HANSON Syms. No. 4 & 5. Dies Natalis. Elegy. Songs from “Drum Taps.” THOMPSON Testament of Freedom. LEOFFLER Memories of my Childhood. HOVHANESS Sym. No. 3. HINDEMITH Sym. in E-flat. HARTMANN Sym. No. 2. STRAVINSKY Sym. In C. HARRIS Sym. No. 7.

by Walter Simmons



HANSON Symphonies: No. 4, “Requiem.” No. 5, “Sinfonia Sacra.” Dies Natalis. Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky ● Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO ● NAXOS 8.559703 (69:44)

HANSON Symphony No. 4, “Requiem.” Songs from “Drum Taps.”1 THOMPSON Testament of Freedom. LOEFFLER Memories of my Childhood (Life in a Russian Village) ● Howard Hanson, cond; Eastman-Rochester SO; Eastman School of Music Ch1 ● PRISTINE PASC-292 (72:17)

HANSON Symphony No. 4, “Requiem.” HOVHANESS Symphony No. 3. HINDEMITH Symphony in E-flat. HARTMANN Symphony No. 2, “Adagio.” STRAVINSKY Symphony in C. HARRIS Symphony No. 7 (original version) ● Leopold Stokowski, cond; NBC SO; Symphony of the Air; W. German Radio O, Cologne; St. Louis SO ● GUILD GHCD-2379/80 (2 CDs; 2:30) Live: 1/2/1944 10/14/1956; 2/28/1943; 5/25/1955; 2/21/1943; 1/9/1955

As alert discophiles are probably aware, Naxos has been reissuing Gerard Schwarz’s excellent comprehensive survey of the orchestral (and some choral) music of Howard Hanson, mostly with the Seattle Symphony. These recordings were originally released during the early 1990s by Delos, although Naxos is shuffling around the contents for their reissues. Readers may refer to back-issues (or to my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com) for my comments on the original Delos releases.

So here we have a confluence of three different recorded performances of Hanson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fourth Symphony, each of them going back some time. Stokowski’s is the earliest, dating from 1944, the year after it was composed, and just one month after its premiere by the Boston Symphony, under the composer’s direction; Hanson’s own recording was originally released on Mercury in 1953; and Schwarz’s was initially released in 1990. The Fourth, subtitled “Requiem,” was written in memory of the composer’s father, and was his own favorite among his symphonies. Because Hanson was not really a “natural symphonist,” most of his works in that genre (the main exception being No. 1, “Nordic,” which—though relatively uncomplicated—is quite successful in its symphonic pretentions) are best viewed more as emotional tone poems—especially their more problematic portions. Much of Hanson’s “symphonic” writing amounts to episodic successions of mood-states that move uneasily from one to the next. In the Fourth Symphony, the inner movements—a slow movement followed by a scherzo—are straightforward, easy to accept, and clear enough in their interpretive requirements. But the outer movements have major structural problems—although, I must emphasize, many passages, taken on their own terms, offer plenty of sensuous appeal. Schwarz seems to have realized this and took relatively broad tempos in the opening and closing movements, perhaps in the hope that more “breathing room” might help to establish them more securely as formal entities. Though I rarely indulge in duration comparisons among performances, in this case it is somewhat revealing: Hanson takes 7:17 for his first movement, while Stokowski takes 6:55; Schwarz takes 9:36. For the second movement Hanson takes 4:33, Stokowski 4:38, and Schwarz 5:43. (It is worth noting that Stokowski, whose reputation would have him “milking” a movement like this, instead presses forward without such indulgence, as does Hanson himself.) For the scherzo, Hanson takes 2:38, Stokowski 2:10, and Schwarz 2:38. For the finale, Hanson takes 6:37, Stokowski 6:15 and Schwarz 7:48. So, interestingly enough, Stokowski’s tempos are much closer to Hanson’s own. The latter is, in toto, 21:20; Stokowski’s is 20:13, while Schwarz’s comes in at 25:45. Do Schwarz’s slower tempos result in a more convincing interpretation? No, I don’t think so—the awkwardness of the outer movements is apparent at any tempo. Of course Schwarz comes out way ahead with regard to sonority—the Stokowski broadcast from Studio 8H sounds pretty terrible. But Hanson’s own recording, as remastered by Andrew Rose, offers some of the best 1950s monaural sound I’ve ever heard. For those favorably disposed to the remainder of the Hanson-conducted program, this re-issue is worth considering.

