BARBER String Quartet (inc. original finale). Serenade. Dover Beach . HANSON String Quartet. Concerto da Camera . R. THOMPSON Alleluia (trans. Ying Qt)

BARBER String Quartet (inc. original finale). Serenade. Dover Beach . HANSON String Quartet. Concerto da Camera . R. THOMPSON Alleluia (trans. Ying Qt) ● Ying St Qt; Randall Scarlata (bar) Adam Neiman (pn) ● SONO LUMINUS DSL-92166 (74:02) [Package includes Blu-ray surround sound audio disc in addition to standard CD]

This is the latest release from the remarkable Ying Quartet. As indicated in the headnote above, the package consists of not only a standard compact disc, but also a Blu-ray surround sound audio disc (the latter of which, unfortunately, I am not equipped to sample). Let me say at the outset that the sound quality of the conventional CD is extraordinarily full, rich, and clear.

The program of this new release comprises music by three American neo-romantic composers not generally known for their chamber music. That makes this rather unusual among string quartet recordings. In truth, all three composers are “old school” romantics, in that rather than impressing the listener with formal felicities and ingenuities, the music’s appeal relies chiefly on the sheer lovability of its material, while structural matters often fall by the wayside. Thus one must admit that this recording displays both Barber’s and Hanson’s formal weaknesses, although listeners who are sympathetic to their expressive objectives may be able to overlook such shortcomings.

Samuel Barber is represented here by three works: his early Serenade, Op. 1, performed regularly either as a string quartet or in a version for string orchestra; Dover Beach, Op. 3, which I consider to be Barber’s first truly great work; and the ever-popular String Quartet, Op. 11, in its final form, while also including the original third movement he had written for the work, but dropped several years later, in favor of the short recapitulation of the first movement with which he replaced it.

Barber composed the brief 8-minute Serenade when he was 18, and still a student at the Curtis Institute. It is a pale and moody piece, largely reflective in tone, with a central movement that almost calls early Berg to mind. But the final movement is a minuet whose material is rather trivial, resulting in a flimsy overall impression. But the performance by the Ying Quartet is as refined and impeccable as anyone might wish.

Barber composed his setting of Matthew Arnold’s well-known poem Dover Beach in 1931, when he was 21. The text clearly prompted a deeply sympathetic response from the composer, as its anxious, pessimistic view of the unknown future reverberated with his own melancholy temperament. The first recording of the work, made in 1935, featured the composer himself as baritone soloist with the Curtis String Quartet. That recording, still in print from various sources, is irreplaceable both for its historical significance and for its sensitivity and authenticity as a performance. However, there have been a number of fine modern recordings as well. This latest is one of them. Baritone Randall Scarlata has impressed me in the past, and his performance here is exquisite, although the mixing of the recording integrates the voice within the quartet, which makes the text hard to distinguish by ear alone.

The String Quartet has, of course, achieved the status of a “classic,” largely owing to the ubiquitous and widely-beloved slow movement, which, in its transcription for string orchestra, is known as the Adagio for Strings. The Yings do a beautiful job with this movement, moving it along with a duration of 6:52, which effectively mitigates the excessively lachrymose impression that it typically creates when milked for all it’s worth in the elegiac role that has become its fate. The first movement exemplifies Barber’s difficulties in generating a graceful, coherent musical form without the support of a text. Here is a clear case of irresistible material “covering” for a sequence of largely unrelated episodes, awkwardly strung together. Originally, Barber composed a finale of comparable duration to the previous movements, and the Quartet was performed in this form for several years. But the composer was never satisfied with this movement, although many others were quite happy with it. Finally, in 1938, Barber chucked the third movement, and substituted a 2-minute recapitulation of the first movement material, odd as that may be. But that has remained the final form of the quartet. But the Yings offer us the rare opportunity of hearing the original third movement, and—thanks to the programming capabilities of CD players—of hearing the entire quartet in either its original or revised form. For those who have wondered what that original finale was like, this provides an informative option. But though the movement is certainly competent and might have served its original function adequately, it would have diluted the work’s emotional intensity and dissipated much of the impact of the work as a whole.

Although Howard Hanson is often viewed as a narrow-minded reactionary, he was quite the precocious genius in his youth, earning his Bachelor’s Degree at barely 20, and joining the faculty at the College of the Pacific in San Jose, California, immediately upon graduation. There he was appointed Dean of the Conservatory of Fine Arts at the age of 22. The two works by which he is represented here exhibit even more obviously than does the Barber quartet the romantic tendency to favor episodic sequences dominated by mood and emotion over clear, concise structures. Hanson’s Concerto da Camera for piano and string quartet was composed in 1917, during his first year in San Jose. In one single movement, it is a 15-minute work that reflects a French–flavored hyperchromaticism—lush, passionate, rhapsodic, and dark-hued, with plenty of heart-throbbing appoggiaturas. Hanson’s ethos was always dominated by his strong religious feelings, and this work bears an inscription on the title page, “Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes O Thou that dwellest in the heavens,” a quotation that he requested appear on any program where the piece was performed. Yet I detect no connection between the music and this quotation, nor is there more than a vague suggestion of the mature Hanson style, aside from its characteristic richness of sonority, transparency of texture, and looseness of structure. A key motivic element is the “theme of youth” upon which Hanson built his Fantasy Variations some 35 years later. With its pan-European post-romanticism, it will certainly appeal to those listeners who have been enjoying the recent MSR recording of Vittorio Giannini’s Piano Quintet. There is another recording of the Concerto da Camera on Albany (TROY129), which features pianist Brian Preston with the Meliora Quartet. That is a perfectly adequate performance, but this new rendition by the Yings with pianist Adam Neiman displays more confidence and conviction, lending the work a greater sense of aesthetic weight than it conveys on the earlier recording. It is indeed rare for a work this obscure to inspire such a polished performance (although the aforementioned Giannini Quintet is another such example).

Hanson composed his sole String Quartet in 1923, while enjoying a European sojourn as the first American recipient of the Prix de Rome; this was around the same time the he wrote his Symphony No. 1, “Nordic.” Although the focus on abstract formal matters associated with the string quartet genre may seem diametrically opposed to the Hanson aesthetic, this somewhat strange work reveals most of the composer’s characteristic traits in abundance. The one-movement quartet is really a series of attitudes or emotional states—passages of stern oratory, visceral rhythmic ostinatos, fervent spiritual rapture, and warm affirmation—that follow one another, connected by awkward transitions, without any apparent meaningful logic, although there is some semblance of motivic development. But there is little counterpoint, and what there is is quite rudimentary. But loyal admirers of the composer’s music will find what they are looking for in what is probably the most polished and committed performance the work has ever had.

Along the lines of an encore, the Ying Quartet concludes this unusual program with their own transcription for string quartet of the Alleluia by Randall Thompson. Originally written for chorus, this short piece is probably the composer’s most popular and widely performed composition, evoking much the same sort of heartfelt exultation that one finds in the music of Hanson. It is lovely in this transcription.

This is a remarkable new release that will delight enthusiasts of American neo-romanticism.

HANSON Syms. No. 4 & 5. Dies Natalis. Elegy. Songs from “Drum Taps.” THOMPSON Testament of Freedom. LEOFFLER Memories of my Childhood. HOVHANESS Sym. No. 3. HINDEMITH Sym. in E-flat. HARTMANN Sym. No. 2. STRAVINSKY Sym. In C. HARRIS Sym. No. 7.

