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.