The Naxos disc also includes Hanson’s Fifth Symphony—a single movement of 15 minutes duration. The composer stated that the work, subtitled “Sinfonia Sacra” and composed in 1954, was inspired by the story of Christ’s resurrection. The Fifth makes even less of a pretense at symphonic form or rhetoric than its predecessor, and is even more blatantly a succession of mood states. Because the work does not develop organically, it conveys a sense of accompanimental music with nothing to accompany. The content is characteristic of the composer’s other works from this period, opening with a stern, solemn tone reminiscent of Sibelius, moving on to a passage of modal polyphony suggestive of spiritual matters, finally erupting agitatedly with characteristic climbing sequences of brilliantly orchestrated ostinatos, before subsiding in a solemn chorale. Again, the music has some passages that are heartfelt and others that are undeniably exciting, but it is just not truly “symphonic.”

Just a couple of years later, in 1956, Hanson composed his Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky, a conductor who had championed his music as he had that of so many other American composers of the period. It is a 13-minute work with much the same tone and language as the Fifth Symphony. I have always considered it one of the composer’s least consequential pieces, rather slow to take flight and ultimately delivering little of notable substance.

Dies Natalis was composed in 1967, and was one of Hanson’s more successful late works. It consists of an introduction, a Lutheran chorale, seven variations, and a finale. After an overly protracted timpani solo, the introductory melody appears, a characteristically throbbing idea that harks back to some of the composer’s most endearing moments. The chorale appears in much of Hanson’s music, most notably the opening motif of the opera Merry Mount, though it appears there in the Dorian mode and here in the Ionian. The variations are engaging and brief, while the finale returns to the spirit and material of the introduction.

Gerard Schwarz leads sympathetic, committed, and richly refined performances of all these works. Listeners who passed them by when they were first issued, or perhaps were not interested in Hanson at the time, or maybe are still awaiting the opportunity to get acquainted with his work are encouraged to sample one of these budget-priced Naxos releases.

(Before concluding the Naxos portion of this review, I should mention one other Hanson release of significance that was not conducted by Schwarz, but by the late Kenneth Schermerhorn, leading the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. With its fine performance of the “Nordic” Symphony, the orchestral suite from the opera Merry Mount, and the little-known but worthy tone-poem Pan and the Priest, it is my first choice as a budget-priced introduction to the music of Hanson.)

Before moving on from Hanson, some comments on the Songs from “Drum Taps” are in order. This setting of three Whitman poems for baritone solo, chorus, and orchestra, was composed in 1935, just a couple of years after Merry Mount, and whiffs of that work may be heard here. It is a stirring, but not terribly profound setting of the poems—especially the first and third—in which the musical interpretation is limited largely to capturing the martial spirit with snare-drum ostinatos and the like. The choral writing is mostly unison, with some two-voice counterpoint. The second movement, “By the bivouac’s fitful flame,” is a baritone solo, and is quite beautiful. Strains of the love music from Merry Mount appear in this movement and the final one, but the reason for their citation is not apparent to me. Composed between Hanson’s Second and Third Symphonies, this is not one of his greatest works, but one that the composer’s admirers may well feel is worthy of attention nevertheless. The performance here is clearly student-level, but adequate.

