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).