HANSON Symphonies: No. 4, “Requiem.” No. 5, “Sinfonia Sacra.” Dies Natalis. Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky ● Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO ● NAXOS 8.559703 (69:44)

HANSON Symphony No. 4, “Requiem.” Songs from “Drum Taps.”1 THOMPSON Testament of Freedom. LOEFFLER Memories of my Childhood (Life in a Russian Village) ● Howard Hanson, cond; Eastman-Rochester SO; Eastman School of Music Ch1 ● PRISTINE PASC-292 (72:17)

HANSON Symphony No. 4, “Requiem.” HOVHANESS Symphony No. 3. HINDEMITH Symphony in E-flat. HARTMANN Symphony No. 2, “Adagio.” STRAVINSKY Symphony in C. HARRIS Symphony No. 7 (original version) ● Leopold Stokowski, cond; NBC SO; Symphony of the Air; W. German Radio O, Cologne; St. Louis SO ● GUILD GHCD-2379/80 (2 CDs; 2:30) Live: 1/2/1944 10/14/1956; 2/28/1943; 5/25/1955; 2/21/1943; 1/9/1955

As alert discophiles are probably aware, Naxos has been reissuing Gerard Schwarz’s excellent comprehensive survey of the orchestral (and some choral) music of Howard Hanson, mostly with the Seattle Symphony. These recordings were originally released during the early 1990s by Delos, although Naxos is shuffling around the contents for their reissues. Readers may refer to back-issues (or to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com) for my comments on the original Delos releases.

So here we have a confluence of three different recorded performances of Hanson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fourth Symphony, each of them going back some time. Stokowski’s is the earliest, dating from 1944, the year after it was composed, and just one month after its premiere by the Boston Symphony, under the composer’s direction; Hanson’s own recording was originally released on Mercury in 1953; and Schwarz’s was initially released in 1990. The Fourth, subtitled “Requiem,” was written in memory of the composer’s father, and was his own favorite among his symphonies. Because Hanson was not really a “natural symphonist,” most of his works in that genre (the main exception being No. 1, “Nordic,” which—though relatively uncomplicated—is quite successful in its symphonic pretentions) are best viewed more as emotional tone poems—especially their more problematic portions. Much of Hanson’s “symphonic” writing amounts to episodic successions of mood-states that move uneasily from one to the next. In the Fourth Symphony, the inner movements—a slow movement followed by a scherzo—are straightforward, easy to accept, and clear enough in their interpretive requirements. But the outer movements have major structural problems—although, I must emphasize, many passages, taken on their own terms, offer plenty of sensuous appeal. Schwarz seems to have realized this and took relatively broad tempos in the opening and closing movements, perhaps in the hope that more “breathing room” might help to establish them more securely as formal entities. Though I rarely indulge in duration comparisons among performances, in this case it is somewhat revealing: Hanson takes 7:17 for his first movement, while Stokowski takes 6:55; Schwarz takes 9:36. For the second movement Hanson takes 4:33, Stokowski 4:38, and Schwarz 5:43. (It is worth noting that Stokowski, whose reputation would have him “milking” a movement like this, instead presses forward without such indulgence, as does Hanson himself.) For the scherzo, Hanson takes 2:38, Stokowski 2:10, and Schwarz 2:38. For the finale, Hanson takes 6:37, Stokowski 6:15 and Schwarz 7:48. So, interestingly enough, Stokowski’s tempos are much closer to Hanson’s own. The latter is, in toto, 21:20; Stokowski’s is 20:13, while Schwarz’s comes in at 25:45. Do Schwarz’s slower tempos result in a more convincing interpretation? No, I don’t think so—the awkwardness of the outer movements is apparent at any tempo. Of course Schwarz comes out way ahead with regard to sonority—the Stokowski broadcast from Studio 8H sounds pretty terrible. But Hanson’s own recording, as remastered by Andrew Rose, offers some of the best 1950s monaural sound I’ve ever heard. For those favorably disposed to the remainder of the Hanson-conducted program, this re-issue is worth considering.

The Naxos disc also includes Hanson’s Fifth Symphony—a single movement of 15 minutes duration. The composer stated that the work, subtitled “Sinfonia Sacra” and composed in 1954, was inspired by the story of Christ’s resurrection. The Fifth makes even less of a pretense at symphonic form or rhetoric than its predecessor, and is even more blatantly a succession of mood states. Because the work does not develop organically, it conveys a sense of accompanimental music with nothing to accompany. The content is characteristic of the composer’s other works from this period, opening with a stern, solemn tone reminiscent of Sibelius, moving on to a passage of modal polyphony suggestive of spiritual matters, finally erupting agitatedly with characteristic climbing sequences of brilliantly orchestrated ostinatos, before subsiding in a solemn chorale. Again, the music has some passages that are heartfelt and others that are undeniably exciting, but it is just not truly “symphonic.”

Just a couple of years later, in 1956, Hanson composed his Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky, a conductor who had championed his music as he had that of so many other American composers of the period. It is a 13-minute work with much the same tone and language as the Fifth Symphony. I have always considered it one of the composer’s least consequential pieces, rather slow to take flight and ultimately delivering little of notable substance.

Dies Natalis was composed in 1967, and was one of Hanson’s more successful late works. It consists of an introduction, a Lutheran chorale, seven variations, and a finale. After an overly protracted timpani solo, the introductory melody appears, a characteristically throbbing idea that harks back to some of the composer’s most endearing moments. The chorale appears in much of Hanson’s music, most notably the opening motif of the opera Merry Mount, though it appears there in the Dorian mode and here in the Ionian. The variations are engaging and brief, while the finale returns to the spirit and material of the introduction.

Gerard Schwarz leads sympathetic, committed, and richly refined performances of all these works. Listeners who passed them by when they were first issued, or perhaps were not interested in Hanson at the time, or maybe are still awaiting the opportunity to get acquainted with his work are encouraged to sample one of these budget-priced Naxos releases.

(Before concluding the Naxos portion of this review, I should mention one other Hanson release of significance that was not conducted by Schwarz, but by the late Kenneth Schermerhorn, leading the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. With its fine performance of the “Nordic” Symphony, the orchestral suite from the opera Merry Mount, and the little-known but worthy tone-poem Pan and the Priest, it is my first choice as a budget-priced introduction to the music of Hanson.)

Before moving on from Hanson, some comments on the Songs from “Drum Taps” are in order. This setting of three Whitman poems for baritone solo, chorus, and orchestra, was composed in 1935, just a couple of years after Merry Mount, and whiffs of that work may be heard here. It is a stirring, but not terribly profound setting of the poems—especially the first and third—in which the musical interpretation is limited largely to capturing the martial spirit with snare-drum ostinatos and the like. The choral writing is mostly unison, with some two-voice counterpoint. The second movement, “By the bivouac’s fitful flame,” is a baritone solo, and is quite beautiful. Strains of the love music from Merry Mount appear in this movement and the final one, but the reason for their citation is not apparent to me. Composed between Hanson’s Second and Third Symphonies, this is not one of his greatest works, but one that the composer’s admirers may well feel is worthy of attention nevertheless. The performance here is clearly student-level, but adequate.

Somewhat comparable aesthetically to Hanson’s “Drum Taps” settings is Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom, composed in 1943. The music is typical of Thompson’s perennially popular choral style—hearty, diatonic, direct and accessible, with a stirring quality capable of reaching a large number of people. It is clearly a patriotic work whose text, taken from the words of Thomas Jefferson, was applied to the nation’s efforts to overcome the despotism besieging Europe at the time. From today’s perspective, the musical setting of Jefferson’s words seems rather naïve and many listeners may find it hard to accept at face value; but those who can make the necessary allowances may find the work to be stirring and inspirational. The performance does it justice, for the most part.

Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) was a cosmopolitan composer and violinist who spent the early years of his life on the move, including several years in Ukraine. Although he was born in Germany, he came to despise the country, and preferred to describe his nationality as “Alsatian.” A meticulous composer whose work shows great sensitivity, Loeffler’s sensibility was decidedly French. He moved to the United States in 1881, and was for many years a member of the violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His orchestral piece, A Pagan Poem, is one of the greatest American works from the turn of the 20th century, and was championed (and recorded) by Stokowski. Though perhaps not as striking as that work, the 12-minute Memories of Childhood is an exquisitely wrought piece that treats recognizably Russian folk and religious themes within a highly romanticized vein of Impressionism. The Eastman performance under Hanson’s direction is excellent.

As noted earlier, Andrew Rose’s remastering eliminates many of the shortcomings that would ordinarily detract from the experience of listening to these 60-year-old recordings. Although no program notes of any kind are included with the package, they and all the sung texts are readily accessible on Pristine’s Web site.

Finally returning to the remainder of Stokowski’s 2-CD set: One of the interesting items is the world premiere performance of Alan Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 3. Stokowski conducted a great deal of Hovhaness during his long conducting career, including the premiere of the perennially popular Mysterious Mountain (subsequently labeled Symphony No. 2). He was sympathetic and intuitively attuned to the composer’s unique aesthetic, although he did recoil from the “sliding tones” that Hovhaness adopted from Korean music during the late 1960s. The Third Symphony was composed the year after Mysterious Mountain, with which it shares a fair amount in common, although the later work has more overt Armenian influence. Hovhaness intended it to be a homage to the Classical style, as epitomized by Mozart and Haydn, so he attempted to create a fusion of that style with his own characteristic approach. Hence the work may be regarded as Hovhaness’s take on neo-classicism. The result follows the blueprint of sonata allegro form, but lacks the sense of dialectical opposition from which the form derives its energy. Thematic development is rudimentary, and largely limited to melodic sequences; in that regard it is simpler than a corresponding movement by Haydn. I should mention that a more modern recording of this work was released by Soundset in 1996, featuring a performance by the orchestra of the Korean Broadcasting System, led by the late Georgian conductor Vakhtang Jordania. This recording represents a significant improvement over the Stokowski with regard to sound quality and orchestral sonority. However, as all who are familiar with Hovhaness’s performances of his own works know, he almost always favored vigorous and rather volatile readings of his works. The spiritual serenity for which he and his music became known has been exaggerated in the minds of both performers and listeners. Although much of his music did aim for an almost mystical sense of rapture, his own performances as well as his commentaries about his music make very clear that many of his works benefit from a brusque sort of approach, and even at times embraced a sort of cosmic rage. Stokowski seemed to understand this, and provided a hearty, vigorous reading. Unfortunately, Jordania’s approach is phlegmatic and dull by comparison, draining whatever energy is inherent in the work.

One observation that arises from these and other recently-released recordings of vintage Stokowski live performances is just how simplistic and distorted is the general impression of the conductor as an ultra-romantic who strove for opulent, luxuriant sonorities, which he applied to everything he conducted. A recent reissue in this series included Copland’s “Short Symphony,” which—like the Stravinsky and Hindemith works included here—benefit from rhythmic precision and clarity of texture, which Stokowski provided in full measure, while avoiding euphonious sonorities. These performances have nothing of the “Stokowski sound,” but present the works in question in the most favorable light.

While likely unintentional, this set offers a most interesting point for comparison. The international figure-heads of neo-classicism, a musical style that achieved considerable prominence during the middle third of the 20th century, were Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith, although from today’s perspective the influence of the former has proven to be more enduring than that of the latter. But from the 1920s through the 1940s their importance was somewhat comparable, although the evolution of their compositional styles followed very different paths, largely attributable to their differences in temperament and personality. So here we have two major symphonies, each of which embodies its composer’s notion of neo-classicism, arriving at strikingly different results: Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, composed in 1940 and performed here by Stokowski in 1943; and Hindemith’s Symphony in E-flat, also composed in 1940 (the year of the composer’s immigration to the United States and his appointment to the faculty of Yale University) and performed here by Stokowski in 1943.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in C exemplifies the approach that has become most representative of neo-classicism, as it is understood today. For me the persona that emerges from much—though not all—of Stravinsky’s neo-classical works is that of one who is unable to engage with serious feelings and prefers a stance of detached mockery. The Symphony in C is one of those works in which this quality is most apparent, and I don’t find it at all attractive. Although, as with nearly all the performances on this set, the orchestral playing is quite rough and scrappy, Stokowski approaches the work with a brusque, restless impatience that really makes the best case for it. This is especially apparent when comparing this performance with a more polished, recent recording, such as Colin Davis’s with the London Symphony Orchestra. Davis aims for a kind of gracefulness, delicacy, and charm that highlights the work’s precious superficiality, which I find revolting.

If Stravinsky’s neo-classicism emphasized emotional restraint and detached expression, clear, transparent textures, and an avoidance of bombast, Hindemith’s neo-classicism was largely concerned with an avoidance of sentimentality and a return to more abstract forms and compositional procedures, as opposed to such predecessors as Strauss and Mahler. But if Stravinsky’s approach was almost feminine in the lightness and clarity of its textures, Hindemith’s was unmistakably masculine in its lumbering accumulation of aggressive energy. The Symphony in E-flat is one of his strongest major works, and is quintessential in representing its composer’s voice at its most distinctive. Stokowski’s performance sounds a little hesitant in his approach to a work that—like the Stravinsky—was still relatively new. Two later recorded performances—one conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, the other by Leonard Bernstein—dive in heartily, producing that characteristically Hindemithian quality of a truck careening down a steep incline, barely under control.    Unfortunately, Stokowski’s hesitancy causes his rendition to sound somewhat dry and ponderous, even sagging at times. But finally he pulls things together to produce a vigorous, triumphant finale. For some reason this particular performance enjoys better sound quality than most of the other recordings included here.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), though probably the least well-known composer represented on this set, was an important figure in German music from the end of World War II until the ascendency of Stockhausen and the Darmstadt group—an admittedly short period. He was exceedingly self-critical, discarding many of his works, and revising others repeatedly. Hartman’s Second Symphony, subtitled, “Adagio,” was completed as a one-movement work of 15 minutes duration in 1946, although it was based on an earlier work, subsequently discarded. Ultimately Hartmann completed eight symphonies, and his aesthetic and musical language may be said to place him as a link in the chain following Hindemith, although he actually studied with Webern. The Second Symphony is grim, gray, and very serious, severe and intense, highly dissonant but not atonal. One of the work’s most important themes is introduced in an extended saxophone solo. Although it offers little “entertainment value,” it is a very impressive work—possibly the most impressive of the entire set.