Somewhat comparable aesthetically to Hanson’s “Drum Taps” settings is Randall Thompson’s Testament of Freedom, composed in 1943. The music is typical of Thompson’s perennially popular choral style—hearty, diatonic, direct and accessible, with a stirring quality capable of reaching a large number of people. It is clearly a patriotic work whose text, taken from the words of Thomas Jefferson, was applied to the nation’s efforts to overcome the despotism besieging Europe at the time. From today’s perspective, the musical setting of Jefferson’s words seems rather naïve and many listeners may find it hard to accept at face value; but those who can make the necessary allowances may find the work to be stirring and inspirational. The performance does it justice, for the most part.

Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) was a cosmopolitan composer and violinist who spent the early years of his life on the move, including several years in Ukraine. Although he was born in Germany, he came to despise the country, and preferred to describe his nationality as “Alsatian.” A meticulous composer whose work shows great sensitivity, Loeffler’s sensibility was decidedly French. He moved to the United States in 1881, and was for many years a member of the violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His orchestral piece, A Pagan Poem, is one of the greatest American works from the turn of the 20th century, and was championed (and recorded) by Stokowski. Though perhaps not as striking as that work, the 12-minute Memories of Childhood is an exquisitely wrought piece that treats recognizably Russian folk and religious themes within a highly romanticized vein of Impressionism. The Eastman performance under Hanson’s direction is excellent.

As noted earlier, Andrew Rose’s remastering eliminates many of the shortcomings that would ordinarily detract from the experience of listening to these 60-year-old recordings. Although no program notes of any kind are included with the package, they and all the sung texts are readily accessible on Pristine’s Web site.

Finally returning to the remainder of Stokowski’s 2-CD set: One of the interesting items is the world premiere performance of Alan Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 3. Stokowski conducted a great deal of Hovhaness during his long conducting career, including the premiere of the perennially popular Mysterious Mountain (subsequently labeled Symphony No. 2). He was sympathetic and intuitively attuned to the composer’s unique aesthetic, although he did recoil from the “sliding tones” that Hovhaness adopted from Korean music during the late 1960s. The Third Symphony was composed the year after Mysterious Mountain, with which it shares a fair amount in common, although the later work has more overt Armenian influence. Hovhaness intended it to be a homage to the Classical style, as epitomized by Mozart and Haydn, so he attempted to create a fusion of that style with his own characteristic approach. Hence the work may be regarded as Hovhaness’s take on neo-classicism. The result follows the blueprint of sonata allegro form, but lacks the sense of dialectical opposition from which the form derives its energy. Thematic development is rudimentary, and largely limited to melodic sequences; in that regard it is simpler than a corresponding movement by Haydn. I should mention that a more modern recording of this work was released by Soundset in 1996, featuring a performance by the orchestra of the Korean Broadcasting System, led by the late Georgian conductor Vakhtang Jordania. This recording represents a significant improvement over the Stokowski with regard to sound quality and orchestral sonority. However, as all who are familiar with Hovhaness’s performances of his own works know, he almost always favored vigorous and rather volatile readings of his works. The spiritual serenity for which he and his music became known has been exaggerated in the minds of both performers and listeners. Although much of his music did aim for an almost mystical sense of rapture, his own performances as well as his commentaries about his music make very clear that many of his works benefit from a brusque sort of approach, and even at times embraced a sort of cosmic rage. Stokowski seemed to understand this, and provided a hearty, vigorous reading. Unfortunately, Jordania’s approach is phlegmatic and dull by comparison, draining whatever energy is inherent in the work.

One observation that arises from these and other recently-released recordings of vintage Stokowski live performances is just how simplistic and distorted is the general impression of the conductor as an ultra-romantic who strove for opulent, luxuriant sonorities, which he applied to everything he conducted. A recent reissue in this series included Copland’s “Short Symphony,” which—like the Stravinsky and Hindemith works included here—benefit from rhythmic precision and clarity of texture, which Stokowski provided in full measure, while avoiding euphonious sonorities. These performances have nothing of the “Stokowski sound,” but present the works in question in the most favorable light.

