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Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Merry Mount - an opera in three acts Op. 31 (1933)
Bernardt Tiede (baritone) - Wrestling Bradford, a clergyman
Beverly Sparks (soprano) - Lady Marigold Sandys
Patricia Berlin (alto) - Plentiful Tewke
Richard Gilley (tenor) - Sir Gower Lackland
Craig Hankenson (baritone) - Myles Brodrib, captain of the trainband
Wayne Leazer (tenor) - Jonathan Banks, a Shaker
Donald Woods (baritone) - Faint-Not Tinker, a sentinel
James Reichert (bass) - Samoset, an indian chief
Carolyn Sixbey (alto) - Desire Annable, a sinner
Rolland Hurst (bass) - Praise-God Tewke, Plentiful's father and elder of the congregation
Jacqueline Mailloux (soprano) - Peregrin Brodrib, Myles' son
Mary Barbara Williamson (alto) - Love Brewster
William Duvall (baritone) - Thomas Morton, Lady Marigold's uncle
Charlene Chadwick - Bridget Crackston, Love's grandmother
Roy Hines (tenor) - Jack Prence, a mountebank
Jacob Hamm (bass) - Jewel Scrooby, a parson
John Burr (baritone) - first Puritan
William Boland (bass) - second Puritan
Eastman School Chorus and Symphony Orchestra/Howard Hanson
rec. live, Eastman Theater, 16-17 May 1955; additional material filled in from studio recording 1957
PRISTINE PACO108 [39:44 + 71.54]

Let this be a lesson to me. Glancing at Dr Mullenger's monthly release lists I saw this and thought that Pristine had sprinkled their audio magic over the 1934 broadcast acetates. No such thing. This is something quite fresh: a stereo recording of Hanson himself conducting his own Eastman School forces in an ardent performance of his one and only opera Merry Mount. A couple of patches of damage to the original 1950s tapes was made good by scarfing in from Hanson's 1957 stereo recording of excerpts from Merry Mount (Mercury LP SR-90524; also SR-90175). As Andrew Rose, who is the producer and presided over the XR re-mastering, recounts: 'The recording was originally prepared for broadcast on National Public Radio in the 1980s ... The present release derives from a digital copy of the radio broadcast supplied by the Radio Manager of WXXI-FM, Rochester.' It's thanks to John Proffitt that Pristine had the opportunity to rebirth the tapes originally made in experimental binaural stereo on a staggered-head Magnecorder tape recorder. Remarkably this brings to three the number of versions of this opera available on CD. The others include a rather rough-sounding but still incendiary Met/Serafin broadcast now eighty years old and issued by Naxos in 1999. There's also a stunning modern digital recording from 1996 conducted by Gerard Schwarz also on Naxos. It will be recalled that Schwarz recorded all six Hanson symphonies initially for Delos; they too can be heard on Naxos.
Merry Mount is an opera to a libretto by Richard Stokes which in turn takes as its point of departure Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Maypole of Merry Mount". It's Hanson's only opera and was commissioned from him by the Metropolitan Opera when he was at the early apex of his fame. That was while the first two symphonies were a fixture for North American orchestras across that continent. I won't trouble you with the detail of the plot again. If you would like a reminder then have a look at the earlier reviews linked above. Suffice to say that it is a tale of obsession amid an early American Puritan settler community. Love and lust are fatally repressed and then explosively expressed to which concatenation is added a maypole dance, a red indian attack and a sensational flame-furnace of an ending in which the tragic lead couple are incinerated. As for the female love interest it comes in the shape of a character who from our modern tawdry perspective bears a name that might have been belonged to a Bond girl of the unreconstructed 1960s-1990s: Plentiful Tewke. Her tormented lover is the preacher Wrestling Bradford.

Act I instantly asserts a strikingly gloomy and brooding romantic depth. It carries with it echoes of Hanson's Nordic Symphony. It's there to be heard in the sturdy male choral singing. Listen to the eager blaze of vocal tone at 2:05; akin to similar moments in Hanson's other choral masterwork of the previous decade, Lament for Beowulf (Hanson Schwarz). These first two tracks on CD 1 are striking and instantly grip the attention. It's all extraordinarily immediate. The paint melts under such emotional heat and that same fervour carries over into tr. 3 which also includes some entirely forgivable applause - a feature throughout. This superheated effect must have been secured by close and extended coaching by Hanson whose grip is palpable. The sound-picture is a bit one-dimensional but it is vividly close to the listener and on occasion may leave you flinching; no audio distortion though. In Act II we are treated to the Maypole Dances which have been excerpted for the orchestral suite from the opera. These dances reflects a lively stage production with the whirling excitement of Rimsky and Balakirev and the accelerating ecstasy of Borodin's Price Igor: Polovtsian Dances. In tr. 2 CD 2 the village dancing includes a clapping choir. This could so easily have sounded precious but it's crackingly convincing; not at all half-hearted. Again there are Russian influences here - principally Sheherazade. By time we get to tr. 4 the temperature has cooled a little but the interest continues. In tr. 5 those upward-whooping horns over the somewhat dullard singing of Wrestling Bradford are memorable. Once or twice the voices are over-run by the exultant orchestra as in tr. 9 but they come back with an avenging howl in tr. 10. Tr. 11 begins with an evocation of the wailing wind. It's one of the production's few miscalculations as it sounds lame: a howling high-pitched sopranino hoover or an electronic floor polisher. Never mind, over this unpromising effect Hanson builds tension and rhythmic grit. There's nothing backward about the brass here. At tr. 13 the despairingly lovely Puccinian theme is paraded in the doomed lovers' duet. Sadly their two voices are backwardly set so some of the impact is lost - and yet and yet. Act III scene 1 has an orchestral prelude with a magical gong and shivering woodwind. Tr. 15 sounds rather like Vaughan Williams but Hanson finds his feet again in the prayerful and then howling tr. 16. Before Wrestling Bradford strides into Ragnarok carrying his beloved we encounter yet another striking effect - a gleaming and somewhat Holstian ostinato with flute redolent of a similar tensely dripping figure in Hanson's Beowulf Lament. The long line-up of singers is from the Eastman School. They sing with full and glowing commitment; just a pity that they are not given more prominence in the sound-image. The choir is phenomenal being called on to take the multifarious roles of Puritans, men, women and children, male and female Cavaliers, Indian braves and squaws Maypole revellers, Princes, Warriors, Courtesans and Monsters of Hell.
This set was within a hair's breadth of Record of the Month status but ultimately the somewhat recessed solo voices of the lovers especially in the key Act II duet must deny the set that accolade ... by a whisker. Even now I haver over that decision such is the potency of this performance and recording. The orchestra is superbly rendered. If you like the towering, upfront and personal balance of the Mercury recordings of symphonies 1-3 and Lament of Beowulf then you know exactly what to expect.
Sadly there's no libretto or at least none that I could find; this despite what I thought was some intelligent or certainly persistent googling. The sung words can be found here but oddly that source omits the names of who is singing what. There is a fairly full synopsis here and here.
This opera really deserves a full production in the UK. It has however been revived in a concert version at Carnegie Hall in May 2014 with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra led by Michael Christie. Now that I would like to hear (link).
Pristine offer a nice span of download options for this recording: Stereo 24-bit FLAC; Stereo 16-bit FLAC; 320kbps Stereo MP3. I heard this set in conventional CD format and it sounded handsome.
A blistering account of Hanson's one and only opera. Do hear it.
Rob Barnett