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Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony no.1 Nordic (1922) [29:23]
The Lament for Beowulf, for chorus and orchestra (1925) [19:11]
Seattle Symphony Chorale; Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Opera House, Seattle, Washington, 10 September 1988; 16-18 February 1990 (Lament). DDD

Experience Classicsonline

This CD was originally released on the Delos label in 1990, coupled with Symphony no.2 and the Elegy In Memory Of Serge Koussevitsky - later re-issued as part of a four CD collectors' set of Howard Hanson's complete symphonies (review). The original disc gave listeners 70 minutes of marvellous music, whereas here Naxos give a rather measly 48. Yet there are mitigating circumstances. Although the CD does not say so, this is volume 1 in Naxos's own (sort of) Complete Symphonies survey, with the first four either released or due for release by the end of 2011.

Oddly enough, this is actually the third recording of Hanson's First Symphony that Naxos have issued, following the Nashville Symphony's lean, lingering account under Kenneth Schermerhorn - also under the American Classics heading, and another 70-minute offering (review) - and their 1954 'Archive' recording of the Hamburg Philharmonia under Hans-Jürgen Walther (9.80164), coupled with works by Elie Siegmeister and Charles Skilton, but available for downloading or streaming only, and ironically unavailable in the US.

Track timing aside, there are no qualms to be had against this release. This is as authoritative a performance by the Seattle Symphony of Hanson's Nordic Symphony as is to be had anywhere. Schwarz's interpretation stands up well even against Hanson's own 1950s LP recording on Mercury, later re-issued on CD - see review - an account which has the twin added attractions of including the Second Symphony and basking in Mercury's classic Living Presence sound, re-processed indeed as Super Audio on the CD version. That said, Hanson's Eastman-Rochester Symphony rather lacks the refinement of Schwarz's Seattle.

Either way, Hanson's Symphony - in E minor, op.22, though the track-listing omits to say - is surely one of America's finest Firsts. Elegantly orchestrated and unabashedly late-Romantic in idiom, it evokes beautifully the awesome majesty of the Scandinavian landscape of Hanson's Swedish parents, by turn splendorous, mysterious, vast, ebullient, serene, icy. It can be heard as an American version of Sibelius's own First Symphony, also in E minor, which Hanson took as his model. The final two minutes are an unforgettable experience, on a par with Mahler's or Walton's First.

The setting of The Lament for Beowulf makes a good companion piece for the Nordic, written shortly after it and at times similar in orchestral colouring. It is, however, more ponderous and less sombre or dramatic than might be imagined, given the material. Well performed by all involved, nevertheless.

Sound quality for both works is pretty good, though slightly subdued. The CD booklet is the usual Naxos affair, but the notes are new, and the full text of William Morris's translation of The Lament for Beowulf is included, complete with glossary.

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