While likely unintentional, this set offers a most interesting point for comparison. The international figure-heads of neo-classicism, a musical style that achieved considerable prominence during the middle third of the 20th century, were Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith, although from today’s perspective the influence of the former has proven to be more enduring than that of the latter. But from the 1920s through the 1940s their importance was somewhat comparable, although the evolution of their compositional styles followed very different paths, largely attributable to their differences in temperament and personality. So here we have two major symphonies, each of which embodies its composer’s notion of neo-classicism, arriving at strikingly different results: Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, composed in 1940 and performed here by Stokowski in 1943; and Hindemith’s Symphony in E-flat, also composed in 1940 (the year of the composer’s immigration to the United States and his appointment to the faculty of Yale University) and performed here by Stokowski in 1943.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in C exemplifies the approach that has become most representative of neo-classicism, as it is understood today. For me the persona that emerges from much—though not all—of Stravinsky’s neo-classical works is that of one who is unable to engage with serious feelings and prefers a stance of detached mockery. The Symphony in C is one of those works in which this quality is most apparent, and I don’t find it at all attractive. Although, as with nearly all the performances on this set, the orchestral playing is quite rough and scrappy, Stokowski approaches the work with a brusque, restless impatience that really makes the best case for it. This is especially apparent when comparing this performance with a more polished, recent recording, such as Colin Davis’s with the London Symphony Orchestra. Davis aims for a kind of gracefulness, delicacy, and charm that highlights the work’s precious superficiality, which I find revolting.

If Stravinsky’s neo-classicism emphasized emotional restraint and detached expression, clear, transparent textures, and an avoidance of bombast, Hindemith’s neo-classicism was largely concerned with an avoidance of sentimentality and a return to more abstract forms and compositional procedures, as opposed to such predecessors as Strauss and Mahler. But if Stravinsky’s approach was almost feminine in the lightness and clarity of its textures, Hindemith’s was unmistakably masculine in its lumbering accumulation of aggressive energy. The Symphony in E-flat is one of his strongest major works, and is quintessential in representing its composer’s voice at its most distinctive. Stokowski’s performance sounds a little hesitant in his approach to a work that—like the Stravinsky—was still relatively new. Two later recorded performances—one conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, the other by Leonard Bernstein—dive in heartily, producing that characteristically Hindemithian quality of a truck careening down a steep incline, barely under control.    Unfortunately, Stokowski’s hesitancy causes his rendition to sound somewhat dry and ponderous, even sagging at times. But finally he pulls things together to produce a vigorous, triumphant finale. For some reason this particular performance enjoys better sound quality than most of the other recordings included here.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), though probably the least well-known composer represented on this set, was an important figure in German music from the end of World War II until the ascendency of Stockhausen and the Darmstadt group—an admittedly short period. He was exceedingly self-critical, discarding many of his works, and revising others repeatedly. Hartman’s Second Symphony, subtitled, “Adagio,” was completed as a one-movement work of 15 minutes duration in 1946, although it was based on an earlier work, subsequently discarded. Ultimately Hartmann completed eight symphonies, and his aesthetic and musical language may be said to place him as a link in the chain following Hindemith, although he actually studied with Webern. The Second Symphony is grim, gray, and very serious, severe and intense, highly dissonant but not atonal. One of the work’s most important themes is introduced in an extended saxophone solo. Although it offers little “entertainment value,” it is a very impressive work—possibly the most impressive of the entire set.

