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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

 

Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Howard Hanson conducts Howard Hanson
CD 1

Merry Mount Suite (1933) [15:46]
Mosaics (1958) [12:45]
For the First Time (1962) [20:30]**
Piano Concerto Op.36 (1948) [20:14]
CD 2

The Composer Talks - Howard Hanson discusses his music:-
Introduction - the four orchestral colours [3:26]
Merry Mount Suite (1933) - How does a composer write for orchestra; Pitch spectrum and the colours of the orchestra [30:32]
Mosaics (1958) - How the colours of music influence musical form in the composer’s mind [24:33]
For the First Time (1962) - Musical sound. Using the tonal vocabulary of music to describe the impression [19:55]
CD 3

Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 21 Nordic (1923) [26:42]
Symphony No. 2 Op. 30 Romantic (1930) [27:54]
The Song of Democracy (1957) [12:04]
CD 4

Symphony No.3 (1943) [33:!2]
Elegy in Memory of My Friend Serge Koussevitzky, Op.44 (1956) [11:21]
The Lament for Beowulf (1925) [12:38]*
Alfred Mouledous (piano)
Eastman School of Music Chorus/Dr Herman H Genhart *
Eastman-Rochester Orchestra
Eastman Philharmonia**
Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra/Howard Hanson
rec. Eastman Theatre Rochester, New York. 1957-1965. ADD
from Mercury LPs: SR90175 (Merry Mount); SR90267 (Mosaics); SR90357 (First Time); SR90430 (Piano Concerto); SR90165 (Symphony 1); SR90192 (Symphony 2); SR90150 (Democracy); SR90449 (Symphony 3); SR90150 (Elegy); SR90192 (Beowulf). stereo
MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 475 6867 4 MM4 [4 CDs: 69:10 + 78:36 + 66:39 + 62:14]

The composer Howard Hanson and Hollywood moghul Darryl F Zanuck have something in common. They were both born, with Zanuck six years the younger, in Wahoo, Nebraska. Hanson came of second-generation Swedish-American parents while Zanuck was the son of a hotel owner. Neither stayed long in Wahoo. While Hanson may not have lingered long in Wahoo his home town have honoured him by restoring the family home at 12th and Linden Streets as a visitor centre which is open June-August, Sundays 2-4 p.m. or by appointment. 402-443-4217. Hanson studied at Wahoo’s Luther College and received a diploma in 1911. Zanuck died in Palm Springs in 1979 and Hanson in Rochester NY in 1981. Zanuck was pretty well universally known certainly among English-speaking cinema-going people. Hanson for a while, from the 1930s to the 1950s, was among the most famous of concert hall composers in the USA. Regrettably his music has made little headway outside the States.

The first CD in this invaluable set plays complete the three works analysed by the composer on CD2 and also adds the Piano Concerto.

In the magniloquent language of the first two symphonies the Merry Mount suite's overture is opulent with gongs and whooping and tolling horns. The ambience established announces the ungovernable passion that pulses through this opera. The Children's Dance is bright, Petrushka-like and ends headlong at full tilt. The Love Duet draws on the same language and throbbing romance as that of the Second Symphony. Like The Children's Dance, the Prelude to Act II builds quickly from innocence to a rapturous Russian insistence and a melody worthy of Borodin and Balakirev. The Maypole Dances look back to Olde English greenswards (much of this could at first be by Holst) but the rhythmic patterning is soon transformed into something more Slavonic, sometimes more Sibelian and corybantic as at 4:12 (tr. 4).

I doubt that you will play the second disc all that often. It's the composer talking to you about orchestral technique. It's not hard going or wearyingly didactic. Hanson's manner is that of a rather severe uncle ... but one with a mission to educate and an orchestra at his disposal to illustrate points. This Hanson does vividly. There is no condescension and no jokes - apart from the one about the oddly named english horn which as Hanson says is neither a horn nor English.

After the preliminaries, on the instruments of the orchestra, Hanson then dissects three of his own works - Merry Mount Suite, Mosaics and For the First Time all featured without spoken interruption on CD1.

His illustrations are telling and his commentary for Merry Mount and Mosaics is purged of musicological technicality. The sound is stunning - especially to be relished in the massed sonorous pizzicato of the strings at tr. 4 at 1:45. The Merry Mount suite analysis certainly adds value to your experience of the suite when it is played complete.