Finally we come to the Symphony No. 7 of Roy Harris—in its original version. The work was completed in 1952, and this performance was given in early 1955. Later that year the composer subjected the symphony to substantial revisions, and it achieved some success in this form. The performance offered here represents the last time the work was presented in its original form, and is the only surviving recording of that version. So for those reasons this rendition holds some historical importance. With its single-movement structure and slowly evolving form, the Seventh shares much in common with the far better-known Third Symphony. It is also typical in its evocation of rural America, and includes some quasi-cowboy music. Stokowski imbues the work with a sense of vitality and direction often missing from performances of Harris’s music, despite the fact that the St. Louis Symphony was not an ensemble of the first rank at the time, and some of the high violin writing taxes the players beyond their capacity. This is not the place to go into a detailed comparison of the two versions of the work; I have no idea what motives underlay Harris’s decision to revise it, as it was reportedly successful in its initial performances. I will simply note that a strong case could be made for the symphony in this original version. Listeners with a serious interest in the music of Roy Harris will definitely want to acquaint themselves with this rendition, and reach their own conclusions.

As noted earlier, Andrew Rose’s remastering eliminates many of the shortcomings that would ordinarily detract from the experience of listening to these 60-year-old recordings. Although no program notes of any kind are included with the package, they and all the sung texts are readily accessible on Pristine’s Web site.

Finally returning to the remainder of Stokowski’s 2-CD set: One of the interesting items is the world premiere performance of Alan Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 3. Stokowski conducted a great deal of Hovhaness during his long conducting career, including the premiere of the perennially popular Mysterious Mountain (subsequently labeled Symphony No. 2). He was sympathetic and intuitively attuned to the composer’s unique aesthetic, although he did recoil from the “sliding tones” that Hovhaness adopted from Korean music during the late 1960s. The Third Symphony was composed the year after Mysterious Mountain, with which it shares a fair amount in common, although the later work has more overt Armenian influence. Hovhaness intended it to be a homage to the Classical style, as epitomized by Mozart and Haydn, so he attempted to create a fusion of that style with his own characteristic approach. Hence the work may be regarded as Hovhaness’s take on neo-classicism. The result follows the blueprint of sonata allegro form, but lacks the sense of dialectical opposition from which the form derives its energy. Thematic development is rudimentary, and largely limited to melodic sequences; in that regard it is simpler than a corresponding movement by Haydn. I should mention that a more modern recording of this work was released by Soundset in 1996, featuring a performance by the orchestra of the Korean Broadcasting System, led by the late Georgian conductor Vakhtang Jordania. This recording represents a significant improvement over the Stokowski with regard to sound quality and orchestral sonority. However, as all who are familiar with Hovhaness’s performances of his own works know, he almost always favored vigorous and rather volatile readings of his works. The spiritual serenity for which he and his music became known has been exaggerated in the minds of both performers and listeners. Although much of his music did aim for an almost mystical sense of rapture, his own performances as well as his commentaries about his music make very clear that many of his works benefit from a brusque sort of approach, and even at times embraced a sort of cosmic rage. Stokowski seemed to understand this, and provided a hearty, vigorous reading. Unfortunately, Jordania’s approach is phlegmatic and dull by comparison, draining whatever energy is inherent in the work.

One observation that arises from these and other recently-released recordings of vintage Stokowski live performances is just how simplistic and distorted is the general impression of the conductor as an ultra-romantic who strove for opulent, luxuriant sonorities, which he applied to everything he conducted. A recent reissue in this series included Copland’s “Short Symphony,” which—like the Stravinsky and Hindemith works included here—benefit from rhythmic precision and clarity of texture, which Stokowski provided in full measure, while avoiding euphonious sonorities. These performances have nothing of the “Stokowski sound,” but present the works in question in the most favorable light.

While likely unintentional, this set offers a most interesting point for comparison. The international figure-heads of neo-classicism, a musical style that achieved considerable prominence during the middle third of the 20th century, were Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith, although from today’s perspective the influence of the former has proven to be more enduring than that of the latter. But from the 1920s through the 1940s their importance was somewhat comparable, although the evolution of their compositional styles followed very different paths, largely attributable to their differences in temperament and personality. So here we have two major symphonies, each of which embodies its composer’s notion of neo-classicism, arriving at strikingly different results: Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, composed in 1940 and performed here by Stokowski in 1943; and Hindemith’s Symphony in E-flat, also composed in 1940 (the year of the composer’s immigration to the United States and his appointment to the faculty of Yale University) and performed here by Stokowski in 1943.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in C exemplifies the approach that has become most representative of neo-classicism, as it is understood today. For me the persona that emerges from much—though not all—of Stravinsky’s neo-classical works is that of one who is unable to engage with serious feelings and prefers a stance of detached mockery. The Symphony in C is one of those works in which this quality is most apparent, and I don’t find it at all attractive. Although, as with nearly all the performances on this set, the orchestral playing is quite rough and scrappy, Stokowski approaches the work with a brusque, restless impatience that really makes the best case for it. This is especially apparent when comparing this performance with a more polished, recent recording, such as Colin Davis’s with the London Symphony Orchestra. Davis aims for a kind of gracefulness, delicacy, and charm that highlights the work’s precious superficiality, which I find revolting.

If Stravinsky’s neo-classicism emphasized emotional restraint and detached expression, clear, transparent textures, and an avoidance of bombast, Hindemith’s neo-classicism was largely concerned with an avoidance of sentimentality and a return to more abstract forms and compositional procedures, as opposed to such predecessors as Strauss and Mahler. But if Stravinsky’s approach was almost feminine in the lightness and clarity of its textures, Hindemith’s was unmistakably masculine in its lumbering accumulation of aggressive energy. The Symphony in E-flat is one of his strongest major works, and is quintessential in representing its composer’s voice at its most distinctive. Stokowski’s performance sounds a little hesitant in his approach to a work that—like the Stravinsky—was still relatively new. Two later recorded performances—one conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, the other by Leonard Bernstein—dive in heartily, producing that characteristically Hindemithian quality of a truck careening down a steep incline, barely under control.    Unfortunately, Stokowski’s hesitancy causes his rendition to sound somewhat dry and ponderous, even sagging at times. But finally he pulls things together to produce a vigorous, triumphant finale. For some reason this particular performance enjoys better sound quality than most of the other recordings included here.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), though probably the least well-known composer represented on this set, was an important figure in German music from the end of World War II until the ascendency of Stockhausen and the Darmstadt group—an admittedly short period. He was exceedingly self-critical, discarding many of his works, and revising others repeatedly. Hartman’s Second Symphony, subtitled, “Adagio,” was completed as a one-movement work of 15 minutes duration in 1946, although it was based on an earlier work, subsequently discarded. Ultimately Hartmann completed eight symphonies, and his aesthetic and musical language may be said to place him as a link in the chain following Hindemith, although he actually studied with Webern. The Second Symphony is grim, gray, and very serious, severe and intense, highly dissonant but not atonal. One of the work’s most important themes is introduced in an extended saxophone solo. Although it offers little “entertainment value,” it is a very impressive work—possibly the most impressive of the entire set.

Finally we come to the Symphony No. 7 of Roy Harris—in its original version. The work was completed in 1952, and this performance was given in early 1955. Later that year the composer subjected the symphony to substantial revisions, and it achieved some success in this form. The performance offered here represents the last time the work was presented in its original form, and is the only surviving recording of that version. So for those reasons this rendition holds some historical importance. With its single-movement structure and slowly evolving form, the Seventh shares much in common with the far better-known Third Symphony. It is also typical in its evocation of rural America, and includes some quasi-cowboy music. Stokowski imbues the work with a sense of vitality and direction often missing from performances of Harris’s music, despite the fact that the St. Louis Symphony was not an ensemble of the first rank at the time, and some of the high violin writing taxes the players beyond their capacity. This is not the place to go into a detailed comparison of the two versions of the work; I have no idea what motives underlay Harris’s decision to revise it, as it was reportedly successful in its initial performances. I will simply note that a strong case could be made for the symphony in this original version. Listeners with a serious interest in the music of Roy Harris will definitely want to acquaint themselves with this rendition, and reach their own conclusions.

