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Review by David Lewis

Recording hasn't been unkind to the legacy of Howard Hanson, and his own recordings as conductor of other composers' music continues to stay in print and to thrive. However, when it comes to Hanson's own work, recording has not been exceptionally generous as it has to some of his contemporaries (for example, Copland or George Gershwin); the vast majority of recordings devoted to Hanson concentrate on one work, his Symphony No. 2, "Romantic," Op. 30. With Naxos American Classics' Howard Hanson: Organ Concerto we finally encounter an all-Hanson collection that affords some depth to his orchestral oeuvre, and these pieces are all exceptionally fantastic offerings, to boot.

This selection features Hanson's early Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings, Op. 22/3 (1926), his Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings Op. 35 (1945), the Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth for Piano and Strings (1951), and his Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings (1948-1949) and the obscure Summer Seascape No. 2 for Viola and Strings (1965). Although scored in a concerted vein, all of these works are cast in an episodic, single-movement format, and all but the Organ Concerto run less than 12 minutes in length. Rather than pressing Hanson's own one-time orchestra, the Eastman-Rochester Pops Orchestra, into the service of these unfamiliar works, Naxos located a superb foil in the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Spalding. There is an excellent lineup of soloists involved as well, including Spalding's betrothed Gabriela Imreh in the Fantasy Variations and exciting young violist Adriana Linares in the Serenade. The only multi-movement work presented is the very late Hanson composition Nymph and Satyr Ballet Suite (1979) that features Doris Hall-Gulati in a superb solo part for the clarinet.

Hanson's music is multi-faceted and rich with resplendent beauty; the oft-repeated observation he never departed from his "unashamedly romantic idiom" limits one's perception as to how much variety there is in Hanson. There are textures in the Nymph and Satyr Ballet Suite that bring to mind Philip Glass, although in 1979 it's hard to say whether one was aware of what the other was doing musically. The Organ Concerto is the total opposite of, say, that by Poulenc, as the organ builds into the orchestral texture and matches it, rather than standing apart from it. All of the other pieces speak very eloquently for themselves and are certainly easy to listen to, even for the first time. Naxos American Classics' Howard Hanson: Organ Concerto makes clear that Hanson didn't hang onto his romantic musical vocabulary because he was a conservative ? Hanson did so as he knew what combination of his "13 herbs and spices" made the chicken taste right and didn't want anything else to spoil the recipe. Naxos' recording is warm, up-close, and the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra sounds like a bigger band than it is, which is the mark of any great chamber orchestra

 

Compact Classics: Boulez does justice to 'Resurrection'
By ROBERT BAXTER
Courier-Post Staff

Pierre Boulez's recorded journey through the symphonies of Gustav Mahler brings him to the epic Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection" (Deutsche Grammophon B 0006684-02 ). This 80-minute work opens with a long funeral march and closes as the celestial choirs celebrate the resurrection of the dead.
Boulez is one of the great musical tacticians. Marshalling the Vienna Philharmonic, the Vienna Singverein and soloists Christine Schaefer and Michelle DeYoung, the French maestro unfolds Mahler's mighty symphony in gleaming arcs of carefully modulated sound. Boulez does not unleash the raw power of his musical forces. Instead he molds a seamless performance filled with nuance and careful shading.
The maestro exploits the dramatic contrasts as he works his way to a carefully calculated climax in the final movement. DeYoung's voice quavers a bit in her sustained utterances, but this is a minor flaw in a powerful performance caught in radiant sound by DG's engineers.
Howard Hanson never succumbed to musical fads. Throughout his long career, the American composer remained an old-fashioned romantic who loved a big melody enfolded in rich orchestral sonorities.
Naxos provides a survey of Hanson's music, from the Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings composed in 1926 to the Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite, the last piece Hanson composed before his death in 1981 (8.559251 ).
The sumptuous organ concerto unfolds in a single movement filled with shifting moods. Organist Joseph Jackson joins Daniel Spalding and the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra in a performance notable for its vivid sound. The ballet suite pulses with bright melodies and shimmering sonorities in this fine performance. Pianist Gabriela Imreh joins Spalding and his chamber orchestra for a loving account of Hanson's Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth for Piano and Strings. Rounding out this fine release are brief works for flute, viola, oboe and harp.
The 12 cellists in the Berlin Philharmonic take listeners on a spiritual journey in their latest release for EMI Classics (3 57030 2). The trip commences with an arrangement of Astor Piazzolla's Angel Dances and ends some 70 minutes later with Markus Stockhausen's Miniatur, composed for the CD.
The cellists give a beguiling account of the score. They switch gears seamlessly in this varied but moving piece. Throughout the cellists play immaculately.
Jocelyn B. Smith's gospel singing adds a jarring note to Volker Schlott's "Let Us Praise Him." Her voice is more appealing in Schlott's orchestration of a Martin Luther chorale. A musical high comes in an eerie transcription of Debussy's The Sunken Cathedral. EMI wraps these performances up in firm, full digital sound. The climax is stunning.


