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Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Fanfare for the Signal Corps (1943) [1:08]
Merry Mount Suite (1933) [15:00]
Bold Island Suite (1961) [23:51]
Symphony No. 2 Romantic (1930) [25:56]
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra/Erich Kunzel
rec. Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio, 8 Sept 2004. DDD
TELARC CD-80649 [66:12]


Hanson’s Fanfare for the Signal Corps premiered in Cincinnati on 2 April 1943 is all proud Americana; with heroic brass and rolling snare drum flourishes, a stirring opening to this enterprising compilation of the composer’s works.

The inspiration for Hanson’s Merry Mount Suite was the anything-but-merry; conflict between the Puritans and the Cavaliers in New England in 1625. The turbulent overture leads into a syncopated folk ‘Children’s Dance’ that is merry and evocative, in part, perhaps, because of horses’ hooves beating on an icy landscape. ‘Love Duet’ is plaintive then impassioned, the music subtly alluding to the big broad themes of Hanson’s own ‘Romantic’ Symphony. The Suite concludes with the pastoral ‘Prelude to Act III’ and the exhilarating ‘Maypole Dances’. Kunzel’s reading is persuasive and the recorded sound bright, spacious and natural. It compares favourably with the competitive recordings of the composer on Mercury and Schwarz on Delos.

The Bold Island Suite, here receiving its world premiere commercial recording, was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra in 1961. Bold Island, Maine was Hanson's summer retreat. The first movement Birds of the Summer is an unusual combination of a capella bird-song and sea music ascending to a joyous crescendo. Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes has very similar material. Summer Seascape, the central movement, pictures a summer sun glittering over waters on a bright, warm day. The music pulses gently, hesitant before heroic brass punctuations prelude a build-up towards a central climax as a squall approaches but soon passes. In all, this is a tender and affectionate portrait of a location very dear to the composer. There is more than a hint of the styles of both Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams in this movement. Hanson’s finale, God in Nature starts with a bold brass chorale, the music for a hymn Hanson had written to words by Ambrose of Milan. The mode is suggestive of Gregorian chant. The music metamorphoses into Hanson’s modern voice, growing more agitated, more dramatic until the proud reappearance of the hymn and in the words of the booklet notes, ‘The birds of the sea join in the hymn of praise, and with a final variant of the hymn the movement ends.’ An unusual deeply-felt work that will interest all admirers of Howard Hanson.

I remember reviewing Charles Gerhardt’s celebrated RCA recording of Hanson’s Second ‘Romantic’ Symphony for MusicWeb’s sister site Film Music on the Web’s on-going feature ‘If Only they Had Composed for Films’ Charles Gerhardt had recorded his acclaimed Classic Film Scores series for RCA, in London’s Kingsway Hall, with the same National Philharmonic Orchestra around the same time – 1970s. Hanson’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony, composed in 1930, just before original film music got into its stride. It is very cinematic, ‘heart-on-sleeve’, dramatic Late Romanticism; the sort of music that could have flowed from the pens of Max Steiner or Korngold. It has to be said straightaway that Gerhardt’s recording still reigns supreme, towering above all its many competitors for its sheer bravura, its intensity and its Romantic beauty. Kunzel’s performance is good and recorded in outstanding Telarc sound: I was particularly impressed with its fineness and transparency – listen for instance to the detail in the first movement around 6:00. Kunzel’s second movement crescendo builds nicely with towering brass but the concluding moments tend to drag rather. The finale’s crescendo is equally thrilling but again the coda disappoints – it loses that boundless enthusiasm and optimism epitomised by those joyous syncopations that distinguish the Gerhardt recording.

A Hanson ‘Romantic’ Symphony in excellent sound but not as satisfying as the cherished Charles Gerhardt recording. The unusual Bold Island Suite is definitely worth exploring.

Ian Lace

see also Review by Rob Barnett



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