HANSON: Centennial March. Chorale and Alleluia. Dies Natalis. Laude. Merry Mount Suite (trans. Boyd)

HANSON Centennial March. Chorale and Alleluia. Dies Natalis. Laude. Merry Mount Suite (trans. Boyd) • John Boyd, cond; Philharmonia à Vent • KLAVIER K-11158 (57:25)

Howard Hanson is associated in the minds of many listeners with the “Golden Age of the American Wind Ensemble,” as the 1950s have been called. For one reason, it was during Hanson’s reign as Director of the Eastman School of Music that Frederick Fennell conceived and realized his concept of the “symphonic wind ensemble”—a small, flexible, proficient group of woodwinds, brass, and percussion dedicated to matching the performance artistry of fine symphonic or chamber orchestras. Secondly, Hanson’s own approach to composition placed such an emphasis on those three instrumental groups that many of his major orchestral scores display the crisp clarity of the wind ensemble. And thirdly, he did contribute his share of works originally conceived for this medium. However, in truth, these compositions are not of the highest caliber: They are not among his finest artistic accomplishments, nor do they represent the symphonic band repertoire at its best, although Hanson enthusiasts may enjoy their reminiscences of his other, stronger works. 

This recent release, produced by Jack Stamp—one of today’s leading figures in this musical domain—presents a program of Hanson’s music for winds, although it does not include his entire output for the medium. (Missing are the early Triumphal Ode, the March Carillon, and the Suite for Piano, Winds, and Percussion.) But it does include the popular orchestral suite from the composer’s opera Merry Mount, transcribed by the disc’s conductor, John Boyd. The Philharmonia à Vent is a highly proficient professional ensemble in residence at Indiana State University, and its membership is drawn from the faculties of a number of large Midwestern colleges and universities. They offer largely splendid performances on this recording, which is dedicated to the memory of the late Frederick Fennell, co-founder of the ensemble.

Hanson’s music for band highlights the prominent influence of the Lutheran chorale on his compositional style; three of the pieces presented here reflect this tradition: Chorale and Alleluia, Dies Natalis, and Laude. The first of these was the composer’s initial contribution to the medium, dating from 1953-54, and it is one of his most frequently performed pieces. It is based on an original chorale theme; the Alleluia motif is introduced almost immediately as a response to the chorale. Though it makes an effectively stirring impact, the second portion of the piece falls victim to one of the composer’s chief weaknesses: excessive use of ostinati. Here the Alleluia motif is treated as a rapid ostinato, creating a texture that can almost be termed proto-minimalist. However, within Hanson’s post-romantic language it bespeaks a paucity of invention.

Dies Natalis began as an orchestral work, composed in 1968. Hanson himself created an alternate version for band three years later. The 15-minute piece falls into three sections: Introduction and Chorale, Variations, and Finale. The chorale is the familiar “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” which the composer considered to be the “greatest single musical influence of my life as a composer.” Listeners will note the resemblance of the chorale to the opening theme of Merry Mount; it can be found in the early tone poem Lux Aeterna as well. Dies Natalis is a pleasingly euphonious composition, although the variations are a little routine; for me the most distinctive music is the throbbing, Lydian-flavored theme that appears in the Introduction and returns in the Finale.

Laude is similar in concept and proportion to Dies Natalis, also falling into a three-part form of Chorale, Variations, and Metamorphoses. Composed in 1975, when Hanson was 79, the piece is based on a pre-existing hymn-tune he sang as a youth. Here the most notable music appears during the central variations, where some stunning and rather uncharacteristic harmonic progressions leap out and compel one’s attention. The work culminates in an apotheosis that fuses the chorale theme with the “big tune” from the composer’s Third Symphony.

Previously unfamiliar to me was the Centennial March, an occasional piece written in 1966 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the composer’s native state of Nebraska. Utterly predictable in every respect, the piece nevertheless reveals its composer’s fingerprints in virtually each measure. (The march begs comparison with Vittorio Giannini’s Dedication Overture for band, an occasional piece of similar proportions, composed at about the same time. Both illustrate the way a composer with a strong personality can create a purely utilitarian work within an overly familiar, highly restrictive format, yet proclaim his own individual identity throughout.)

The band transcription of the Merry Mount Suite serves chiefly to offer wind players the opportunity to play some of Hanson’s most distinctive and best-loved music. It cannot be said to provide much to the listener who has the orchestral version at his disposal. However, what is most immediately striking is how little one misses the orchestra—or even realizes its absence. Only in the luscious Love Duet does the absence of the string section become really noticeable. Unfortunately, what is also noticeable is the stiffness of conductor/transcriber Boyd’s phrasing of this music, which listeners have heard under the direction of some first-rate orchestral conductors. This is a shortcoming all too common among band directors: brilliant, exciting passages are held back metronomically, while warm, languid sections are hurried along rather brusquely.

Hanson enthusiasts and collectors of “serious” band music will probably want to own this recording. But it cannot be considered an indispensable entry in Hanson’s discography.

Picks of the Year: 2007

Once again I’ve been unable to come up with five recent CDs that meet my criteria of great, little-known 20th-/21st-century music, definitively performed and expertly recorded. However, I hasten to emphasize that I do not attribute this to any diminution in quality or quantity of new releases, but, rather, to my own involvement in a variety of musical activities that have limited my ability to stay abreast of all the recent recordings—of which, I know, there are many—within my area of repertoire interest. 

Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1 and his Piano Quintet No. 2 derive from approximately opposite ends of his career, more than 40 years apart. The Quartet No. 1 is an expansive, passionate post-romantic work nearly an hour in duration. This Laurel release captures what is without question the work’s best modern performance to be recorded. Originally released on LP in 1982, this is its long-awaited first appearance on CD (reviewed in 30:5). It is coupled with an equally fine performance of the Piano Quintet No. 2, Bloch’s last major work—a terse, energetic statement no less passionate and intense than the early quartet. This reissue replaces Laurel’s previous CD release of that work, which is now out of print.

And then we have the first-ever complete commercial recording of Howard Hanson’s masterpiece, the opera Merry Mount (reviewed in this issue). (Naxos did release a documentary recording of the opera’s 1934 world premiere by the Metropolitan Opera, with Lawrence Tibbett and Göta Ljunberg [not Gladys Swarthout, as I incorrectly stated in my review] in the leading roles. But that recording is not allowed to be sold in the United States, for copyright reasons, and the sound quality is barely listenable.) Those listeners who love the familiar orchestral suite from the opera, along with Hanson’s other popular favorites, are sure to find the complete work to be a treat. And this Seattle performance, which took place in 1996, in honor of Hanson’s centennial, represents the work handsomely, and is the natural capstone of Gerard Schwarz’s valuable, comprehensive survey of the composer’s orchestral music.

And then there is one more recent release to mention, but this is one in which my own involvement as producer prevents me from presuming any real objectivity: Artek AR-0036, which comprises the first-ever performance/recording of Nicolas Flagello’s 1956 Violin Concerto, played brilliantly by soloist Elmar Oliveira. I believe that this work warrants consideration alongside the likes of the Barber Concerto, the Bernstein Serenade, and, perhaps, the Korngold Concerto. It is accompanied by seething, brooding orchestral interludes from two of Flagello’s operas, and orchestrated versions of six passionate songs, sung beautifully by Susan Gonzalez. The National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is under the direction of John McLaughlin Williams, an excellent conductor with a sympathetic understanding of American neo-romanticism. In their reviews (in the previous issue) two of my colleagues expressed some reservations that are not unjustified, but I believe that those listeners who have enjoyed previous Flagello recordings will be comparably pleased with this one.

