Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony No. 1 Nordic (1922) [29:23]
The Lament for Beowulf (1925) [19:11]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Opera House, 10 September 1988 (symphony), 16, 18 February 1990 (Beowulf)
Previously released on Delos (DE 3073; DE3105)
Sung texts available here
NAXOS 8.559700 [48:34]

The BBC’s Rob Cowan once had a slot called The Innocent Ear (and before that Robert Simpson, ed.), in which listeners were invited to sample music without knowing quite what to expect. To some extent the same principle applies in this review, for apart from some recordings conducted by Howard Hanson I’ve not encountered his compositions before. Although this Delos disc was released long before Gerard Schwarz’s recent Naxos offerings – all of which have garnered rave reviews from my colleagues – I’ve fond memories of his spectacular Delos version of Alan Hovhaness’s Mount St. Helens Symphony, also with the Seattle band. More recently, I much admired his disc of camp and ghetto songs, as both conductor and composer (review).

Hanson, the first American to win the Prix de Rome, subsequently spent two years in Italy studying with Ottorino Respighi. Still ensconsced in the warm south he composed his first symphony, subtitled Nordic, which certainly looks north for its inspiration. That said, nothing prepares one for the generous Romanticism of this work, from the noble string theme at the start to the Sibelian grandeur that follows. Perhaps one also needs to look east, to Charles Ives, for the stranger harmonies; in any event, Schwarz fuses these disparate elements into a compelling whole that never flags or succumbs to empty rhetoric.

Both the playing and recording are beyond reproach, the climactic moments growing majestically in this warm, sympathetic acoustic. As for the idyllic interludes of the Andante solenne, they’re phrased with the utmost sensitivity and care, this movement ending – somewhat peremptorily – with Ivesian suddenness. That abiding generosity of spirit informs the Andante teneramente as well, Schwarz’s expansive reading allowing the music to breathe most naturally. The level of invention is never in doubt, and there’s not a redundant bar in sight. And what a radiant close; goodness, what open-hearted music this is, and how affectionately played.

Thankfully, Schwarz doesn’t hug the score too tight, the Allegro con fuoco clean of limb and clear of eye. That admirable clarity extends to the recording, the contrasting woodwind trills and pulsing timps – not to mention those muted bass-drum thwacks – very well rendered. Perhaps there’s something of Respighi’s Roman trilogy in the music’s sonorities and Appian weight, but taken in toto this piece speaks with its own, very distinctive voice. A deeply felt performance of a work that surely deserves more than the handful of recordings it’s received thus far. Concert planners would do well to include it in their programmes too.

Equally mystifying is the neglect of Hanson’s early choral work, based on the eighth-century epic, Beowulf. From its dark introductory landscape through to its simple melodies and quiet singing this is a piece of remarkable restraint and power. Hanson uses his forces sparingly, and to maximum effect, the Seattle Chorale crisp and refined throughout. As for Schwarz, he catches the ebb and flow of this piece to perfection, so that even in the subdued moment there’s no hint of impending stasis. But, more than anything, it’s the inexhaustible flow and freshness of musical ideas that keeps one gripped to the very end.

To paraphrase Fitzgerald, this disc has increased my store of enchanted objects by one. Indeed, this could be my first Record of the Year 2012, such are the rewards offered here. And then there’s the exemplary sound; really, what more could one ask for?

Scandalously neglected music, persuasively played.

Dan Morgan

Scandalously neglected music, persuasively played.

See also reviews by Rob Barnett (this release) and Ian Lace (Delos)

Naxos resources
An American Champion – Gerard Schwarz interviewed by Jeremy Siepmann
Gerard Schwarz’s Naxos interview – interviewer Stephen Schafer

The Complete Schwarz Hanson symphony series (not all released as yet)
Vol. 1 - Symphony No. 1; The Lament for Beowulf Naxos 8.559700
Vol. 2 - Symphony No. 2; Lux aeterna; Mosaics Naxos 8.559701
Vol. 3 - Symphony No. 3; Merry Mount Suite Naxos 8.559702
Vol. 4 - Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5; Elegy; Dies natalis Naxos 8.559703
Vol. 5 - Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7; Lumen in Christo Naxos 8.559704