HANSON: Symphony No. 4, “Requiem”. Suite from “Merry Mount”. Lament for Beowulf. Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings. Pastorale for Oboe, Harp, and Strings. Judith Mendenhall, flute; Randall Ellis, oboe; Susan Jolles, harp; Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra, New York Chamber Symphony of the 92nd Street Y. DELOS DE-3105 [DDD]; 75:07. Produced by Amelia Haygood and Adam Stern.
Listeners who have enjoyed Gerard Schwarz’s previous explorations into the orchestral music of Howard Hanson will certainly not be disappointed by this latest effort. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fourth Symphony, this new release features four other works, including some of the composer’s best music, performed sympathetically and recorded with all due attention to the richness and brilliance of Hanson’s orchestral palette.
The Fourth, subtitled “Requiem” and dedicated to the memory of the composer’s father, is one of Hanson’s strongest symphonies. It maintains an effective balance between lyrical and dramatic elements, is unified by a couple of interval-based motifs that re-appear in each movement, and is concise and tastefully restrained without overly constricting Hanson’s distinctive emotional flow. That the symphony is more dramatically than developmentally constructed is a weakness common to Hanson’s symphonies, but the work is tight enough not to suffer from it. On the other hand, Schwarz’s characteristically broad, languid approach (more than 20% slower than the composer’s own rendition) is not to the work’s advantage, although it does allow for the blooming of some nice full sonorities.
Merry Mount is Hanson’s sole opera, composed in 1933 and premiered the following year by the Metropolitan Opera Company, with Lawrence Tibbett in the leading role. The work was a great critical and popular success and, as I understand it, the only reason that it was dropped from the repertory after the first season involved power struggles within the Met’s management. Nevertheless, the work went into eclipse and has enjoyed few major performances in the years since. This is unfortunate because it represents Hanson at his best, with throbbing melodies, sumptuous orchestration, exciting dance episodes, and some lovely modal choral passages. The orchestral suite drawn from the opera has been a concert favorite for many years and provides a delicious sample of some of its most memorable music. With no other currently available recording, this ardent and brilliantly colorful reading is most welcome.
The Lament for Beowulf is the earliest work on this release, dating from the 1920s, when Hanson was in Europe on a Prix de Rome. An example of romantic neo-archaism, it is skillfully written for chorus and orchestra, with a stark austerity uncharacteristic of Hanson’s early music. The performance is excellent — breathtaking at times — emphasizing the work’s stoic solemnity without neglecting its more delicate aspects.
The Serenade and Pastorale are short, rather subdued mood-pieces, fairly similar in effect, although the latter is somewhat cooler and drier in tone. Both are well performed here, rounding out a most desirable new release.