BLOCH String Quartet No. 1. Piano Quintet No. 2 • Pro Arte Quartet/Karp • LAUREL 820

HANSON Merry Mount • Soloists/Schwarz/Seattle SO/Ch • NAXOS 8.669012-13 (2 CDs)

HANSON: Merry Mount

HANSON Merry Mount • Gerard Schwarz, cond; Richard Zeller (Wrestling Bradford); Lauren Flanigan (Lady Marigold Sandys); Louise Marley (Plentiful Tewke); Walter MacNeil (Sir Gower Lackland); Charles Robert Austin (Praise-God Tewke); Northwest Boychoir; Seattle Girls’ Choir; Seattle S Ch and O • NAXOS 8.669012-13 (2 CDs; 2:04)

This is the long-awaited first modern recording of Howard Hanson’s masterpiece Merry Mount. The work enjoyed a triumphant premiere in 1934 at the Metropolitan Opera, with Lawrence Tibbett in the role of Wrestling Bradford and Gladys Swarthout as Lady Marigold Sandys. (That premiere performance has also been released by Naxos, but copyright issues prohibit its sale in the United States; furthermore, the sound quality of that release is so poor as to limit its appeal solely to its value as a historical document.) The Met production ran for nine performances and was considered to be the most successful American opera of major proportions yet produced. But in view of its success at the time (there were reportedly some 50 curtain-calls) and of the enduring appeal of the orchestral suite taken from the opera, one might reasonably question why it has had to wait so long for a complete studio recording, and why it appears so rarely in the opera house. Librettist Richard L. Stokes used as a point of departure a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” Not surprisingly, it is Stokes’s libretto that has faced the severest criticism; indeed, the language through which the Puritan minister, Wrestling Bradford, expresses his inner torment is ornately rhetorical and turgid to a point perilously close to ludicrous self-parody. But the active operatic repertoire is packed with works whose librettos are ludicrous. Perhaps the short answer boils down to: 1) money; 2) the sheer irrationality not only of the appeal of opera, but also of the history of the genre itself. One could spend hours recounting the endless instances of meritorious, well-received works that promptly dropped from view, only to resurface many years later, if at all. And Merry Mount requires several hundred participants, including the orchestra, chorus, dancers, and a large cast of soloists.

Nevertheless, Merry Mount is arguably Hanson’s greatest musical achievement, offering some of his most characteristic and most effective passages. Indeed, the many listeners who enjoy the orchestral suite are equally likely to enjoy the entire work, as there is barely a dull musical moment during its 2-hour duration. Most revivals during the past 70+ years have been unstaged or semi-staged concert performances, and a strong case can be made that Merry Mount is most effective as a large-scale cantata, rather than as a work of musical theater. The chorus is featured so prominently throughout that the opera often has the feel of an oratorio, and those portions, as well as some purely orchestral portions, comprise most of its best music. Furthermore, there is relatively little dramatic action in the work, as Hanson himself later acknowledged. 

The story presents yet another example of one of America’s most enduring archetypes: the stern, forbidding moral arbiter who falls victim to his own self-despised licentiousness. (A knowledge of American opera, reinforced by a retrospective view of four centuries of American history, followed by a glance through the daily newspaper, leads one to the inescapable conclusion that our national character is most accurately typified by the self-righteous hypocrite.) The conflict between the spirit and the flesh underlies enough other works of Hanson to suggest that this was a psychological dynamic to which he was particularly drawn. Stokes’s libretto is set in 1625, in a Puritan settlement in Massachusetts where worldly Cavaliers have recently arrived from England. The story involves the feverishly repressed Wrestling Bradford, who becomes irresistibly infatuated with Lady Marigold Sandys, a Cavalier maiden who is already engaged to the Cavalier knight, Sir Gower Lackland. Bradford’s tortured psyche is revealed through grotesque dreams haunted by lascivious psychological projections of his own desires and fears. In one of these dreams he is persuaded by Lucifer to renounce God in order to possess Lady Marigold. In the final scene, a group of Indians—offended earlier by one of the Puritan leaders—sets fire to the settlement, and Bradford, with Marigold in his arms, leaps into the flames. 

In devising music for this story, set 300 years in the past, Hanson, then 37, made no alteration of his usual compositional style, doling out generous helpings of his most appealing and effective devices. The stern, punitive Puritans are depicted through modal chorales, while Bradford’s carnal yearnings are represented by some of the composer’s ripest lyrical effusions, floating on lush cushions of expanded triadic harmony. There is very little of the recitative and declamation that comprise so much 20th-century opera. A few basic motifs unify the entire work. Exciting, rhythmically-driven ostinato build-ups occur frequently in the orchestra during extended ballet episodes (such as the Maypole dances, where one can also hear some of the clearest examples of Hanson’s generally unacknowledged debt to Rimsky-Korsakov) and also underlie choral episodes to suggest the emotional frenzy unleashed among the various hostile factions. 

The recording at hand is drawn from a concert performance that took place in Seattle in 1996, in honor of the composer’s centenary. Rumored to have been frozen by legal and financial complications, the recording has been languishing for 11 years. Now finally available, this recording of Hanson’s magnum opus represents the crowning achievement of Gerard Schwarz’s invaluable survey of the composer’s work for the Delos label, which introduced this music to a whole new generation of listeners during the 1990s—listeners who could enjoy its virtues, uncontaminated by the scornful attitudes of pundits of the previous generation. The performance is well paced and beautifully shaped. Audience noise is not a problem, although there is some applause. The soloists in the leading roles are fine, and the chorus and orchestra are more than adequate to the demands of the work. Libretto is not included, but there is a detailed synopsis cued to the tracks. See the Want List. 

HANSON Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings. Nymphs and Satyr. Summer Seascape No. 2. Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth. Pastorale. Serenade

HANSON Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings. Nymphs and SatyrSummer Seascape No. 2Fantasy Variations on a Theme of YouthPastoraleSerenade • Daniel Spalding, cond; Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber O; Joseph Jackson (org); Adriana Lenares (va); Gabriela Imreh (pn); Jonathan Blumenfeld (ob); Andrew Bolotowsky (fl) • NAXOS 8.559251 (61:28)

This new release will be of variable interest to different groups of listeners. Focusing chiefly on Hanson’s slighter works, it serves as a worthy follow-up for those who have enjoyed the American neo-romantic’s symphonies and are interested in a budget-priced exploration of what else this composer might have to offer. More advanced Hansonians will notice that there is a fair amount of overlap with the higher-priced Albany TROY129. But that CD offers some indispensable entries not included here, while true Hanson completists will notice one piece included here that is not found anywhere else (as far as I know)—and it is not even indicated on the CD as a “first recording:” I refer to Summer Seascape No. 2

No, this is not the 1959 piece called Summer Seascape which two years later was sandwiched between two new movements, to make a new piece entitled Bold Island Suite (which had its premiere recording just last year). No, this is an independent eight-minute piece for viola and string orchestra, composed in 1965. In his intelligent, informative program notes, Carson Cooman points out that the work may be seen as a study, or preparation, for the Symphony No. 6, which was to follow two years later, as it explores the same intervallic motif as the one on which that symphony is based. The short piece is rather atypical of its composer, with an uneasily searching, questing tone that never achieves resolution. Furthermore, the strings-only scoring—without resorting to rich, chorale sonorities—creates a sinewy texture that contributes to its uncharacteristic impact. The result is a considerably more interesting and provocative piece than the central movement of the Bold Island Suite. My only reservation is that the intonation of viola soloist Adriana Lenares is not always on-target.

The Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings is the final and fairly-often-heard revision, made in 1941, of a concerto for organ with full orchestra that Hanson had composed in 1926. Although I don’t believe that the larger version is still available for performance, I recently had the opportunity to hear documentary recordings of two performances of that original. I must say that it does have its virtues, chief among them the larger, more expansive statement it makes. On the other hand, the 1941 revision is tighter formally, and more practical to perform. The music is characteristic of 1920s Hanson: the sort of piece that his admirers love in spite of its faults—i.e., it is flagrantly episodic, but chock full of throbbing melodies and lush sonorities. The Albany CD mentioned above offers a fine performance of the revised version, but this new one strikes me as just as good.

The chief point of interest concerning the ballet suite Nymphs and Satyr is the fact that it is Hanson’s final major work, composed in 1979, when he was 83. It is characteristic of his late works in its inflation of very paltry substance into large gestures and full sonorities. Heard with some indulgence, it is not unpleasant, although the scherzo portion is based on a little diatonic ditty that fails to meet my personal criteria of tolerability. However, the performance, though interpretively similar to the one on the aforementioned Albany CD, is played with considerably more refinement here.

The Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth is based on the opening theme of Hanson’s early (1917) Concerto da Camera for piano and string quartet—a lovely piece not represented here, but included on that Albany release. Although of no great moment, the 10-minute set of variations he composed some 35 years later comprises one of the composer’s most fully consummated works. Requiring no special indulgence in order to appreciate fully, it is relaxed, relatively unpretentious, and varied in character, while remaining within the composer’s consistently euphonious expressive range. Scored for piano and strings, there are moments that call to mind the textures found in Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 (of which Hanson conducted a superb recording). The performance offered here is quite fine.

The remaining two items, Serenade and Pastorale are very brief but pleasant mood pieces—similar in scope and impact—from the 1940s. The Pastorale, which features the oboe, is a bit cooler and more reflective, while the Serenade, which highlights the flute, is somewhat warmer and more ardent. Oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld offers an excellent performance, but flutist Andrew Bolotowsky has a few intonation problems.

The Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra was formed by conductor-composer-percussionist Daniel Spalding in 1991. They offer consistently tasteful, well-coordinated performances.

HANSON Bold Island Suite. Symphony No. 2, “Romantic.” Merry Mount (Orchestral Suite). Fanfare for the Signal Corps

HANSON Bold Island Suite. Symphony No. 2, “Romantic.” Merry Mount(Orchestral Suite). Fanfare for the Signal Corps • Erich Kunzel, cond; Cincinnati Pops O • TELARC CD-80649 (66:12)

This new release, available in both standard and “Direct Stream Digital Surround-Sound” editions (the latter of which I am not equipped to evaluate), brings Howard Hanson into the classical music mainstream, presenting his music on a major label, performed by one of today’s top-notch American orchestras. The program design is easy to understand: Start off with a rousing one-minute fanfare, select the composer’s two most popular pieces, the “Romantic” Symphony and the Merry Mount Suite, and add to it the composer’s one substantial orchestral work that has never been recorded (to appeal to the collectors), the Bold Island Suite, and you have it. OK, fair enough.

The performances are as slick and polished as one could imagine, and the sound quality is simply resplendent—indeed, most listeners would probably agree that this is the most obviously appealing Hanson recording on the market. There is no question but that it is a lot of fun, and no committed Hansonian would want to be without it. However (not to sound like an inveterate complainer), there is something about these performances—of the Merry Mount excerpts in particular, and less so of the symphony—that reduces them to pops concert showpieces, rather than legitimate pieces of fairly serious “classical” music. I am not about to claim that the “Romantic” Symphony achieves the stature of, say, Barber’s Symphony No. 1 (to name a somewhat comparable work). I have asserted many times that the “Romantic” is one of Hanson’s weakest symphonies, and its dominance in his canon has not been a credit to his reputation among more demanding critics, although its structural and aesthetic weaknesses seem not to disturb a certain coterie of listeners. However, there is more depth and substance to it than to, say, the Grand Canyon Suite. And the music from Merry Mount—the “Overture” and the “Love Duet” in particular—ventures into realms of seething, passionate ecstasy that are the special province of this composer. But Kunzel never delves into these levels, preferring to stay on the surface and keep it moving along, while highlighting the glitz and the gloss.

The Bold Island Suite—one of the few orchestral works not included in Gerard Schwarz’s fairly comprehensive survey of Hansoniana with the Seattle Symphony on Delos—was commissioned and premiered by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (as was the composer’s Mosaics). Completed in 1961, it was named for the island off the coast of Maine where Hanson spent his summers. The work comprises three movements, of which the second, “Summer Seascape,” was composed in 1959, as a separate piece; the outer movements, “Birds of the Sea” and “God in Nature” were added afterward. The suite is pleasantly euphonious throughout, with much nature-painting, as might be expected, especially in the first movement. The third movement is a hymn of praise, based on a chant melody that builds to a grand chorale. Although it is rather short on musical substance, the work is not without a sense of drama, and the performance makes the most of its rich textures, bold sonorities, and warm chorales. It is good to have it available on recording.

For the presence of Bold Island Suite, the highly polished performances, and the stupendous sound quality, this recording will be gratefully received by the composer’s staunch admirers. However, I must add that those readers who aren’t familiar with Hanson’s music and are wondering whether to take the plunge are likely to derive more listening pleasure from Naxos 8.559072, on which Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony program the composer’s superior “Nordic” Symphony, the tone poem Pan and the Priest, and Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns along with the Merry Mount Suite (see Fanfare 24:4).

HANSON: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6; Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth

HANSON: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6; Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth. Carol Rosenberger. piano; Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the New York Chamber Symphony. DELOS DE-3092 [DDDJ;68:35. Produced by Amelia S. Haygood.

It looks as though Howard Hanson’s time has really arrived. This is the fourth all-Hanson CD to appear before me during the past year or so. and the second release in Gerard Schwarz’s complete traversal of the symphonies. I understand that its predecessor. featuring the “Nordic” and “Romantic” Symphonies. has become a best-seller; I know that my review (Fanfare 13:2. pp. 228-31) was the most critical of any I read. and I placed the disc on last year’s Want List. And now Philips has begun to reissue the composer’s own Eastman performances on mid-priced CDs. starting with the “Nordic” and the “Romantic”. Let me comment, in passing, that those composer-conducted performances. most of which originally appeared during the 1950s. are excellent renditions, as well as landmarks of recording technology. Listeners who are new to Hanson and are interested in saving a few dollars or are inclined toward “composer-authenticated” performances are assured that there is no reason to avoid those reissues. On the other hand. older listeners who know the Hanson symphonies primarily through the Eastman performances will welcome the perspective offered by Schwarz’s fresh new interpretations, as well as the increased richness and depth of the sonic aspect.