Finally we come to the Symphony No. 7 of Roy Harris—in its original version. The work was completed in 1952, and this performance was given in early 1955. Later that year the composer subjected the symphony to substantial revisions, and it achieved some success in this form. The performance offered here represents the last time the work was presented in its original form, and is the only surviving recording of that version. So for those reasons this rendition holds some historical importance. With its single-movement structure and slowly evolving form, the Seventh shares much in common with the far better-known Third Symphony. It is also typical in its evocation of rural America, and includes some quasi-cowboy music. Stokowski imbues the work with a sense of vitality and direction often missing from performances of Harris’s music, despite the fact that the St. Louis Symphony was not an ensemble of the first rank at the time, and some of the high violin writing taxes the players beyond their capacity. This is not the place to go into a detailed comparison of the two versions of the work; I have no idea what motives underlay Harris’s decision to revise it, as it was reportedly successful in its initial performances. I will simply note that a strong case could be made for the symphony in this original version. Listeners with a serious interest in the music of Roy Harris will definitely want to acquaint themselves with this rendition, and reach their own conclusions.

As noted earlier, Andrew Rose’s remastering eliminates many of the shortcomings that would ordinarily detract from the experience of listening to these 60-year-old recordings. Although no program notes of any kind are included with the package, they and all the sung texts are readily accessible on Pristine’s Web site.

Finally returning to the remainder of Stokowski’s 2-CD set: One of the interesting items is the world premiere performance of Alan Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 3. Stokowski conducted a great deal of Hovhaness during his long conducting career, including the premiere of the perennially popular Mysterious Mountain (subsequently labeled Symphony No. 2). He was sympathetic and intuitively attuned to the composer’s unique aesthetic, although he did recoil from the “sliding tones” that Hovhaness adopted from Korean music during the late 1960s. The Third Symphony was composed the year after Mysterious Mountain, with which it shares a fair amount in common, although the later work has more overt Armenian influence. Hovhaness intended it to be a homage to the Classical style, as epitomized by Mozart and Haydn, so he attempted to create a fusion of that style with his own characteristic approach. Hence the work may be regarded as Hovhaness’s take on neo-classicism. The result follows the blueprint of sonata allegro form, but lacks the sense of dialectical opposition from which the form derives its energy. Thematic development is rudimentary, and largely limited to melodic sequences; in that regard it is simpler than a corresponding movement by Haydn. I should mention that a more modern recording of this work was released by Soundset in 1996, featuring a performance by the orchestra of the Korean Broadcasting System, led by the late Georgian conductor Vakhtang Jordania. This recording represents a significant improvement over the Stokowski with regard to sound quality and orchestral sonority. However, as all who are familiar with Hovhaness’s performances of his own works know, he almost always favored vigorous and rather volatile readings of his works. The spiritual serenity for which he and his music became known has been exaggerated in the minds of both performers and listeners. Although much of his music did aim for an almost mystical sense of rapture, his own performances as well as his commentaries about his music make very clear that many of his works benefit from a brusque sort of approach, and even at times embraced a sort of cosmic rage. Stokowski seemed to understand this, and provided a hearty, vigorous reading. Unfortunately, Jordania’s approach is phlegmatic and dull by comparison, draining whatever energy is inherent in the work.

One observation that arises from these and other recently-released recordings of vintage Stokowski live performances is just how simplistic and distorted is the general impression of the conductor as an ultra-romantic who strove for opulent, luxuriant sonorities, which he applied to everything he conducted. A recent reissue in this series included Copland’s “Short Symphony,” which—like the Stravinsky and Hindemith works included here—benefit from rhythmic precision and clarity of texture, which Stokowski provided in full measure, while avoiding euphonious sonorities. These performances have nothing of the “Stokowski sound,” but present the works in question in the most favorable light.

