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CD & Download: Pristine Classical

Hanson conducts American Music - Volume 5
Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony No.5 (Sinfonia Sacra) [14:30]
The Cherubic Hymn# [12:31]**
Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Latin American Symphonette
[20:16]*
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Overture to “The School for Scandal” [8:06]
Adagio for Strings [7:28]
Essay for Orchestra No.1 [7:41]*
The Eastman School of Music Chorus#
Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra/Howard Hanson
*rec. 20 October 1952. Issued as Mercury MG-40002. ** May 1953 (Cherubic Hymn), 1954 (some sources suggest 9 May 1955). Issued as Mercury MG-40014.
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC332 [70:49] 

Experience Classicsonline


This is volume 5 in a series of American music conducted by American composer Howard Hanson (see reviews of Volumes 1-3 and Volume 4) , XR re-mastered by Andrew Rose for his company Pristine Audio. As such it is a valuable historic document. It shows Hanson to be a fine conductor as well as composer and the orchestra to be a distinguished one too.
 
“The American composer should not allow the name of Beethoven, or Handel or Mozart to prove an eternal bugbear to him, nor should he pay them reverence; he should only reverence his Art, and strike out manfully and independently into untrodden realms”, so wrote William Henry Fry in 1853. That was an early instruction since it was Gottschalk (1829-1869) who was the first American composer to achieve any kind of international fame. There is no doubt that the instruction was eventually taken to heart and I find American music has a very distinctive nature as one should expect when one considers the melting pot that America is. That said there are still traces of the origins of many American composers in their works as I’ve pointed out before in reviews of American compositions. This is the case when it comes to the music of Howard Hanson whose parents were Swedish immigrants (the subtitle of Hanson’s 1st Symphony is Nordic) . However, this is also to be expected and in any case makes for more interesting music than if every composer there tried to purge any trace of their heritage in everything they wrote. Therefore, one can hear Nordic sounds in Hanson’s short Fifth Symphony, particularly in the brass which he uses to great and powerful effect. This symphony, because it is short, would be a great place to start for anyone wanting to dip their aural toe either into American music for the first time or into Hanson’s music in particular.
 
It is virtually impossible for anyone not to have heard American music today as it’s all around us through television, DVDs, internet and the cinema. Apart from films this was not always the case and American composers were sometimes affected by those sentiments that Fry advised they should not be. Even in 1940 Copland felt driven to write that sometimes he thought it would be better that the great masterworks didn’t exist because of the negative effect they had on the public’s response to “native” composers. You can sympathise with that sentiment when you read that one criticism of American music held that it was “plain fare from the farmhouse” which is very similar to the criticism levelled at English music as being “cow-pat music”. It only goes to show that often the greatest criticism comes from people in the composer’s own country. I’ve always found American music exciting and different and usually brimming with a level of self-confidence that is infectious. That is something clearly evident in Hanson’s Fifth Symphony. After a brooding and ominous opening, that one could imagine being used to great effect in an episode of “Wallander”, the strings and harp introduce a more uplifting theme for a short while. This is sustained until the brooding nature returns before calm is once again re-established. In this short work of less than 15 minutes there are no fewer than 14 changes of tempo. So it is that, once again, the intensity builds up (from around 8 minutes) before dissipating, only to be replaced by massed brass reminiscent of the best Sibelian tradition. These clamant voices gradually subside and the symphony finishes quietly.
 
Hanson’s The Cherubic Hymn takes its text from the Greek Catholic Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. According to Davidson College Presbyterian Church in the USA in an article in their newsletter entitled “The Mystery of God in Music”, “the music and text together evoke the mystery and transcendence of God more completely than almost any music you will hear.” Powerful it most certainly is with the music reaching huge climaxes on several occasions along with the choir, The Eastman School of Music Chorus. I found a review from Fanfare magazine in which Henry Fogel said “... this does not seem to me one of his strongest works. There is just a bit of the sense of a contrapuntal exercise here, instead of the level of melodic inspiration that marks his best music”. This concerned a performance by Organ and Chorus as the present recording, though he knew of it, was unavailable at that time. I suggest that he gets himself a copy of this disc because I’m pretty confident he’d change his view now.
 
