Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony No 3 (1938) [36:00]
Merry Mount: Suite (1933) [16:01]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Opera House, 16-18 February and 23 May 1990
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559702 [52.01]
The place of Howard Hanson in American music is both important and assured. As long-term conductor of the Eastman-Rochester orchestra he commissioned, performed and recorded a vast sheaf of works by other composers. True, some of the commissions, by the likes of Bergsma and Kennan, have sunk without trace, but that is the way of such things. Many of these recordings were made in state-of-the-art stereo which has ensured that they have maintained their place in the catalogue. As a composer he produced what has a fair claim to be the first “Great American opera” in the shape of Merry Mount, produced at the Metropolitan in New York five years before the Second World War. If it had not been for the lack of opportunities for performance in Europe at that period, it might well have established itself in advance of Porgy and Bess which also had to wait until the post-War period to make its successful way across the Atlantic, albeit then in a mutilated version. The comparison of Porgy with Merry Mount also highlights Hanson’s main drawback as a composer: as compared with the cosmopolitan Gershwin, the more stolidly Nordic Hanson lacks the ability to create instantly memorable melodic ideas. Hanson contended that romanticism was not dead as a force in music, but when we compare him with his fellow-romantic and contemporary Barber we similarly find a damaging lack of memorable romantic gestures. Indeed in the period after his death only one work of Hanson’s appeared likely to remain on the fringes of the repertory – his Second Symphony, the Romantic. That was partly because of its use as music as a signature tune on American radio, and then later in the closing sequences of Ridley Scott’s film Alien.
One of Gerard Schwarz’s many services to American music during his period in residence in Seattle was to resurrect and re-record the music of Hanson. This included a considerable number of works that Hanson himself never committed to disc. These recordings did a very great deal to vindicate the music itself. More modern recording brought out many subtleties in the scoring, that the Eastman-Rochester stereo originals tended to obscure and absorb. These Delos tapes are now re-emerging, differently coupled, on the Naxos label and their reappearance is a cause for rejoicing.
The novelty here is the suite from the opera Merry Mount, which at the time it was recorded was the only performance of any part of the opera available on disc. Naxos have since put us in their debt by not only releasing a vintage recording from the original Met production (review) (not available in the USA) and a later recording by Schwarz and his Seattle players of the complete opera from a concert performance in 2006 (review review review). This suite however remains valuable, because among other things it allows us to hear Hanson’s own arrangement for orchestra alone of the love duet.
The recording here of Hanson’s Third Symphony comes into direct competition with Hanson’s own recording from 1963 (review). This was made using only three microphones, but they were placed much closer to the orchestra producing a rather dry sound by comparison with the refulgent acoustic of the Seattle Opera House here. From the very beginning Hanson is decidedly brisk with his own music. Every movement with Schwarz is longer than with Hanson; in the case of the slow movement and finale by a minute or more. Schwarz’s more leisurely approach pays dividends. The music describes “the spiritual contribution that has been made to America by the sturdy race of northern pioneers” to use Hanson’s own words; oddly enough not included with his own recording. The more leisurely tempo which Schwarz adopts in the first movement, not to mention the more distanced sound, is much more “spiritual” than Hanson conveys in his forwardly thrusting reading. The extremely beautiful textures of the slow movement are superbly conveyed here, leading to a passionately emotional climax before the opening material briefly returns. The percussion passages which introduce the scherzo are paradoxically more clearly defined here than Hanson manages; this despite his closer placement of the microphones. The only possible point where Hanson could be preferred is in the closing pages of the last movement, where the composer pushes forward urgently, while the broader speeds adopted by Schwarz do not always avoid overtones of Hollywood finales with the hero and heroine riding off into the sunset. That style is part of the ethos of the period, and should not be condemned purely because of that.
The original Delos release included both the Sixth Symphony and the Fantasy Variations with the Third Symphony. The Naxos re-coupling has left us with a rather short CD, but that is inevitable given their repackaging of the original recordings. Nevertheless this is a superb reading of the Third Symphony, superior indeed to the composer’s own. The addition of the Merry Mount suite is valuable. The booklet notes by Steve Smith are reproduced from the Delos originals. These are indeed rather more informative than those by Arthur Cohn for the Hanson release which devote more time to the defence of the composer against his critics of the time than to the music itself. One cannot imagine that Schwarz’s reading of the Third Symphony will be bettered any time soon, and we should be grateful to Naxos for restoring it to the catalogue.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
One cannot imagine that Schwarz’s reading will be bettered any time soon.
The Complete Schwarz Hanson symphony series
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