by Walter Simmons
HANSON: Lux Aeterna. Dies Natalis. The Mystic Trumpeter. Lumen in Christo. Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra; James Earl Jones, narrator. DELOS DE-3160 [DDD]; 69:17. Produced by Amelia Haygood.
HANSON: Concerto da Camera. Yuletide Pieces. Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings. Psalm 8, “How Excellent Thy Name”. Psalm 150, “Praise Ye the Lord”. Psalm 121, “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes”. A Prayer of the Middle Ages. Nymphs and Satyr. Brian Preston, piano; Meliora Quartet. David Fetler conducting the Rochester Chamber Orchestra; David Craighead, organ; Eileen Malone, harps. Roberts Weslevan College Chorales; Barbara Harbach, organ. ALBANY TROY-129 (DDD/ADD]; 69:08. Produced by John Gladney Proffitt.
HANSON: Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”). COPLAND: Billy the Kid: Excerpts. Rodeo: Hoe-Down. GRIFFES: The White Peacock. The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan. GOULD: Tropical. Charles Gerhardt conducting the RCA Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonic Pops Orchestra. CHESKY CD-112 [ADD]; 62:15. Produced by Charles Gerhardt.
Howard Hanson was a composer of some endearing and lovable music, despite uneven inspiration and limited craftsmanship. His finest, most fully realized works are his symphonies (and not all seven, either) and his 1933 operatic masterpiece, Merry Mount. His many remaining works must be regarded as peripheral to these, and one’s appetite for them will depend on one’s ability and willingness to tolerate certain excesses in taste and lapses in workmanship in order to enjoy the transitory sensory delights of sonority, texture, gesture, and the rich, throbbing melodies that are his most distinctive contribution. Preceding a chronological discussion of the music, here is a consumer-oriented overview of the three discs themselves.
The new Delos release brings to light a number of substantial works that are very rarely heard, and in fine, sympathetic, committed performances, well recorded. These selections fill out the picture of Hanson’s less-well-documented post-Eastman retirement years, while including a little-known pre-Eastman work as well. However, none of these compositions is an undiscovered masterpiece, on a par with the mainstream works of Hanson’s middle years.
The Albany disc reissues performances from a CD on the now-defunct Bay Cities label (see Fanfare 13:2, pp. 228-31), which originally appeared on a Spectrum LP in 1986. That material is augmented by four short choral works, most of which have not appeared on recording before (Psalm 150 was recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), as far as I know. Hanson enthusiasts who do not have the Bay Cities disc will want this one, as it further documents the pre- and post-Eastman years, although I must warn those who do have the Bay Cities disc that the four additional choral pieces are nothing to get excited about.
The Chesky disc reissues material originally recorded in London during the 1960s and released in a number of different packagings over the years. Included is arguably the best ever recorded performance of the “Romantic” Symphony, handling the work’s intentions and excesses, strengths and weaknesses with complete and sympathetic understanding. (And a small cut – -or was it an editing error? — heard on the Quintessence LP, just before the end of the work, has been restored.) On the other hand, Schwarz/Seattle (Delos D/CD-3073; also reviewed in 13:2) offers a lusher, richer sonic ambience, compared with a certain edginess on the Chesky.
The earliest Hanson piece here is the Concerto da Camera for piano and string quartet, composed in 1917, the year after the composer’s graduation from Northwestern University, and seven years before he assumed directorship of the Eastman School of Music. The fifteen-minute, single-movement work inhabits a French-flavored hyperchromatic late Romanticism, highlighted by a certain Grieg-like melodic simplicity. A key melodic element is the “Theme of Youth” upon which Hanson built his Fantasy Variations some thirty-five years later. It is a luscious work, superbly played, that should appeal to those who enjoy the chamber music of, say, Faure and Saint-Satins, although it displays hardly a suggestion of the mature Hanson style.
The two Yuletide Pieces from 1920 are each a couple of minutes long and are easy to dismiss as trifles. But the “Impromptu in E Minor” should not be overlooked. It is a passionate, ultra-romantic character piece of intermediate difficulty in execution that really ought to be better known. as it would bring pleasure to thousands of pianists, as well as listeners. I guarantee — test your friends: No one will ever guess the composer.
The Delos disc introduces Lux Aeterna, a seventeen-minute tone poem composed in 1923 while Hanson was in Rome, where he was studying with Respighi. Although it was completed the year after the “Nordic” Symphony, it does not reveal the distinctive Hanson voice as clearly as the symphony does, nor does it share the “Nordic’s” coherence of phraseology. Featuring viola obbligato, the work is essentially a sequence of lush, fervent, and colorful episodes strung together rather ineptly, with no concession to classical formalities.
The “Romantic” Symphony and the organ concerto are really the only works featured here that represent Hanson’s essential mainstream style. I have noted frequently in the past that although the “Romantic’ Symphony is his most popular work and may be one of his most representative ones, it is also representative of his most flagrant weaknesses — lack of organic development, episodic structure, overuse of ostinatopatterns chief among them. However, this doesn’t seem to bother anyone, aside from those who don’t find much value in Hanson’s more finely tailored works either. All these same points hold for the organ concerto as well, originally composed in 1926, but revised for smaller orchestra in 1941: a formal disaster, but brimful of sumptuous textures and warm. exuberant emotions, performed beautifully on this recording. See opening paragraph.