After this Pristine presents Hanson conducting a performance of Morton Gould’s Latin American Symphonette. He takes four dances and treats them to a vibrantly imaginative working. It begins with a fabulously energetic and exciting Rhumba then a smokily sexy Tango followed by the Guaracha, apparently Cuban in origin. It’s a little less frenetic than the Rhumba but only just and that also goes for the last one, a Conga that one can imagine snaking it way around a dance floor. There’s a resting period in the middle before it resumes its exuberant way towards a climax in which the sounds of massed triangles can be heard. This is then subsumed by orchestra and percussion before collapsing into happy exhaustion. This treatment reminded me both of Copland and Bernstein who each wrote music with a similar degree of almost electric energy: El Salon Mexico and some of West Side Story.
 
The seventh track is of Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal”. It was the 21 year old Barber’s first orchestral work. What a fantastic debut it made for him. It has become one of his most popular compositions. Such a work promised much for the young composer’s future, one which was well and truly fulfilled. The main theme which enters after a short introduction is delicious and helps make it a piece I’ve always loved. It is exciting and dramatic by turns and shows that the then student was a name to watch. This was proved by its being premièred only two years after it was written in 1931. It was meant by Barber to reflect the spirit of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play of the same name. This is followed by what must surely be Barber’s most well known work, the Adagio for Strings. It has been done no service by being recorded hundreds of times and marketed on discs along with other such ‘romantic’ pieces. This has happened so often that the poor piece has been done to death in the same way as Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory. A huge number of people who don’t normally relate to ‘classical music’ will know this work, though perhaps not who wrote it. They will almost certainly know nothing else by him. I do not want to sound either elitist or smug. I want to champion this music I love and wish that those who buy such discs were encouraged to go on to explore other music, spurred on by how they related to this work, which is a lovely piece. It could do with being “rested” for a few years to avoid it being forever only associated with the ubiquitous compilation album or feature on certain radio stations’ “Peoples’ all-time favourite” list. The final work is Barber’s short Essay for Orchestra written in 1938 and performed later the same year in a radio broadcast by none other than Arturo Toscanini. This was a great honour for the young composer since Toscanini rarely performed works by contemporary Americans. It is known as his No.1 since Barber wrote two more Essays, in 1942 and 1978. It is a work full of the effervescent nature of Barber’s writing and a joy to hear.
 
Hanson was invited by George Eastman of the Eastman-Kodak Company to head his Eastman School of Music, a post he held for forty years. He was a great symphonist who made a major contribution to furthering the noble goal of creating an “American music tradition”. Inevitably, perhaps, that brought him into conflict with those I call “the Emperor’s new clothes brigade” and in his book Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Scarecrow Press, 2004) Walter Simmons wrote: “Achieving nationwide  acclaim while still in his twenties, he lived to see himself marginalized during the last two decades of his life, because of his consistent adherence to values and ideals, rooted in the piety of small-town life in "middle America," that increasingly seemed "old-fashioned" and authoritarian when seen against the hard-edged intellectualism, anarchic radicalism, and sneering cynicism of the 1960s and 1970s” (p. 111). Fortunately for us all that time has now passed and we are able to see him and a whole number of other composers for what they really were and to enjoy their music as they hoped we would. This series is a worthy one helping to achieve just that and Andrew Rose has done a sterling service to both Hanson in particular and American music in general by presenting these recordings to a modern audience. The only criticism I have is that the insert quotes from a review of the original vinyl disc but only in respect of the Gould with no information about the other music. He also uses half the space to explain the work he did on restoration in which he said that more work needed to be done on the Gould and Barber than on the Hanson which is interesting since I found the Hanson sounded more dated than the rest. In any event it is an extremely interesting disc that any fan of American music will enjoy and would be a useful gateway into it for anyone coming to it afresh.  

Steve Arloff 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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