HANSON Symphony No. 1, “Nordic”. Pan and the Priest. Merry Mount (Orchestral Suite). Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns

HANSON Symphony No. 1, “Nordic”. Pan and the Priest. Merry Mount (Orchestral Suite). Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns – Kenneth Schermerhorn (cond); Nashville SO – NAXOS 8.559072 (60:56)

Though Naxos’s American Classics series can be accused of pursuing a wildly unsystematic approach to repertoire, they have nevertheless come up with some real winners, among a huge crop of releases that also includes some worthy efforts compromised by performance quality or other factors, and a few inevitable losers. American music enthusiasts are especially grateful for such unsuspected treasures as the two violin concertos of Walter Piston, the flute music of Robert Muczynski, and the solo piano music of Howard Hanson. But for a series like this, which promises a comprehensive overview of a still-only-scantily-represented body of repertoire in fine performances on low-priced recordings, an important goal, it seems to me, is to present a basic introduction for less sophisticated listeners, as well as for those skeptics who assume that American music has little to offer those whose tastes have been formed around the European mainstream. Along with the popular vernacular hybrids of Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein, what is needed are abstract works of high quality in the most accessible 20th-century styles. The point would be to invite and reward the open-minded “general” listener willing to venture into such unfamiliar territory by providing convincing evidence that 20th-century American repertoire is comparable in quality and appeal to the accepted favorites of 20th-century European music. (I am restricting the claim to music of the 20th century because it is only valid for that time period.) Such a clearly planned presentation would presumably start a legitimate and valid process of discovery and assessment, which could lead to a meaningful conceptual restructuring of the 20th-century American concert repertoire.

The fact is that the Naxos series has been doing just this, although their scattershot approach makes it difficult for the intended listener to distinguish the most essential releases from some of the more peripheral or “specialty” items. From my perspective, there have been three essential releases for the listener described in the paragraph above. One is Marin Alsop’s traversal with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra of Samuel Barber’s two symphonies along with several shorter works (Naxos 8.559024; see Fanfare 24:2). Secondly, there is the release of Paul Creston’s Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, and 3, played by the National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine, under the direction of Theodore Kuchar (Naxos 8.559034; see Fanfare23:6). Though the Barber works cannot be considered “obscure” by any means, the Creston symphonies are quite unfamiliar to most listeners, as the profusion of excited commentary on the Internet indicates. The third indispensable release is the Hanson disc to be discussed here. These three recordings offer the firmest foundation on which the “standard-repertoire listener” might begin to develop a coherent appreciation of 20th-century American orchestral music. Indeed, others may disagree, but I would go so far as to assert that the Barber First is the essential American symphony of the 1930s, and the Creston Second the essential American symphony of the 1940s, while Hanson’s “Nordic” is the corresponding landmark for the 1920s—and one of the first American symphonies to present a strongly characterized personality of its own. (And if Hanson, Barber, and Creston are the best points of departure for such an appreciation, the next step is Vittorio Giannini [1903-1966]. His music is as accessible as Hanson’s, while displaying more comprehensive craftsmanship and a broader expressive range; it is also less idiosyncratic than Creston’s, though not as refined as Barber’s. A CD comprising Giannini’s Symphony No. 4, the orchestral suitefrom The Taming of the Shrew, and Psalm 130 for double-bass and orchestra would verify these assertions, while offering a representative introduction.)

To turn now to the Hanson disc at hand, the works included provide an ideal means of acquainting oneself with this composer—much more effective than the ubiquitous “Romantic” Symphony, which is a) truly over-represented in performances and recordings, and b) an inferior work, despite qualities that may be endearing and lovable to those already sympathetic to the composer. (No skeptic is likely to be convinced that Hanson is a truly important composer on the basis of the “Romantic” Symphony, although many might offer it as proof that he was a mediocre one.) But the “Nordic” Symphony, on the other hand, is one of the composer’s most natural and graceful works, one that proclaims without inhibition all the most distinctive elements of his ingratiating musical personality, as it pours forth a ceaseless flow of richly throbbing and pulsating melody. There are no dry spots in this symphony, no static or extraneous passages, and no stopping points, aside from movement divisions. Though he was still in his mid-20s when he completed it, he managed to avoid the structural awkwardness and mannerisms that weaken so many of his later works.

Likewise, the orchestral suite from Merry Mount, while serving as an appetizer for the opera that is probably his ultimate masterpiece, also offers some of the composer’s most characteristic music, presented in a suitable framework, without the structural expectations of a symphony. Comprising the solemn overture, the luscious love-music, and two thrilling dance episodes, the suite is probably Hanson’s most frequently performed work, after the “Romantic” Symphony.

In 1989 Bay Cities released student performances of both Pan and the Priestand the Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns, taken from a 1977 concert at the Interlochen Arts Academy. From a listener’s perspective, both pieces sounded terrible in these readings. It was apparent, however, that Pan and the Priest would be quite effective in a competent performance, while the Rhythmic Variations just seemed pallid and simplistic. It is a pleasure to report that in the professional renditions heard here, both pieces offer ample gratification, making this new release indispensable to the Hanson enthusiast, as well as to the novice listener. Pan and the Priest, a little-known tone poem from the mid-1920s, makes available a valuable and representative work from the composer’s early maturity. Though it suffers somewhat from the choppy, episodic formal articulation that mars so much of Hanson’s music, it is a varied, richly colored work, graced by some of his most endearing devices.

Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns is one of Hanson’s last works, composed in 1976, shortly before the completion of his Seventh Symphony. Though just a simple set of chorale variations, it is a far more attractive and more substantive 8-minute piece than the Interlochen performance led one to imagine, and is a welcome filler.

As is well known, Howard Hanson was an extraordinarily gifted conductor, and his recorded performances of his own works were long regarded as definitive (and probably contributed to the reluctance of other conductors to take up his music). However, the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra of the 1950s and early 60s, though a remarkable student ensemble, tended toward a sonority that at times sounded a little thin and shrill. And in retrospect, some of Hanson’s own performances were just a bit hasty. All in all, however, his inclinations were largely justified and generally presented his works in the most favorable light. Nevertheless, knowing a work from only one performance can fatigue one’s perspective on that work, while preventing a multidimensional impression from developing, rather like viewing a breathtaking panorama from only one spot and with only one eye. I have found over the years that a second and third interpretation of a work enhances my appreciation of it, although I may still decide that the first one is the most satisfactory. In fact, it may even make me appreciate that first interpretation more (this has actually happened on several occasions). In his fairly comprehensive survey of Hanson’s symphonies and other orchestral works on Delos, Gerard Schwarz hewed pretty closely to the composer’s own views, while luxuriating just a bit more in the implicit expansiveness of the music. Kenneth Schermerhorn, on the other hand, gives the impression of having built his interpretations from scratch. His readings of both the “Nordic” Symphony and the Merry Mount Suite tend to underline musical events he finds significant, wringing every expressive drop from relatively minor details, rather the way many of today’s conductors approach the established European classics from the turn of the 20th century. These performances lack the vigor and incisiveness of the composer’s own renditions, while the Nashville Symphony cannot match the smooth coordination and polish of Schwarz’s Seattle Symphony. Nevertheless, though I suppose my preferred approach to these works would be a combination of Hanson’s vigor and incisiveness and Schwarz’s refinement, I respect the boldness of Schermerhorn’s attempt to develop an alternative interpretive concept, while drawing attention to details in a way that often enhances the work’s stature.

In conclusion, this new release is an excellent introduction to the music of one of America’s most individual and rewarding traditionalist composers—and priced so modestly that no one who is in the least curious need hesitate to take a chance.