Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony No. 4 Requiem, Op. 34 (1943) [25:45]
Symphony No. 5 Sinfonia Sacra, Op. 45 (1954) [15:10]
Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky (1956) [12:43]
Dies Natalis (1967) [16:07]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 16, 18 February 1990 (No. 4), 18-19 May 1992 (No. 5), 5 January 1988 (Elegy), 6-7 June 1994 (Dies Natalis), Seattle Opera House, Seattle, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.559703 [69:44]
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony recorded (for Delos) the first traversal of the orchestral works of Howard Hanson since the composerís own renditions almost forty years before. Hansonís recordings were masterpieces of the recording techniques of their time and naturally carried the authority both of composer and conductor (see review). Schwarzís performances benefit from improvements in recording technology and from a more meditative approach than that of the composer.
In its release of the five Delos discs, Naxos has re-ordered the individual works so as to present the symphonies in chronological sequence. This disc demonstrates how both Gregorian chant and the Lutheran chorale undergird the structure of many of Hansonís works, although only in Dies Natalis is there an actual quotation, in this case of a well-known chorale associated with Christmas. Hansonís variations on this theme are all ominous or agitated. This is more Christmas as it might have been experienced on the Great Plains by Hansonís pioneering ancestors than that of Dickens or Currier and Ives.
The Sinfonia Sacra deals with Easter, being an evocation of the moods of despair and eventual triumph associated with the three days from the Passion to the Resurrection. I have always found this to be the least convincing of Hansonís seven symphonies. It contains some wonderful music but lacks the dramatic and structural integration found in the Third and Fourth Symphonies. Schwarz does his best to put the piece over, and it is excellently recorded, but he can make no better case for it than the composer did in his own recording.
Serge Koussevitzky had been one of Hansonís earliest advocates, conducting the premieres of several of Hansonís most important works. Hansonís elegy for his friend is based on a four-note motif that is developed with consummate skill so as to progress through a wide range of emotions before ending with a touching valediction. Along with Mosaics this work stands out as the best of the composerís shorter works and Schwarzís performance is as persuasive and genuine as that of the composer.
The Fourth Symphony, dedicated to the memory of the composerís father, received the first Pulitzer Prize in music in 1944. Each of the four movements bears the title of a section of the requiem mass. Hansoní development of the Kyrie first movementís octave horn-leap and the succeeding theme for the cello make this one of his most convincing statements. The slow movement (Requiescat) that follows is based on the two themes of the first movement, but proceeding through organic growth rather than regular development and is as impressive as its predecessor. The Dies Irae movement combines the structural forms of the two preceding movements in a persuasive evocation of the cruelty of death and the last movement (Lux aeterna) achieves a sense of consolation through a perfect synthesis of the preceding material. Schwarzís version possesses less energy than that of the composer, but carries almost equal conviction.
The works on this disc each derive from a different Delos disc and the recording quality varies accordingly. The sound quality of Dies Natalis and the Sinfonia Sacra is much richer and balanced than that of the other two works. Given the iconic nature of Hansonís own recordings, Schwarz might have hesitated to record his own set of these works, but he has his own approach as well as a complete commitment to the Hanson ethos, even if he does not have the same control of his orchestra (see review). Still, Schwarzís discs deserve a place next to Hansonís own in any record library.

William Kreindler
Another Naxos re-release of Gerard Schwarzís persuasive Hanson series.

see also review by Dan Morgan (May 2012 Recording of the Month)