Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 34, Requiem (1943) [25:45]
Symphony No. 5, Sinfonia sacra, Op. 43 (1954) [15:10]
Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky (1956) [12:43]
Dies Natalis (1967) [16:07]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/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
One of the cannier decisions made by Naxos was to repackage and reissue these Delos releases. As a very recent convert to the music of Howard Hanson I warmly welcomed this team’s recording of the Nordic symphony and Lament for Beowulfreview – the unexpected pleasures of which made me determined to hear this entire cycle. I was struck by the freshness and vitality of those pieces and, even more so, by the warmth and humanity of Schwarz’s readings. I’ve yet to hear Hanson’s recordings of his own works – so well received by RB – but they would have to be very special indeed to rival this Seattle series (review).
As its subtitle suggests the Fourth Symphony is cast in four familiar sections – Kyrie, Requiescat, Dies irae and Lux aeterna. There’s certainly a prayerful quality to the first, which has a luminosity and loveliness of line that’s most apt. Indeed, one could almost imagine a choir offering its supplications, to which the orchestra responds with firmness and clarity. The recording is very detailed, the delicate pizzicati at the start of the Requiescat well caught and instrumental colours beautifully rendered. But it’s the Schwarz’s sure sense of mood and scale that impresses most, inwardness matched with elegance.
This really is heartfelt music, persuasively played. Even the traditionally apocalyptic Dies irae has an air of restraint, building to a strong but entirely proportionate climax. Balance and good taste are the touchstones here, and Schwarz never loses sight of that, the rapt Lux aeterna – and its efflorescing peaks – most movingly done. The final bars may be understated but gain added poignancy from being so. A gentle and benevolent work, it’s easy to see why it was the composer’s favourite. And even though it has more sinew, the Passion-inspired Fifth is blessed with the same virtues of simplicity and seamlessness; also, there’s more than a hint of Vaughan Williams in those flowing tunes, the whole naturally paced and incisively played. Short but surprisingly substantial, the Fifth is joy from start to finish.
Speaking of favourites, Hanson’s tribute to Serge Koussevitzky – who commissioned and premiered so much important music, including the composer’s own – is the piece I admire most here. Those mourning strings and glowing harmonies are deeply affecting, a blend of piercing desolation and indomitable strength. Indeed, it’s a score whose emotional reach far exceeds its deceptively simple means. A treasurable work, and one I can’t imagine more sympathetically played than it is here.
The final piece, Dies Natalis, is made up of an introduction and Lutheran chorale, a set of variations and a finale. It’s also a commemoration of the centenary of the state of Nebraska, the latter evoked in music whose sweeping vistas bring to mind the soundscapes of Aaron Copland. That said, Hanson may speak in predominantly quiet tones, yet it’s the underlying nobility and passion of his oratory that catches the ear and grip the heart. Schwarz, who responds so intuitively to these stirring cadences – echoes of Lincoln, perhaps – fashions a finale of simple but compelling grandeur. Another splendid composition, and a spur to seek out more of Hanson’s generous, open-hearted œuvre.
Not only are these fine performance they’re also superbly recorded – well balanced and tonally refined – making them a mandatory purchase for anyone with even a passing interest in American music.
Works of strength and subtlety, supremely well played.
Dan Morgan
Works of strength and subtlety, supremely well played.