Hanson speaks of Mosaics and the work's inspiration in the Palermo Cathedral mosaics he saw while studying with Respighi in Italy. He talks us through each variation.

For the First Time is a suite of childhood vignettes captured while novelty lent them an intensity soon to cloud with adult familiarity. The talk does not follow the sequence of the variations as played when the work is given complete.

Mosaics is in a single track of just short of 13 minutes. Romance is here held on tight leash and despite some of the old hallmarks being evident the melodic material is not quite as gripping as once it was. The work was premiered by Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

For the First Time is a series of twelve miniatures. Bells is contented and idyllic - no wildly pealing carillon here. Tamara and Peter Bolshoi is a grotesque scherzo akin to Eccentric Clock and Kikimora. Deserted House shows us Hanson dancing gingerly towards dissonance amid shifting clouds of string sonority. Clowns and Dance make play with pizzicato and modernity but Dance develops ardently. Fireworks recalls the étincellante sparks and flurries of The Firebird rather than Stravinsky's own Fireworks. Dreams returns to the palette of Hanson’s own Second Symphony and the Beowulf Lament and had me wondering whether the child was the composer himself looking backwards at himself looking forwards to those great triumphs of the 1920s and 1930s. The piece ends in contentment.

The Piano Concerto is in four movements. The first opens with reflective music similar to that of Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony. This is only a prelude, for the movement soon develops a full pelt syncopated wildness rattled through by soloist and orchestra in the manner of Walton, Lambert and Prokofiev. The following andante molto ritmico and for that matter the final allegro giocoso is again propulsive and gripping. This is music that is ruthless, jazzy, similar to Gershwin in haste. It picks up on the war-dances for which Hanson was famed. There is a long andante molto espressivo which has the calm, cool and collected mien of the Finzi Eclogue and the early section of the Grand Fantasia. Like the Second Symphony the concerto was a Koussevitsky commission and in the final movement Hanson confidently recaptures the wild pulse of youth. In fact that movement sometimes reminds the listener of Shostakovich's second piano concerto with infusions from Gershwin and 1920s and 1930s Hanson.

Was it really almost thirty years ago that I first heard the music of Howard Hanson? A friend had taped a miscellaneous BBC Radio 3 programme of American music. It was broadcast one Sunday in 1971-2. Apart from including Griffes’ Pleasure Dome there was also the middle movement of Hanson's Romantic. It was the first time I had heard any Hanson. In due course I got the Charles Gerhardt LP of the whole Romantic Symphony. Then having started my first qualified job I threw caution to the winds and ordered via the then Crotchet Records mail order a batch of USA LPs selected from a Schwann catalogue I had picked up in a jazz specialist shop in Plymouth. That bulky parcel came by surface mail from the USA (I seem to recall the name ‘Harlequin Records’ as Crotchet’s US suppliers). It included some fascinating Hanson, Piston, Schuman, Hovhaness, Harris and Randall Thompson. The Hanson was the Mercury LP of the first two symphonies - the same two tapes as appear here. I played that LP to death and came to know the Nordic complete with one or two clicks and groove skips as if those blemishes were integral parts of the music. I was, and remain, a resolute Sibelian; the music of Hanson has some Sibelian resonance with a Tchaikovskian pungency. It is highly emotional and emotive music. If you know the history of favourite works by Sibelius, Nielsen, Peterson-Berger and others it should come as no surprise that the Nordic was actually written in Rome where he was studying with Respighi. It was premiered by the Augusteo Orchestra, with the composer conducting, on 30 May 1923. The recording here was made 35 years later. It positively throbs with soulful Scandinavian feeling. Hanson is no dawdler and keeps the pressure on his players who respond with the alacrity of an orchestra that has grown up under Hanson's shaping hands. The precision of the final 'crump' of the Nordic is deeply impressive.

The Second Symphony is in the grand romantic manner with melodic material to match. Just listen to the horn 'fall' at 4:31 and the easy-does-it solo that follows. This is Hollywood before the grand Rózsa, Herrmann and Korngold scores were written. Here the accent is even more Sibelian. Hanson wrote a gift of a tune in the first movement and matched it in the tender balm of the andante con tenerezza. The strings glow with a Hollywood sheen - ample in tone with only a feint suggestion of ‘dated-ness’. The plungingly bright allegro con brio is well named with darting winds, commanding brass (00.49) all grippingly exciting (3.20). The reprise of the great theme from the first movement appears at 5:20 and is a spectacularly moving moment.

