HANSON: Piano Sonata. For the First Time. Poèmes Érotiques. Three Miniatures. Three Etudes. Two Yuletide Pieces.

by Walter Simmons

HANSON Piano Sonata. For the First Time. Poèmes Érotiques. Three Miniatures. Three Etudes. Two Yuletide Pieces. Slumber Song. Enchantment – Thomas Labé (pn) – NAXOS 8.559047 (75:39)

Howard Hanson was not a piano-oriented composer, despite reports of his having been quite a capable executant on the instrument. He wrote only a few pieces for piano solo, and most of them are among his earliest serious efforts; in them one already encounters ideas that cry out for orchestration in order to achieve their best effect. And Hanson’s mature concertant works that feature the piano (i.e., Piano Concerto and Fantasy Variations) treat the instrument largely as pitched percussion, and not as a comprehensive, self-contained expressive microcosm. Hence this latest release in Naxos’s American Classics series is rather an odd grab-bag, although several of the selections render the disc indispensable to the true Hanson aficionado. As expected, most of the music presented here was written while the composer was in his early twenties, a young faculty member at the College of the Pacific, in San Jose, California; these are complemented by Slumber Song, a bit of juvenilia; Enchantment, a folk-like melodic fragment dated 1935; and a piano version, made in 1970, of the orchestral suite, For the First Time.

The item that most urgently compels attention is the first recording of Hanson’s 17-minute Piano Sonata, a work hitherto known chiefly from its provocatively uninformative appearance on the composer’s list of works. The pianist’s annotations suggest that it was performed only once—in 1919, the year after it was written, and by the composer himself—and that the manuscript, though sketched out, was never fully completed. (This task has been fulfilled by pianist Thomas Labé himself.) Finally making its acquaintance, one doesn’t quite know how best to integrate it into a context for assimilation. In his notes the pianist focuses on its multisectional, single-movement structure, and invokes the sonatas of Liszt and Berg as points of reference, but the work is aesthetically miles away from both these precursors. Considered from perhaps a more relevant perspective, the work was composed by the precocious 22-year-old from Nebraska the same year that Charles Tomlinson Griffes penned his contribution to the medium, also the year of Debussy’s death, and about the same time that young Henry Cowell was scandalizing audiences in Europe and America by banging the keyboard with his fists and elbows. This is the historical context, but it still sheds very little light on the work itself.

After several weeks of acquaintance with it, one might construe Hanson’s sonata—and the shorter pieces composed about the same time as well—as representing a sort of high-flown melodrama, contained within the conventional rhetoric of the more modest manifestations of late-19th-century romanticism—i.e., roughly the same aesthetic realm as pieces of comparable scope by Grieg, Edward MacDowell, and Amy Beach. However, distinguishing Hanson’s contributions from their rather pedestrian frame of reference is a surging lyricism, more personal and pronounced with each successive opus, not unlike what Erich Korngold was producing at about the same time. Perhaps more significantly, struggling against the restricted emotional range of the genre one detects a striving toward a kind of ecstatic delirium, somewhat reminiscent of the aesthetic terrain explored by Scriabin some twenty years earlier in his Sonata No. 3 (although the mention of one of the supreme masters of pianistic composition creates a comparison exceedingly disadvantageous to the fledgling efforts of the Swede from Nebraska). The sonata itself is perhaps less successful than the accompanying shorter pieces, as its efforts to embody extravagant emotional epiphanies and sustain a relatively large-scale structure result in rather extensive reliance on shallow rhetorical devices to inflate and extend its expressive and formal dimensions beyond the confines of its genre; the character pieces, on the other hand, aspire to be little more than heartfelt, lyrical mood-pieces. Nevertheless, the sonata is a fascinating document, as one of Hanson’s earliest efforts of larger ambitions. In it one catches but fleeting glimpses of his distinctive compositional voice. In the three Erotic Poems of 1917-18 as well, the composer’s recognizable fingerprints emerge only occasionally from the sentimental salon rhetoric. In the threeMiniatures (1918-19) Hanson’s voice is more clearly recognizable. But the “Impromptu in E minor” from the two Yuletide Pieces (1920), and—especially—the three Etudes (1920), reveal the basic essence of the Hanson aesthetic.

The title Etudes is somewhat misleading, as the pieces are not technical exercises along the lines elaborated by Chopin, Liszt, or Scriabin. Rather the title might be taken to indicate studies in mood and emotion, almost like miniature tone poems. More complex in texture and expression and averaging about four minutes apiece in duration, the three pieces begin to approach the language of the “Nordic” Symphony, and are characteristic and rewarding enough to warrant more widespread familiarity and exposure.

Hanson composed For the First Time in 1962, to suggest a young child’s impressions of a day filled with new experiences. Although it illustrates the cooler, drier style of the composer’s later works, it is of unusually trifling aesthetic import, its sparse textures and paucity of substance calling one’s attention to the richness and vividness of his orchestral imagination. Transcribed for piano solo, it makes for pretty meager listening.

The tiny fragment called Enchantment is merely a simple statement of the main theme of the scherzo from Hanson’s Third Symphony. Slumber Song is a rather mawkish melody suggestive of an Italian barcarolle. The notes state that it is undated, which diminishes interest considerably: as the product of an 8-year-old it would be impressive; from a 15-year-old, much less so.

Despite the variable quality of its contents, the presence of the Piano Sonata and the Etudes makes this release indispensable to the Hanson specialist. We are indebted to pianist Thomas Labé for bringing these pieces to light, and for representing them with uncompromised technique and sympathetic musicianship.