While likely unintentional, this set offers a most interesting point for comparison. The international figure-heads of neo-classicism, a musical style that achieved considerable prominence during the middle third of the 20th century, were Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith, although from today’s perspective the influence of the former has proven to be more enduring than that of the latter. But from the 1920s through the 1940s their importance was somewhat comparable, although the evolution of their compositional styles followed very different paths, largely attributable to their differences in temperament and personality. So here we have two major symphonies, each of which embodies its composer’s notion of neo-classicism, arriving at strikingly different results: Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, composed in 1940 and performed here by Stokowski in 1943; and Hindemith’s Symphony in E-flat, also composed in 1940 (the year of the composer’s immigration to the United States and his appointment to the faculty of Yale University) and performed here by Stokowski in 1943.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in C exemplifies the approach that has become most representative of neo-classicism, as it is understood today. For me the persona that emerges from much—though not all—of Stravinsky’s neo-classical works is that of one who is unable to engage with serious feelings and prefers a stance of detached mockery. The Symphony in C is one of those works in which this quality is most apparent, and I don’t find it at all attractive. Although, as with nearly all the performances on this set, the orchestral playing is quite rough and scrappy, Stokowski approaches the work with a brusque, restless impatience that really makes the best case for it. This is especially apparent when comparing this performance with a more polished, recent recording, such as Colin Davis’s with the London Symphony Orchestra. Davis aims for a kind of gracefulness, delicacy, and charm that highlights the work’s precious superficiality, which I find revolting.

If Stravinsky’s neo-classicism emphasized emotional restraint and detached expression, clear, transparent textures, and an avoidance of bombast, Hindemith’s neo-classicism was largely concerned with an avoidance of sentimentality and a return to more abstract forms and compositional procedures, as opposed to such predecessors as Strauss and Mahler. But if Stravinsky’s approach was almost feminine in the lightness and clarity of its textures, Hindemith’s was unmistakably masculine in its lumbering accumulation of aggressive energy. The Symphony in E-flat is one of his strongest major works, and is quintessential in representing its composer’s voice at its most distinctive. Stokowski’s performance sounds a little hesitant in his approach to a work that—like the Stravinsky—was still relatively new. Two later recorded performances—one conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, the other by Leonard Bernstein—dive in heartily, producing that characteristically Hindemithian quality of a truck careening down a steep incline, barely under control.    Unfortunately, Stokowski’s hesitancy causes his rendition to sound somewhat dry and ponderous, even sagging at times. But finally he pulls things together to produce a vigorous, triumphant finale. For some reason this particular performance enjoys better sound quality than most of the other recordings included here.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), though probably the least well-known composer represented on this set, was an important figure in German music from the end of World War II until the ascendency of Stockhausen and the Darmstadt group—an admittedly short period. He was exceedingly self-critical, discarding many of his works, and revising others repeatedly. Hartman’s Second Symphony, subtitled, “Adagio,” was completed as a one-movement work of 15 minutes duration in 1946, although it was based on an earlier work, subsequently discarded. Ultimately Hartmann completed eight symphonies, and his aesthetic and musical language may be said to place him as a link in the chain following Hindemith, although he actually studied with Webern. The Second Symphony is grim, gray, and very serious, severe and intense, highly dissonant but not atonal. One of the work’s most important themes is introduced in an extended saxophone solo. Although it offers little “entertainment value,” it is a very impressive work—possibly the most impressive of the entire set.

Finally we come to the Symphony No. 7 of Roy Harris—in its original version. The work was completed in 1952, and this performance was given in early 1955. Later that year the composer subjected the symphony to substantial revisions, and it achieved some success in this form. The performance offered here represents the last time the work was presented in its original form, and is the only surviving recording of that version. So for those reasons this rendition holds some historical importance. With its single-movement structure and slowly evolving form, the Seventh shares much in common with the far better-known Third Symphony. It is also typical in its evocation of rural America, and includes some quasi-cowboy music. Stokowski imbues the work with a sense of vitality and direction often missing from performances of Harris’s music, despite the fact that the St. Louis Symphony was not an ensemble of the first rank at the time, and some of the high violin writing taxes the players beyond their capacity. This is not the place to go into a detailed comparison of the two versions of the work; I have no idea what motives underlay Harris’s decision to revise it, as it was reportedly successful in its initial performances. I will simply note that a strong case could be made for the symphony in this original version. Listeners with a serious interest in the music of Roy Harris will definitely want to acquaint themselves with this rendition, and reach their own conclusions.