Only Charles Gerhardt (now on Chesky) has excelled the composer in the Romantic although Kenneth Montgomery (Arte Nova) is I think very fine even when taken at the almost parodied distended pace he adopts. Schwarz and Slatkin each have their own strengths but lack the belligerent passion the composer brings.

The Song of Democracy sidles modestly in. The singing is well coached and marvellously clear. The wild dance of 3.23 must have been in Hanson’s mind for the scherzo elements of the Sixth Symphony. There are some Waltonian triumphalisms (3:52) and memorable moments include the opulent and increasingly urgent chiming obbligato at 10.03. If we flinch and wince in the face of the sincere sentiments on display here then let us also recall works such as Ireland's These Things Shall Be and wonder if we have become too knowing ... too cynical.

The Third Symphony’s ruminative expectation is crowned by starkly crushing brass statements seemingly descriptive of some Nordic tempest. The trudging and rushing forward momentum (5:40) is explosive and propulsive. Hanson superbly sustains, accents and goads the progress of the music. He also insists on some mice dynamic contrasts. Sibelius 2 can be heard in those dynamic pizzicato ‘rushes’ from the violins. In the second movement softly chanting woodwind gently launches one of those long string melodies related to that in the Second Symphony. In the third movement there are echoes of Sibelius 3 in the chipper writing for woodwind. This mixed with shadows of Sibelius 1 and the folk ‘stomp’ we hear in Peterson-Berger and later in the symphonies of Hilding Rosenberg. The finale is strident, gripping, raw, dark and sinuously Nordic.

The Koussevitsky Elegy is the most sincere and indomitably built of all the works included here. He owed much to Koussevitsky including the commission for both the second symphony and the piano concerto. Koussevitsky also recorded the Third Symphony on 78s and this has been reissued on Dutton in their Essential Archive series CDEA5021.

The Lament for Beowulf dates from Hanson’s days in Rome and his studies with Respighi. It is amongst his most potently brooding works. It carries all his irresistible fingerprints: long-spun themes, gruff brass punctuation, Holstian insistence from the drums, taciturn majesty and string ostinati with brass punch-syncopated above. At 13:19 there is a delirious counterpoint rising to majesty and at 1630 a Neptune-like evocation of eternity fades into mystery.

 

This set merits success and I hope that it will draw enough attention to attract recordings of Hanson’s complete opera Merry Mount; we have Naxos’s 1934 historical set but the work deserves much better sound. In addition how about premiere recordings of the Symphonic poem North and West with obbligato chorus (1923); Heroic Elegy for wordless chorus and orchestra (1927); Songs from Drum Taps, op.32, bar, chorus, orchestra, (1935) (this was recorded on Eastman Rochester Archives LP ERA1007), Streams in the Desert, chorus, orchestra, 1969 and New Land, New Covenant, oratorio, 1976 Also in the queue are the Symphonic poem Before the Dawn (1920); Exaltation, op.20, symphonic poem for orchestra with piano obbligato, 1920 and Lux aeterna, op.24, symphonic poem for orchestra with viola obbligato, 1923.

The documentation by Robert Layton is very welcome and offers a fresh perspective. Where it scouts on detail is in the factual background to the works. On the downside the words for the Lament of Beowulf and the Song of Democracy are not printed. Atmospheric studio and actualité photos of Hanson and discographical detail will warm the hearts of the most extreme of anoraks.

Hearing this splendid collection makes me regret even more that Hanson’s recordings of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies were not included. He recorded No. 4 for Mercury and this was issued on Mercury LP SRI 75107. The very brief Fifth Symphony was issued on Eastman-Rochester Archive series LP ERA 1014. Hanson must have conducted the masterful Sixth at least once but so far as I am aware there is no recording apart Schwarz’s on Delos and Landau’s on Vox.

The sound throughout this Mercury set is vibrant, wide-ranging, always gripping, never casual - not even in quietude.

For explorers this gives the great works - the first two symphonies, Beowulf and the Merry Mount Suite - in definitive performances directed by the composer. This is a splendid and vibrantly played and recorded collection for Hansonians everywhere.

Rob Barnett

 

 



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