Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony No. 2, Romantic (1930) [28:19]
Lux Aeterna (1923) [16:51]
Mosaics (1958) [11:56]
Susan Gulkis Assadi (viola) (Lux Aeterna)
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Opera House, Seattle, Washington, 26 May 1988 (Symphony), 6-7 June 1994 (Lux Aeterna), 18-19 May 1992 (Mosaics). DDD
NAXOS 8.559701 [57:06]
Howard Hanson was an American Romantic through and through as witnessed by the selections on this disc, part of the Naxos American Classics series. Because of the composerís ancestry much has been made of the Nordic influence, especially that of Sibelius, in his music. To me, this has been overstated. He is as American-sounding as Roy Harris, if not Aaron Copland. That he is a conservative by nature is shown here in the relatively small distance traversed between 1923 and 1958 as far as any modernistic development is concerned. That is not to say that the works here are not attractive in their own way, at least two of them. The Symphony No. 2 remains Hansonís best known and loved work and for good reason. Its themes once heard are never forgotten and it is well orchestrated. The brass, especially the horns, have a prominent role in the symphony. I have very fond memories of this work, as my son while a high school student was selected to play first horn in a countywide orchestra. They performed this symphony and he was asked to take a special bow for his part as principal horn. This may not be ďgreatĒ music as far as the twentieth-century symphony is concerned, but it is well constructed in three movements and cyclic in its use of motifs. As Steven Lowe remarks in his portion of the notes to the CD, music from this symphony was used during the end credits of the film Alien. Indeed, there is a cinematic element in much of Hansonís music and nothing wrong with that.
The other work that seems to me to be successful is Mosaics, a short set of variations Hanson composed for George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. It is colorful and tightly constructed, even if the themes are not as memorable as those in the symphony. It is a pity that it has been so neglected, as it would enhance many a concert program and is clearly more than a mere filler here.
In between the symphony and Mosaics on the disc is the one piece that does not work for me, Lux Aeterna. If ever there were a misnomer it is here. Hanson wrote the work after studying in Italy. He was interested in Gregorian chant and the music of Palestrina and incorporated this influence in Lux Aeterna. The work is scored for orchestra with viola obbligato and it begins well enough, as the viola quietly plays a modal theme. So far, so good, but before long the music becomes bombastic and the other main influence on Hanson comes to the fore: Respighi. No longer is there ďeternal light,Ē but rather the garish colors that inhabit the Roman landscapes of the latter composer. Although the viola returns a few times with its modal theme and the work ends quietly, the mood by then has been ruined. Some may find this more to their liking than I do. The mature Hanson had yet to emerge when he wrote this work.
All of the performances on the CD are excellent, and Gerard Schwarz is a master when it comes to interpreting twentieth-century American music of a more or less conservative bent. They easily replace the composerís own early recordings with the orchestra of Rochesterís Eastman School of Music, of which Hanson was president. The three works on the disc are reissued from different Delos recordings, but the sound is consistent and leaves nothing to be desired. There are separate notes on the works by Steven Lowe, Jim Svejda, and Steven C. Smith and all are more than adequate. The symphony originally appeared on a disc with Hansonís Nordic Symphony, but the more varied program here is welcome, too ó even if I find little that is representative of the composer at his best in Lux Aeterna.
Reissued Hanson in excellent recordings.