five excellent
CDs that Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony released on
the Delos label between 1989 and 1994 and which included all
seven of his symphonies. It would be great if Naxos could reissue
those albums. Some of the works included on this new Philadelphia
disc were done by Schwarz and his team but the Organ concerto,
Nymphs and Satyr and the Summer Seascape were
all new to me.
One general comment
about this release is that Iím unsure how big a body of players
Daniel Spalding used in these performances. The booklet photograph
of the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra shows fourteen
musicians but in at least some of the pieces it sounds as if
the ensemble is larger.
On the back of the
jewel case the date of composition of the Concerto for Organ,
Harp and Strings is given as 1926. However, itís made clear
in the notes that the version thatís recorded here is Hansonís
1941 revision for a smaller orchestra of strings and harp. To
be honest Iím not sure why Hanson bothered including the harp
because, after the atmospheric quiet opening, I could scarcely
hear the instrument during the remainder of the piece. Whether
thatís a miscalculation on Hansonís part is a matter for debate.
In fact Iíd be interested to know what size of organ Hanson
had in mind, at least as far as the revised version of the concerto
is concerned. The organ used on this recording looks a pretty
mighty beast on the booklet photo and on occasion it produces
a sound to match. More than once it crossed my mind to wonder
how audible the accompanying strings, to say nothing of the
harp, would have been Ďliveí and without the aid of microphones.
The concerto is in one continuous movement and, very broadly
speaking, slow music in Hansonís typically romantic vein alternates
with quicker, dancing passages. Itís very accessible music and
it contains some moments of genuine poetry and also some majestic
organ sonorities, not least in the big, flamboyant cadenza between
8:52 and 10:18. Soloist Joseph Jackson has plenty of opportunities
to shine and he makes the most of them. I wouldnít class this
as a major Hanson work but itís good to hear it.
The other keyboard
work is the Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth. This
was commissioned by Hansonís alma mater, Northwestern University,
and Hanson had the happy idea of using as the basis for his
variations a theme from a chamber work that heíd written back
in 1917 while a student at that very university. The result
is a very pleasing piece and itís well done here. Gabriela Imreh
is a fine soloist. She displays a deft touch in the nimble second
variation and she plays the reflective third (of four) variations
Nymphs and Satyr
was Hansonís last major work and it offers a bit of musical
recycling. Itís cast in four sections, two of which are incorporations
of short earlier works. One of these is a Fantasy for Clarinet
and Chamber Orchestra, which serves as the second section of
the work, beginning around 2:58, I think, after what I assume
was a newly-composed Prelude. The Fantasy section is warmly
romantic music, which I liked very much. For the third section
Hanson uses a short Scherzo for Bassoon and Chamber Orchestra.
As it says in the notes this has ďa distinctly Swiss mountain
flavourĒ and, frankly, it doesnít seem to fit with the music
thatís gone before or with what follows. Itís slight but pleasant.
After this thereís a short Epilog (sic) in which the
two soloists eventually join. I donít think anyone could claim
this as a terribly significant work in Hansonís output. Itís
essentially light music, expertly put together and, it seemed
to me, expertly played by Spalding and his orchestra.
The works that feature
solo flute and solo oboe are linked in that both were written
for Ė in the dedicatory sense - Hansonís wife, the flute piece
as a courtship gift. The Flute Serenade is an absolute charmer,
which shows Hansonís lyric gifts to full advantage. Thereís
a delightful open-air feel to the music Ė and to this performance
as well. For all that the piece is brief itís most engaging.†
In view of the title of the Pastorale the opening and close
of the oboe work are surprisingly austere but, as it says in
the notes, the music is ďnot without warmth.Ē† Both pieces are
beautifully played by Andrew Bolotowsky and Jonathan Blumenfeld
I wonder if the
Summer Seascape No. 2 is a first recording Ė though itís
not claimed as such. This thought is prompted by the comment
in the booklet that this is one of Hansonís ďmost obscure compositionsĒ.
Apparently itís likely that the work is a forerunner of Hansonís
Sixth Symphony (1967). Hanson exploits the reflective tone and
nature of the viola in a work that is largely ruminative.
This is an attractive
disc of lighter music by Howard Hanson in good performances.
The booklet note about the music is useful and informative though
the anonymous note about the organ used in the concerto is too
fulsome in tone for my taste. Since several of these pieces
are not otherwise available on CD this disc fills some useful
gaps in the Hanson discography for which Naxos are to be thanked.
They will earn even more thanks if they can find a way to restore
Gerard Schwarzís cycle of the symphonies to circulation.
see also Reviews
by Paul Cook and Jonathan
for reviews of other releases in this
series, see the American