Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Hanson Orchestral Works Vol. 1.
Symphony No. 1 Nordic (1922)
Merry Mount Suite (1938)
Pan and the Priest - symphonic poem (1926)
Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns
Nashville SO/Kenneth Schermerhorn
rec Nashville April and Oct 1999
NAXOS American Classics 8.559072 [60.56]
Crotchet     AmazonUS

Naxos's American Classics series launches out on another cycle. How delightful too that they are signing up some of the less celebrated names among the US orchestras. The Nashville do not have that ultimate finish you expect from the Cadillac greats of North America but they deliver soulful and rounded playing of pounding gravitas. The approach may, conceivably, be too broad as is evident where sturdiness in the Nordic Symphony kicks down to the point of stasis. There are times when you wish that the conductor would light a fire and goad his players along. But when snappy convulsive playing is specified the Nashville Symphony do respond. There are some Sibelian hallmarks in the Symphony at 6.01 and 7.20 in the Allegro con fuoco (gloriously vivacious flute playing). The work, anyway, lacks the tenaciously tuneful grip of the Second Symphony Romantic but is well worth experiencing for its grizzled atmosphere. Among the competition it must give place to the Schwarz on Delos (now in a twofer as welcomed by Ian Lace) and to the composer's version on Mercury (deleted). Oddly enough Kenneth Montgomery/Jena Philharmonic on his frequently (and wrong-headedly) overlooked Arte Nova coupling of symphonies 2 and 4 takes a rather languid approach to No. 2 but there the broadness works superbly.

The suite from the Merry Mount opera is more successful, with Schermerhorn building a ringing high-noon climax from the overture and passionate release in the Love Duet. The Children's Dance and the syncopated elements of the Prelude to Act II skip along like that memorable 'hick' dance in the first movement of Walter Piston's irresistible Second Symphony (still best heard in the DG Tilson-Thomas/Boston version). In the case of the Prelude there are voices from Borodin (Igor Overture), Balakirev (Tamar) and Mussorgsky (Great Gate of Kiev). The rustic Maypole Dances lie between Vaughan Williams' greenswards and Stravinsky's Easter Fair. However what we need, please, is a really good recording of the complete opera. Given that Naxos has already issued the Lawrence Tibbett 1930s premiere on discs (from distressed historical acetates) it is too much to hope that Naxos American Classics will do the honours but surely someone else can help. Merry Mount (always hampered by its maladroit title, I thought) is well worth the trouble of revival. There has been talk of a fine digital recording being touted from company to company. I hope that its pilgrimage will end soon and that it will find a welcoming taker ready to do it justice.

Pan and the Priest is a tone poem written during the years between the First Symphony and the renowned Second. The collision between sacred and profane, the life of devotion and the life of pleasure, saint and sinner, is implicit in the title and explicit in the music. Its 14 minute course takes an instinctive Sibelian approach. The saint and sinner line is there for all to behold in the plot of Merry Mount and I suspect these two extremes pulse through his music at different times. Take also his tone poem Lux Aeterna which I rather hope will be on the next volume in this sequence. Respighi's shaping is clear in this work with its plainchant references alongside a brilliant orchestral palette. It does not, however, have the memorable melodies of the First Symphony let alone of the Second.

The recital ends with the comparatively sedate and severe Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns for string orchestra. The devotional is to the fore. It stylistic companion would be the Hovhaness Armenian Rhapsodies and, towards the end, the Elgar Introduction and Allegro without the Elgar's lift and élan. The booklet notes that this work was, until recently, thought to have been lost.

Not especially long playing time but a good start to the series.

Rob Barnett

See also review by John Phillips

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