This brings us to the later pieces — all except Psalm 8 composed after Hanson’s retirement from Eastman in 1964. Hanson was notoriously enthralled by his own music (not a universal phenomenon among composers) and frequently indulged a penchant: for self-quotation, especially in his later works. (I don’t know how many times he returned to the particular motif that introduces “the theme” (actually, the secondary theme of the first movement) from the “Romantic” Symphony.) He was also known to have been what might most charitably be called a Christian chauvinist, a trait of character reflected in his religious works — which are not terribly inspiring musically — as a tendency toward sanctimonious piety. Though some of these works have their redeeming moments, I do hope that Gerard Schwarz is not planning to record a Bicentennial commission called New Land, New Covenant, an evening-length bomb suitable for the Dan Quayle/Pat Buchanan crowd.
Now. as for the four short choral works on the Albany disc — three psalm settings and A Prayer of the Middle Ages: very bland, benign stuff, verging on the routine. despite a heartfelt moment or two. The baritone soloist in Psalm 121 is unfortunate.
The Lutheran chorale tradition is one of the chief underlying elements in Hanson’s stylistic profile. and comes to the fore in Dies Natalis, a set of variations on a chorale theme. composed in 1967. The theme itself is a typically Hansonian motif that also appears not only in Lux Aeterna but as
opening motif of Merry Mount. One of his stronger late works, Dies Natalis exists in two versions, one forr orchestra and one for band. A fine performance of the band version, featuring the Eastman Wind Ensemble, has been available since the early days of the CD (Centaur CRC-2014). However, the orchestral version is superior, as the Delos recording demonstrates, because the melody that precedes and underlies the presentation of the chorale theme at the beginning and end of the
work — and is its most memorable element — simply requires the richness of the string sonority to make its full impact.
With Hanson’s music — the later works especially — so oriented around sonority and gesture, the quality of the performance — and of the recording as well — can make the difference between aimless and repetitive pattern-noodling and stirring epiphanies of exultation. Thus, despite an absence of true musical substance, Hanson*s 1969 setting for speaker, chorus, and orchestra of Whitman’s The Mystic Trumpeter makes a splendid impact in Schwarz’s stunning performance, which features James Earl Jones’s fiery declamation of those verses not given over to the chorus. Again there are self-quotations: from the Sixth Symphony in the passage concerning love. and from Chorale and Alleluia toward the beginning of the “culminating song.” But Whitman’s conceit of a ghostly trumpeter who guides the poet through glimpses of the various facets of life provides Hanson with an opportunity to suggest a rapidly shifting series of moods and images. which he accomplishes with great vividness and color.
Lumen in Christo was composed in 1974 for women’s voices and orchestra. Drawing its text from a number of biblical references to light and containing explicit but well-integrated quotations from both Haydn and Handel. this ambitious work is probably the strongest fruit of Hanson’s final decade. Its strikingly arresting opening is followed by a setting of “in the beginning” that sounds like a Gentile’s answer to the first movement of the Chichester Psalms. The second half proceeds with a slow progression of simple musical ideas that could easily sound vacuous. but in Schwarz’s radiant performance evokes a lovely, ethereal serenity.
Returning to the Albany disc. the thirteen-minute ballet suite Nymphs and Satyr is Hanson’s last completed work and. as such. bears some significance, although it is quite flimsy in substance. The lengthy opening section features the warmly undulating waves of which Hanson grew so fond in his later years. A brief central scherzo is based on what I could describe as a bucolic Swiss flavored mountain tune that Hanson originally wrote to sing to his dog. 1 wish he had used something else. The final section returns to the ingratiating spirit of the opening. leaving us with a gentle valediction. The performance is by the Rochester Chamber Orchestra under the direction of David Fetler. who gave the premiere, in the composer’s presence, shortly before his death. Their reading is sympathetic, but a little rough and scrawny, and the solo clarinet, whose role is important, has some problems.
Hanson’s music is now very well represented on disc. Only a few works of significance are missing. One is the Cherubic Hymn — perhaps Hanson’s finest choral work — and another is Pan and the Priest, an early tone poem somewhat more compelling than Lux Aeterna. Frankly. I am surprised that Schwarz has overlooked them in his survey, in favor of some really inferior pieces. What is really needed to complete the picture is the first full recording of Merry Mount, which, after all, created quite a sensation when it was premiered by the Metropolitan Opera in 1934 with Lawrence Tibbett in the leading role.
Griffes’s two tone poems — each originally written for piano — are appealing and evocative examples of the sort of highly perfumed and exotic impressionism that was current during the 1910s. Yet Griffes’s music exhibits a cool detachment that distinguishes it from the feverishness of much of this genre. Coincidentally, Griffe’s scoring of these works resembles Hanson’s own highly distinctive approach to orchestration, with an airy translucence derived in part from treating the woodwinds and brasses as independent sections, rather than as reinforcements of the strings. Note that Billy the Kid is represented by five excerpts that add up to only about ten minutes. Morton Gould’s Tropical is a three-minute trifle that can easily be dismissed without comment. However, it really does warrant a few words. Composed during the Great Depression, at a time when Gould was building a national reputation as a composer-conductor-arranger of light classics on radio, this little piece of unmitigated kitsch recalls an era in American musical demography that has totally ceased to exist. 1 would suspect that listeners under the age of forty-five will be mystified by it,. while older listeners will experience a dim nostalgia.
These performances, however, are fantastic. I have never heard the Griffes pieces sound so intense and exciting, and the Copland excerpts are electrifying — perhaps even too much so at times. For the past twenty years or so English conductor and record producer Charles Gerhardt has made a great contribution. by approaching film scores as if they were meant to be art. and contemporary classics as if they were meant to be fun. In the process, he has bridged the gap between “popular” and “serious” genres to some extent, while building a constituency that appreciates both as the “serious fun” they are capable of being. This is epitomized by his performance of Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony.