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Hanson conducts American Music - Volume 5
Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony No.5 Sinfonia Sacra (1954) [14:30]
The Cherubic Hymn [12:31]**
Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Latin American Symphonette
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Overture to The School for Scandal [8:06]
Adagio for Strings [7:28]
Essay for Orchestra No.1 [7:41]*
Eastman School of Music Chorus#
Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra/Howard Hanson
*rec. 20 October 1952. Issued as Mercury MG-40002. ** May 1953 (Cherubic Hymn), 1954 (some sources suggest 9 May 1955). Issued as Mercury MG-40014.
PRISTINE PASC 332 [70:49]

The headline act here is the Hanson Fifth Symphony, which dates from 1954 and found its inspiration in the Easter story as recounted in St John's Gospel. It's a very compact, single and uninterrupted span of less than a quarter of an hour. It carries the characteristic brooding Hanson sound signature although the great romantic eruptions of the first two symphonies are absent or at least subdued by graver matters. The music radiates a dense devotional intensity, being written a decade after the Fourth Symphony Requiem which was written in memory of Hanson's father. His gift for emphatic kinetic scherzo material can be heard, however, at 10:00 but this cannot long hold out against writing that positively radiates awe - slowly and in great evolutionary paragraphs. This is not a work of obvious dramatic gestures - the Hanson enthusiast must on this occasion content herself or himself with reverent eloquence rather than blazing climaxes. Hanson was to return to those accustomed cliff edges and grand eruptive vistas in the eccentrically structured yet devastating Sixth Symphony which he wrote for Bernstein and the NYPO in the 1960s.

Unlike the first three symphonies Hanson did not record the Fifth in stereo so if we want to hear the composer's reading this is all we have of the Fifth Symphony - at least on commercial stock.
The Cherubic Hymn for mixed choir and orchestra is dedicated to the composer's mother and dates from five years before the symphony. The text, which was translated by Stephen Hurlbut, is from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which was set for voices alone by both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. The language here has more in common with the early symphonies and with Lament for Beowulf although it is certainly no facsimile. One can almost smell the incense. Its evocation of Byzantine religious mysteries places it alongside Holst's Hymn of Jesus, and Szymanowski's Stabat Mater - more Holst than Szymanowski. One brief episode of climactic choral singing is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem. The Hymn ends meekly and without grandstanding. It's such a pity that the choral societies outside the USA have pretty much ignored Hanson when works such as this and Lament for Beowulf are available.

Andrew Rose took these two Hanson works from Mercury mono LPs some sixty years old. The sound extracted is creditable indeed and easily outstrips that which I once heard from an Eastman Rochester Archive LP (ERA1014) - my initiation into this work.

Eastman seems to have been an eclectic and accommodating soul because the four-movement Latin-American Symphonette by Morton Gould is lighter with some rather smoochy work from the saxophone in the Rhumba first movement. The Symphonette belongs in much the same region as the music of Harl Macdonald, Don Gillis and Samuel Barber at least when Barber was slumming it in elite style in his Souvenirs suite. Compare Barber's symphonically volcanic Tango with the surprisingly understated Gould Tango which forms the second movement of the Symphonette. The Guaracha (III) is spot-on rhythmically - not rushed but taut as a drum. The final Conga is lively and loopy with a touch of Latin-American Milhaud about it. The dynamic range of the writing is gratifying and very nicely varied from whispered vitality, mysteriously tremulous percussion, brilliant woodwind and staccato uproarious brass. This music would have been more meat and potatoes for Bernstein but Hanson is no slouch and delivers a most transparently clear and attentive reading. Hanson was later to go on to record Gould's Spirituals and Fall River Legend.

We finish with three Barber items. The pin-sharp bristle of the Overture to The School for Scandal loses nothing in focus but I have heard more energised readings. The famous Adagio is played by Hanson for steady-as-she-goes unglamorous integrity rather than lashings of emotion. This is tightly controlled rather than ardently overwhelming - an antidote to the majority of readings that cannot help jerking the tear-ducts. The First Essay for Orchestra is similarly cool - one of the least heated of readings. These all stand at the other extreme from the sort of Barber served up by Toscanini, Barber or Bernstein. The effect is similar in Hanson's later recording of the Capricorn Concerto but is much more excitable and atmospheric in the extended Medea ballet suite.

The Gould and Barber pieces are caught in pleasingly strong, well-centred sound and in that respect they have the drop on the two Hanson items which are ever so slightly fragile.

Earlier volleys in the Pristine series have been reviewed as follows: volumes 1-3 and 4. All five discs are complemented by two Mercury Living Presence boxed sets issued in the mid-2000s: Hanson Conducts Hanson and Hanson Conducts American Masterworks nor should we overlook the very recent Pristine revival of a largely unknown recording of Hanson conducting his opera Merry Mount.

Hanson was a powerhouse conductor whose academic administrative toils were no obstacle to unmistakable skill and commitment in his music-making and his advocacy for the music of North America.

Rob Barnett

Previous review: Steve Arloff