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.