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HOWARD HANSON (1896-1981) Merry Mount - an opera in three acts (1934)conducted by Tullio Serafin historical recording - mono NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110024-25 [2hrs 6mins]



Lawrence Tibbett: Wrestling Bradford

Göta Ljungberg: Lady Marigold Sandys

Gladys Swarthout: Plentiful Tewke

Edward Johnson: Sir Gower Lackland

Chorus and Orchestra of Metropolitan opera, New York

conducted by Tullio Serafin

broadcast 10 February 1934 with commentaries by Milton Cross

This major late-romantic opera can be heard here in historical sound. It   is not as if you have any options if you want to hear the whole thing. OK there is an orchestral suite (Delos DE3105) and years ago there used to be at least one Eastman Rochester Archive collection of extended orchestral excerpts on LP. There are rumours that a recent US production has been taped for later issue but nothing definite on that yet.

Hanson is a strongly late-romantic composer. His only grand opera is every bit as passionate and melodic as you might have hoped. No doubt the title has not helped the work to make its way in the  world. The names of characters seem equally crass now. This sort of  thing does not help. None of this hindered its initial success in  mid-1930s USA where the premiere production of which this is a document  (although there may have been fillings-in from later performances in the  season) was greeted with acclaim.

The 2 hour work opens gently sombre with a prelude where the storm clouds gather. At the first crash there is some recording overload. You should bear in mind that the recording comes from tapes  of acetates and  metal discs made for Tibbett from the broadcast and kept for years in a barrel.

Those who know Hanson's Nordic Symphony will know what to expect. Interesting that the Nordic dates from Hanson's years in Italy and of course the Italian conductor Serafin may well have met Hanson during his time there. The chorus plays a warmly prominent role usually singing unison (like the voice of the Russian people in Boris Godunov) hinting at the great black towers of sound created by Sibelius in his Kullervo (perhaps Hanson knew of the Sibelius work?).

On the first entry of Tibbett applause greets his deep darkly velvet voice. Tibbett's ringingly heroic tone (e.g. at track 5 1.30) defeats the hiss and crackle through which the electricity of this major event struggles (largely successfully). The first woman's voice is heard after about 25 minutes. Track 8 brings a scene of the maypole and of bright carefree girls and joyous children (track 8 3.20) in a 'pat-a-cake' song which ends in shrieks and screams of delight. The first act closes in the sheer glowing splendour of Tibbett's auburn glowing voice and uproarious applause.

Each Act is separated by the spoken commentary of Milton Cross all of which lends the pair of discs a feeling of time travelling as if somehow you had fallen through a gap in time into the parlour of a US household in the mid 1930s.

Act 2 opens with a very broad Rimskian melody lit with fragments of typically Hansonian gusts and gales. The women's chorus and the xylophone each have prominent roles. A village dance with banging sticks and choral singing delivers acres more strongly rhythmic material.

The Rimskian melody could easily have decked out another Sheherazade or Antar but Hanson has his own chilly take on the proceedings. The dance becomes a grand scene of Bacchanalian celebration with the xylophone returning in Waltonian high jinks. On the magically set words 'The morning stars together' the feeling of muscular sea-current turning and turning delivers a guaranteed shiver down the spine.

Grand stuff!

After an RVW-type hymn/carol tune (19 4.20) the first disc ends (splitting Act II) in a Delian glow.

The second disc resumes the second act and we are soon into decidedly Romantic Symphony recollections but with Puccinian heroic singing intertwined. The plot's purposes are served by a lengthy dream interlude in which a vision worthy of Hieronymus Bosch is rather well portrayed by Hanson. This Garden of Unearthly Terror also taps into the lascivious and the violent. Neptune and Hanson's rather under-rated sixth symphony (of thirty years later) are reference points in track 5. Tibbett's burnished tone is an enduring beauty of this set and can be wonderingly heard in Rise Up My Fair One where hero and heroine attain ecstatic climax as Act 2 ends around them.

In the final Act the Red Indians, scorned and insulted earlier, turn to bloody vengeance and a new peremptory urgent tone pervades the writing with strong rhythmic rustle and a real crackle in the air. As battle is met the drums thud and the 'call to arms' from the Romantic Symphony can be heard in the orchestra which is met with a similarly spirited response from the big chorus delighting in Rózsa-like splendour. Indian war-whoops and horrific scenes are suggested. One of the puritan women is scalped by the Indian leader who in turn is quickly killed. The mother of the slain woman cries out heartbroken. Bradford walks into the flames with the body of his beloved in his arms. Hanson, Nordic to the last, has found his own boat-fire funeral and the opera ends in a mixture of terror and excited exaltation.

The opera is one of considerable richness and melodic resource - lots of good tunes and effects. The names now sound preposterous and some of the language is that stilted 'thee and thou'-ery which would have benefited from being in a language we do not understand.

The 65 year old sound of this set is somewhat distressed but you can clearly hear the vigour and passion of the work. This beatitude of a stage premiere glows easily through the limited dynamic range and the occasional distortion.

This is recommended for all Hansonians and those with a taste for Puccinian grandeur and indeed anyone with even a passing interest in American opera.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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