A Composer Again Getting Some Respect, August 3, 2006
Classical music listeners have always loved the music of Howard Hanson, but after his halcyon period in the 30s and 40s he fell from favor and was almost entirely absent from concert programs except for occasional airings of his Second Symphony, the 'Romantic', probably the piece for which he is best known. But he wrote a lot of music that has languished unplayed and unheard for decades. This CD from Naxos does a little to remedy that with six works primarily for string ensemble and solo instruments (the exception is the 'Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite' which uses a chamber orchestra rather than strings alone).

The Organ Concerto has had a life of sorts, but it has rarely been played in its original form for organ and full symphony orchestra. It was recast for strings and organ and is occasionally trotted out primarily in church settings. It was written for musicians at Hanson's own Eastman School, where he was the director for decades, and premiered by organist Eastman's Harold Gleason and later played and recorded by an Eastman successor, David Craighead. In one movement it is in typical Hansonian fantasia format with a misterioso beginning and a livelier middle section leading to a development section of sorts making use of the first section's materials. It ends briskly after an exuberant virtuoso pedal cadenza. Organist Joseph Jackson, playing a fine new Reuter organ at Philadelphia's First Presbyterian Church, is given sensitive support by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Spalding.

The succeeding pieces are slight in comparison to the Organ Concerto, but nonetheless charming and interesting in turn. All are tuneful, romantic in tone, and expertly written. The slightest of these works is the 1979 'Nymphs and Satyr' suite which is the last thing Hanson wrote. It is rather thrown together, by my lights, by combining some scraps and independent pieces he'd written including a Fantasy for clarinet and chamber orchestra and a Scherzo for bassoon and chamber orchestra. Neither is particularly memorable -- well, that's not entirely true, the almost simple-minded changes wrung on a second inversion triad by the solo bassoon in the scherzo has a tenacity in the mind's ear that is just this side of irritating. The soloists, Doris Hall-Gulati, clarinet, and Holly Blake, bassoon, are excellent. 'Fantasy Variation on a Theme of Youth, for Piano and Strings' (1951) was commissioned by Northwestern University for their centenary. Hanson fittingly took a theme he'd written as a student there in 1917 and made this set of variations in which the piano is more an obbligato instrument than a concerto-like soloist. There are four variations that, while all based on the somber theme, differ remarkably from each other. Variation form in the guise of elaboration of themes was particularly congenial for Hanson, and this is an attractive if rather slight work.

'Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings' (1945) and 'Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings' (1948-49) were both written as presents for Hanson's wife -- he had not married Margaret Nelson until almost he was almost fifty, in 1946. The latter work was originally for oboe and piano but he orchestrated it in 1950 for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra; the legendary Marcel Tabuteau was the oboist. Each work is rhapsodic, almost impressionistic and yet Sibelian as well. Andrew Bolotowski, flute, and Jonathan Blumenfeld, oboe, are the fine soloists. Solo harpist in these two works as well as the organ concerto is Jacqueline Pollard.

A surprisingly effective work, if obscure (which simply means I'd never heard of it until I read about it in Walter Simmons's monumental book about six American neoromanticists 'Voices in the Wilderness'), is the 'Summer Seascape No. 2 for Viola and Strings' (1965). It is called 'No. 2' because the middle movement of Hanson's 'Bold Island Suite' is also called 'Summer Seascape' and started life as an independent piece. This is a starkly beautiful tone poem in which the plangent tones of the solo viola stand in contrast to the silken, yet sometimes pungent, string mass. It is not hard to picture the dramatic Maine seacoast when listening to this short work. The playing of violist Adriana Linares is meltingly beautiful.

This is a definite must for those who love the big romantic canvases of Hanson's music but who are not familiar with his works in smaller forms. Sound is exemplary.

Scott Morrison