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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]


I first properly got to know the music of Howard Hanson through the five excellent CDs that Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony released on the Delos label between 1989 and 1994 and which included all seven of his symphonies. It would be great if Naxos could reissue those albums. Some of the works included on this new Philadelphia disc were done by Schwarz and his team but the Organ concerto, Nymphs and Satyr and the Summer Seascape were all new to me.

One general comment about this release is that I’m unsure how big a body of players Daniel Spalding used in these performances. The booklet photograph of the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra shows fourteen musicians but in at least some of the pieces it sounds as if the ensemble is larger.

On the back of the jewel case the date of composition of the Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings is given as 1926. However, it’s made clear in the notes that the version that’s recorded here is Hanson’s 1941 revision for a smaller orchestra of strings and harp. To be honest I’m not sure why Hanson bothered including the harp because, after the atmospheric quiet opening, I could scarcely hear the instrument during the remainder of the piece. Whether that’s a miscalculation on Hanson’s part is a matter for debate. In fact I’d be interested to know what size of organ Hanson had in mind, at least as far as the revised version of the concerto is concerned. The organ used on this recording looks a pretty mighty beast on the booklet photo and on occasion it produces a sound to match. More than once it crossed my mind to wonder how audible the accompanying strings, to say nothing of the harp, would have been ‘live’ and without the aid of microphones. The concerto is in one continuous movement and, very broadly speaking, slow music in Hanson’s typically romantic vein alternates with quicker, dancing passages. It’s very accessible music and it contains some moments of genuine poetry and also some majestic organ sonorities, not least in the big, flamboyant cadenza between 8:52 and 10:18. Soloist Joseph Jackson has plenty of opportunities to shine and he makes the most of them. I wouldn’t class this as a major Hanson work but it’s good to hear it.

The other keyboard work is the Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth. This was commissioned by Hanson’s alma mater, Northwestern University, and Hanson had the happy idea of using as the basis for his variations a theme from a chamber work that he’d written back in 1917 while a student at that very university. The result is a very pleasing piece and it’s well done here. Gabriela Imreh is a fine soloist. She displays a deft touch in the nimble second variation and she plays the reflective third (of four) variations sensitively.

Nymphs and Satyr was Hanson’s last major work and it offers a bit of musical recycling. It’s cast in four sections, two of which are incorporations of short earlier works. One of these is a Fantasy for Clarinet and Chamber Orchestra, which serves as the second section of the work, beginning around 2:58, I think, after what I assume was a newly-composed Prelude. The Fantasy section is warmly romantic music, which I liked very much. For the third section Hanson uses a short Scherzo for Bassoon and Chamber Orchestra. As it says in the notes this has “a distinctly Swiss mountain flavour” and, frankly, it doesn’t seem to fit with the music that’s gone before or with what follows. It’s slight but pleasant. After this there’s a short Epilog (sic) in which the two soloists eventually join. I don’t think anyone could claim this as a terribly significant work in Hanson’s output. It’s essentially light music, expertly put together and, it seemed to me, expertly played by Spalding and his orchestra.

The works that feature solo flute and solo oboe are linked in that both were written for – in the dedicatory sense - Hanson’s wife, the flute piece as a courtship gift. The Flute Serenade is an absolute charmer, which shows Hanson’s lyric gifts to full advantage. There’s a delightful open-air feel to the music – and to this performance as well. For all that the piece is brief it’s most engaging.  In view of the title of the Pastorale the opening and close of the oboe work are surprisingly austere but, as it says in the notes, the music is “not without warmth.”  Both pieces are beautifully played by Andrew Bolotowsky and Jonathan Blumenfeld respectively.

I wonder if the Summer Seascape No. 2 is a first recording – though it’s not claimed as such. This thought is prompted by the comment in the booklet that this is one of Hanson’s “most obscure compositions”. Apparently it’s likely that the work is a forerunner of Hanson’s Sixth Symphony (1967). Hanson exploits the reflective tone and nature of the viola in a work that is largely ruminative.

This is an attractive disc of lighter music by Howard Hanson in good performances. The booklet note about the music is useful and informative though the anonymous note about the organ used in the concerto is too fulsome in tone for my taste. Since several of these pieces are not otherwise available on CD this disc fills some useful gaps in the Hanson discography for which Naxos are to be thanked. They will earn even more thanks if they can find a way to restore Gerard Schwarz’s cycle of the symphonies to circulation.

John Quinn

see also Reviews by Paul Cook and Jonathan Woolf

for reviews of other releases in this series, see the American Classics page 




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