HANSON: Symphony No. 2, “Romantic.” Merry Mount: Orchestral Suite. Song of Democracy

HANSON: Symphony No. 2, “Romantic.” Merry Mount: Orchestral Suite. Song of Democracy. Howard Hanson conducting the Mormon Youth Chorus and Symphony. Live performances: March 11, 1972. CITADEL CTD-88110 [ADD]; 60:47. Produced by Tom Null and Robert Bowden.

As the program notes imply, the significance of this release, featuring three major Howard Hanson scores, lies in documentary value, as most listeners interested in this music will already be familiar with it through other, more proficiently executed recordings. What this release offers is Hanson’s own way with the music at age 75, some 15 years after his celebrated Eastman recordings of these pieces. So the relevant question is: What new insights emerge? The answer — in its briefest form — is: none that override the relatively inferior student/amateur level of the performances.

Over the years, the central focus of Howard Hanson’s reputation has been his role as founder and long-time president of the Eastman School of Music. From this core of activity, identity developed in three directions: as a champion of American music, as an exponent of a romantic musical aesthetic, and as a promoter of music education and musical performance among young people. Though three separate aspects of his mission, they often merged in a variety of ways. One result is that the many recordings of his own music made with ensembles from the Eastman School, Interlochen School, etc., have led listeners to become accustomed to hearing Hanson’s music performed by young musicians. This is more than just a coincidence of factors: indeed, the spirit of youth is actually  an essential ingredient of Hanson’s creative expression. But while such performances offer the virtues of freshness enthusiasm, they tend to lack the richness of sonority finesse possible with seasoned professional ensembles. The revelation that emerges from Gerard Schwarz’s Hanson series with the Seattle Symphony — affirmed by the tremendous critical and audience acclaim it has garnered — is that, when played with the solidity, depth, and polish of which a professional ensemble is capable, this music makes a very favorable impression in direct comparison with other favorite works of the late-romantic repertoire. What we need are more professional level renditions of Hanson’s music; we’ve had enough student performances for the time being.

Perhaps the foregoing comments explain why the piece that fares best on this recording is the Song of Democracy. Hanson composed this choral setting of a Whitman text extolling the boundless possibilities of American youth in 1957, in response to a commission from the National Education Association, in honor of the Music Educators National Conference. It is a stirring and heartfelt work in which Whitman’s grand and hearty optimism is fused with Hanson’s own sincere musical idealism, resulting in an ardent paean to youthful creativity. As someone whose musical development was shaped in part by the mid-century music education boom in which Hanson played such an influential role, I am sympathetic to such sentiments. But responding to Song of Democracy as a piece of music, I do wish that the composer had spared us one more reminder of that harmonic motif from the “Romantic” Symphony that, in a fit of narcissism, he seemed to have decided was his musical logo, suitable for insertion into every piece he could manage to fit it. Although this is a fine performance, Hanson’s Eastman performance from 1957 is also available on compact disc, as are several excellent more recent recordings of the work in an arrangement for band.

Hanson’s 1933 opera Merry Mount is one of his real masterpieces, but at this time the orchestral suite is the most accessible way of becoming familiar with the music. The “Overture” and “Love Duet” are two of the composer’s finest moments. However, the performance here is strained, sluggish raw, and ragged — the inevitable shortcomings of most student performances — despite extensive rehearsals. Schwarz’s recording on Delos DE3105 (see Fanfare 15:3, pp. 230-1 is the recommended version of this music
The same criticisms apply to the performance of the “Romantic” Symphony, Hanson’s signature work. Here the preferred recording is Charles Gerhardt’s with the RCA Symphony Orchestra (Chesky CD-112; see Fanfare 18:4, pp. 182-5).

In conclusion, this new Citadel release can be recommended chiefly to Hanson completists.