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