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Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings (1926) [16:09]
Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite (1979) [12:51]
Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth for Piano and Strings (1951) [11:00]
Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings (1945) [8:28]
Summer Seascape No. 2 (1965) [8:28]
Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings (1948-49) [7:29]
Joseph Jackson (organ); Doris Hall-Galati (clarinet); Holly Blake (bassoon); Gabriela Imreh, (piano); Andrew Bolotowsky (flute); Adriana Linares (viola); Jonathan Blumenfeld (oboe); Jacqueline Pollauf (harp)
Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Spalding
rec. March 2005, First Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA DDD
NAXOS 8.559251 [61:28]

Howard Hanson was about as mainstream American Romantic as you can get. He was part of a flourishing generation of Middle American composers of Romanticism - and by that I mean writing coming out of the American Midwest - that blossomed in the 1930s and continued until they all died off in the 1980s and 1990s.† These would include Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Henry Cowell, Samuel Barber and Paul Creston, to name but a significant few. Variously, these men were getting much of their instruction from Europe; mostly from Nadia Boulanger. Hanson, however, studied under the Italian great, Ottorino Respighi, and itís from him that Hanson learned his skill at orchestration. Hanson, in 1924, became the director of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and made musical history for his advocacy of American music.
The disc at hand is a collection of extraordinary lyrical chamber works composed across Hansonís life. If there was any one influence in Hansonís life - besides Respighi - it was Jean Sibelius.† Sibelius was a master of the clear lyric and balanced harmonics.† A good example of this appears in this discís two most dynamic works, the Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings and his Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite. The organ, of course, has traditionally been used for music of a religious nature, with the occasional foray into the ordinary classical repertoire such as Saint-SaŽnsí Organ Symphony. Itís a cumbersome solo instrument and recording of it generally has to be done in churches which sometimes do not have the best acoustics for recorded work. The balances have to be just right or the organ can drown everyone out. Here the physical sound of both the organ and the strings match each other well - with a bias given to the strings which come off as lush and wondrously romantic. Strangely, from the second bar onward - after the organ has announced its presence - Hansonís inimitable ďvoiceĒ enters and, if youíre already familiar with his work, youíre right at home. Itís one of Hansonís most enjoyable works.
The standout on this disc, however, is the Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite.† This late-in-life work finds Hanson filled with the exuberance of youth and an almost unexpected optimism. A great deal of Romanticism tends to be more brooding or melancholy than anything else: think: Sibelius in his Fourth Symphony or Shostakovich in his Eighth. This work belies all of that. And it was this piece alone that made me sit up and pay close attention to this ensemble which I had never heard before; I was particularly taken Doris Hall-Gulati on the clarinet.
Of the remaining works on this disc, the Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth for Piano and Strings (of 1951) is a bit more melancholy, perhaps with the composer in a mood for looking back upon his own youth with a more darker sensibility than usual.† It also happens to be made of student pieces Hanson wrote when he was in his early twenties. The Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings (1945) opens with a strangely Japanese-sounding flute and might remind some listeners - quite accidentally - of the lyric works for flute and orchestra by Alan Hovhaness. This is followed by the very song-like Summer Seascape Number 2 for Viola and Strings (1965).† Perhaps this is the sonically weaker of all the works here, though it certainly isnít a slouch as far as melody is concerned. The viola, as a solo instrument, doesnít project well and all the expert playing in the world - here performed warmly by Adriana Linares - canít elevate the sound of the instrument to where it can stand out. Finally, the Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings (1948-49) has as slight British character to it, coming as it does from a plaintive oboe; one can almost hear Alwyn or Bax in some of the oboeís lines.
Though Naxos is a lower mid-price label, for more than a decade theyíve been putting out some of the best music on the market. This disc is one of those excellent productions. The sound is balanced and lush - given the limited resources of string orchestras - and the playing, by everyone involved, is superior. Iím a Hanson fan and a sucker for this kind of music. I was just pleasantly surprised by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. Two words remain: Encore! and More!
Paul Cook

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