The Symphony No.3, Hanson’s most extended essay in the form, was written during the late 1930s and is a representative example of the composer at the height of his powers — a much stronger, fully dimensional work than the overplayed “Romantic” Symphony. Written in commemoration of the first Swedish settlement in this country, it is the most obviously Sibelian of Hanson’s symphonies, its moments of dark, austere solemnity often calling the Finnish master to mind. Yet the familiar Hanson traits are abundantly evident as well: flowing modal counterpoint, throbbing melodies surging through the baritone and tenor registers of the orchestra, radiant chorales, lively rhythmic ostinatos, all orchestrated to brilliantly colorful effect. There is a strong spiritual undercurrent to the symphony as well — a statement of courage and fortitude in the face of adversity, supported by a simple, straightforward reliance on faith, hope, and trust. Such wholesome Protestant sentiments could easily result in music of banal, mawkish cheerfulness. However, the power of Hanson’s earlier works lies in the unabashed hyperbole of their gestures, the unstinting lavishness of their orchestration, and, most of all, their sincere fervor and conviction.

Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth is a 1951 composition for piano and strings based on a melancholy passage from Hanson’s Concerto da Camera (1917) for piano and string quartet. During the late 1940s Hanson began to “cool off” somewhat. Though he never abandoned either tonality or romanticism, he did temper the ever-throbbing ardor somewhat, stepping back to permit a bit of detachment, and emphasizing crisper, drier orchestral timbres. One of Hanson’s most thoroughly satisfying works, Fantasy Variations calls to mind Ernest Bloch’sConcerto Grosso No. 1 in its vigor and clarity of texture and sonority, as well as in its warm, romantic core.

The Symphony No.6 (1967) is a fascinating work — though perhaps more for its historical role than for its intrinsic musical value. Hanson, then in his early seventies, was one of the composers commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate its 125th anniversary, presumably to honor his half-century of dedication to the cause of American music, rather than to honor his compositional gifts, which were then held in remarkably low esteem. Like Giannini’s Medead, Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, and Flagello’s Symphony No.1, Hanson’s Sixth is a major, large-scale assertion of traditional romantic values and techniques, created during the single decade of this century when such an aesthetic was least acceptable to the classical music establishment — a period when Leonard Bernstein felt compelled to write an essay to justify — or apologize for — the composition of a straightforward, accessible work like the Chichester Psalms. Within this climate such music represented, at least to some extent, a self-conscious gesture of defiance. “A small, intimate soul surviving in the framework of cynicism and strife,” was Hanson’s own interpretation of his symphony.

The work comprises six short movements, played without pause. Apart from its central Adaqio — a typically Hansonian outpouring of full-breathed lyricism — the symphony is cool in tone, dry in sonority, stark in gesture, and relatively attenuated in tonality. In fact, its language may surprise those listeners unfamiliar with Hanson’s later music. On the other hand, it is brilliantly orchestrated, with two exciting scherzos, and a triumphant, affirmative finale. Viewed as a succession of episodes in contrasting tempos and moods, perhaps linked by a picturesque or literary association (like the composer’s 1957 Mosaics, for example), the work would be undeniably effective. However, despite the use of a unifying three-note motto, it lacks the qualities of organic development and dialectical continuity essential to the true symphonic form.

All three works are sympathetically interpreted, stunningly performed, and beautifully recorded. I found this to be an even more satisfying release than its predecessor, and it is sure to please those who have been enjoying Schwarz’s Hanson survey.

Picks of the Year: 2001

This year’s choices offer some very economical and efficient means of updating and refining one’s collection of the finest 20th-century music in traditional styles. Leonard Slatkin has proven to be one of the most perceptive and sympathetic conductors of Samuel Barber’s magnificent orchestral music. EMI now offers a 2-CD set for the price of one (to be reviewed in the next issue), comprising definitive performances of most of his shorter orchestral works, along with superb readings of his solo and chamber music by some of today’s most distinguished players, all adding up to about one-quarter of Barber’s entire output.

Naxos’s American Classics series provides an ideal opportunity for the most hesitant, price-conscious listener to sample some treasures from this less familiar repertoire. Howard Hanson composed some of America’s most luxuriantly appealing, readily accessible orchestral music, and this CD (reviewed in 24:4) brings together several selections that represent him at his best, for less than the price of a single movie-ticket.

John Kinsella is a born-again neo-romantic who appears to be one of Ireland’s most impressive living composers. His symphonies, brought to my attention this past year by a colleague on another magazine, are intensely powerful statements in a highly individual idiom. These two (reviewed in 22:1) are excellent examples.

Robert Muczynski is one of America’s most distinguished living traditionalist composers. He has concentrated on small chamber works and music for piano solo. These two recent CD reissues (see feature article in 24:6) bring together nearly one-third of his entire output, in excellent performances chiefly by the composer himself.

And finally, once again I feel compelled to bring to the attention of our readers a new release in whose production I had some involvement. While admitting shamelessly to the appearance of conflict-of-interest, I deny any self-serving motives when I assert without hesitation that Peter Vinograde is a thinking-person’s virtuoso of the highest order, and his performance of Copland’s Piano Fantasy is second to none—and there is some competition on this one. The Creston pieces will surprise those who think they already know the limits of this composer’s range, while Zuckerman has come up with a fresh approach to neo-classicism that resembles no other music I know.

BARBER Orchestral and Chamber Works · Oliveira, Margalit, Stepansky et al./Slatkin/St. Louis SO · EMI 7243 5 74287 2 9 (2 CDs)

HANSON Symphony No. 1, “Nordic”. Merry Mount Suite. Pan and the Priest et al. · Schermerhorn/Nashville SO · NAXOS 8.559072

KINSELLA Symphonies Nos. 3, 4· Ó Duinn/Ireland NSO · MARCO POLO 8.223766

MUCZYNSKI Piano Music et al., Vols. 1,2 · Muczynski (pn) et al. · LAUREL LR-862/3 (2 CDs)

COPLAND Piano Fantasy et al. CRESTON Metamorphoses et al. ZUCKERMAN On the Edges · Vinograde · PHOENIX PHCD 149

Picks of the Year: 1992

If I could only pick one recording for the Want List, the Barber disc (reviewed in 15:6) would be it: great performances of two of Barber’s greatest works. I selected the Mercury reissue (reviewed in 15:2 because the Concerti Grossi are two of Bloch’s most lovable pieces, the performances are superb, and the sound is stunning. The third installment of Gerard Schwarz’s Hanson survey (reviewed in 15:3) matches the standard set by its predecessors (each of which appeared on my Want Lists). The Fourth Symphony and the Merry Mount suite are among Hanson’s best music. The two cassettes of Persichetti piano music are worth writing away for (reviewed in 15:3; mailing address given): seventeen pieces not available elsewhere by America’s greatest keyboard composer. I selected the Schuman disc (reviewed in 16:1) because of the fine performance of Judith, perhaps the composer’s greatest work.

BARBER: The Lovers; Prayers of Kierkegaard. Schenck/Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra.   KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7125-2H1) 

BLOCH: Concerti Grossi Nos. 1 and 2; Schelomo. Hanson/Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. (MERCURY LIVING PRESENCE 432 718-2)

HANSON: Symphony No. 4; Lament for Beowulf; Merry Mount Suite; Pastorale; Serenade. Schwarz/Seattle Symphony/NY Chamber Symphony. (DELOS DE-3105)

PERSICHETTI: Piano Music. Patterson. (EDUCO 3235/3236 [two cassettes))

SCHUMAN: Judith; Symphony No. 5; New England Triptych; Variations on “America”. Schwarz/Seattle Symphony.   DELOS DE-3115)