HANSON: Symphony No. 5, “Sinfonia Sacra”; Symphony No. 7, “A Sea Symphony”; Mosaics; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.

HANSON: Symphony No. 5, “Sinfonia Sacra”; Symphony No. 7, “A Sea Symphony”; Mosaics; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Symphony Chorale; Carol Rosenberger, piano. DELOS — DE 3130 [DDD]; 67:51. Produced by Amelia S. Haygood.

With this fourth all-Hanson release, Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony conclude their traversal of the seven symphonies of this endearing — and, as it appears today, enduring — American composer. The performances offered here display the same warmth and fervent conviction as the earlier releases.

The reappraisal inevitably prompted by Schwarz’s recorded survey leads one to the conclusion that Howard Hanson was not a truly great composer — certainly not a great symphonist — but an enormously ingratiating one with a strong and distinctive personal style, even though this style shows the traces of such varied predecessors as Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, and Sibelius. One is also forced to conclude that only the First (“Nordic”) and possibly the Third are really satisfying symphonic statements. The others, while offering the sheer pleasure of wallowing in throbbing melodies, lush harmonies, energetic rhythms, and lavish orchestration, lack the sort of spontaneous and natural yet logical formal progression essential to the symphonic form.

The Symphony No. 5, “Sinfonia Sacra,” is Hanson’s shortest and most compact symphony. Its several dramatic episodes contained within one 15-minute movement, the work has the feel of a tone poem more than a symphony. Its emotional tone is stern and solemn, for the most part — very Sibelian — although it culminates in a tremendously exciting climax built of increasingly intensified, brilliantly orchestrated ostinati in the true Hanson manner. Schwarz leads a strong, convincingly shaped performance that is far more effective in evoking a sense of grandeur and monumentality than Hanson’s own rendition, recorded soon after the work’s premiere in 1955.

“A Sea Symphony” was Hanson’s Seventh, and his penultimate work, composed in 1977 when he was 81 years old. The work inevitably invites comparison with Vaughan Williams’ First Symphony, with which it even shares some of the same Whitman texts, but such a comparison is not flattering to the later work. Hanson uses the notion of venturing into the unknown as a metaphor for his own impending departure, but despite these profound concerns, the music itself is incredibly thin, its grandly rhetorical gestures unsupported by musical substance. A culminating reference to “the theme” from the “Romantic” Symphony is an unfortunate but characteristic bit of self-indulgence. A recording of the work’s premiere, featuring the World Youth Symphony Orchestra from the National Music Camp at Interlochen, has been around for some time, first as a privately issued LP, then as a Bay Cities CD. That student group lacked the polish and refinement necessary to give the work an appealing surface, with the result that its lack of substance was mercilessly obvious. Here the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale succeed in imbuing the sonority with a richness and solidity that helps to conceal the work’s structural weakness and to convey something of the fervent visionary quality for which Hanson obviously strived.

One of the virtues of Schwarz’s Hanson cycle is his presentation of the symphonies within the context of other works by the composer, thereby enhancing the listener’s perspective. Most welcome on this recording is Mosaics, a 12-minute work in a sort of variations form. Composed a couple o£ years after the Fifth Symphony, it is similar in style and tone, but tighter, neater, and more fluent, its episodic nature more natural and balanced. The work shows Hanson’s mature idiom at its best, and is also a marvelous example of his skill as an orchestrator, revealing a characteristic sound world that could be confused with no other composer’s.

Hanson’s 1948 Piano Concerto is a rather strange work — uncharacteristic as a piano concerto and uncharacteristic as a work of this composer. The piano functions more as a percussive-melodic orchestral voice — like the xylophone (a favorite Hanson sound) — than as a protagonist rivaling the orchestra. The work is in four movements, but its tone is rather consistent throughout — generally light and breezy, with little sense of conflict, although the slow movement does have some darker aspects. It is attractive enough, with its share of flashy, exciting moments and pretty, leisurely melodies, but it is remarkably flimsy and insubstantial — lukewarm in tone and simple in texture, with surprisingly little developmental fiber. Some commentators have noted a touch of jazz, but it is really only a trace, and very dilute. The performance offered here, featuring pianist Carol Rosenberger, is brisker, lighter, and more refined than Eugene List’s reading with the M.I.T. Symphony on a Pantheon CD. 

One assumes that this release concludes Gerard Schwarz’s investigation of the works of Howard Hanson — for the time being, at any rate. A good deal of music has been included, giving the interested listener what must be termed a representative survey. My chief quibble is the omission of a couple of very worthwhile pieces that would have filled out the picture: an early tone poem called Pan and the Priest and a moving choral work, The Cherubic Hymn. On the other hand, such pieces included by Schwarz as the Piano Concerto, the KoussevitzkyElegy, the Serenade, and the Pastorale add little to one’s knowledge, understanding, or pleasure. Nevertheless, both Schwarz and Delos are to be congratulated and thanked for providing such an in-depth exploration of the works of one of America’s most important pioneering musical figures.