HANSON: Organ Concerto (1926). Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite (1979). Fantasy
Variations on a Theme of Youth (1951). Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings
(1945). Summer Seascape No. 2 for Viola and Strings (1965). Pastorale for
Oboe, Harp, and Strings (1948-49).
Joseph Jackson (organ); Doris Hall-Gulati (clarinet); Holly Blake (bassoon);
Gabriela Imreh (piano); Andrew Bolotowsky (flute); Adriana Linares (viola);
Jonathan Blumenfeld (oboe); Jacqueline Pollauf (harp); Philadelphia Virtuosi
Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Spalding, cond.
Naxos 8.559251 (B) (DDD) TT: 61:28
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Howard Hanson's music has, I think, begun to flicker back to some sort
of life since the Eighties, after about a quarter-century of neglect. At
one time, Hanson, probably one of the most influential figures in American
music, headed the Eastman School, ran a major festival of contemporary
American music, and devised (with Sessions and Thompson) the doctoral program
in composition still largely in use. Major organizations commissioned him
(including the New York Philharmonic and the Met). He trained generations
of American composers. Yet his music -- masterfully written and often beautiful
-- never caused the major ripples among other composers as Gershwin's Rhapsody
in Blue, Thomson's Filling Station, Copland's Piano Variations and Billy
the Kid, or Harris's Third Symphony. It stood apart from that of other
good American composers. Walter Simmons included a chapter on Hanson in
his book-length study of American neo-Romantics, Voices in the Wilderness, and the title describes Hanson with particular point. Although one hears
the influence of Sibelius, Hanson sounds like nobody but himself, instantly
recognizable within a few measures, sometimes even within a few notes.
It's as if Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Debussy, and
Hindemith -- the Big Six of Modern Music -- don't exist.
For some, Hanson became a standard-bearer for a particular vision of what
music should be: accessible, expressing "feelings" ("… nothing
more than" [slight pause] "feelings"), and above all tonal.
However, we should remember that accessibility runs in two directions,
as much a matter of the audience and the effort it's willing to spend as
of the composer, and that almost all music expresses emotion. Further damaging
this use of Hanson is the lack of the breakthrough piece. Some effort was
made -- and perhaps Hanson himself felt this way -- to turn the Symphony
No. 2 into a kind of manifesto, but the score itself simply won't support
it. It's pleasant enough, but by no means the best Hanson offers. Finally,
the particular war Hanson's supporters still fight ended at least a quarter-century
ago, with no clear, or even possible winner, much like the big Brahmin-Wagnerite
fight of the Nineteenth Century (which, among other things, tried to determine
the true heir to Beethoven). At this point, nobody should really care.
Manifestos very quickly lose their point, except as historical curiosities.
We are left with particular works of art and the difficult task of understanding
and, in many cases, loving them.
Hanson, like Sibelius, straddles the line between Romanticism and Modernism,
in that he writes Romantic music that probably couldn't have been written
before 1912. The harmonies piquantly mix chromaticism, modality, and "made-up" scales.
Furthermore, the rhetoric tends to change as Hanson proceeds: from fairly
straightforward Romantic nationalist symphonic procedures (in works like
the first two symphonies, "Nordic" and "Romantic")
to constructivist methods in the late Sixth Symphony and The Young
Composer's Guide to the Six-Tone Scale. Hanson had a solid reputation as a symphonist
up until the musical insurrections of the Fifties, but I must confess I
find his symphonies -- excepting the wonderful Sixth -- the least interesting
part of his output. One also finds pieces, like the tubby "Sea Symphony" (number
seven?) or The Mystic Trumpeter, in which he seems to fall back on routine.
Still, even bad Hanson sounds like Hanson. The routine is his own, at least.
The organ concerto counts as one of Hanson's early bests, written shortly
after the magnificent Lament for Beowulf. The work began with a version
for organ and full orchestra. Hanson realized almost immediately, however,
that just about the only place you find an organ is in a church and that
church space and budget are limited. Ever practical, Hanson pruned the
accompaniment to strings and harp. I haven't heard the original, but the
revision works beautifully. In fact, it's hard to see how the organ could
cut through a full orchestra, if one considers the sumptuousness of the
writing. The piece, like a lot of Hanson, runs to one large movement, broken
into four major sections -- slow-scherzo-slow-finale -- with the finale
a recapitulation of opening material and a brief coda based on the fast
scherzo. The concerto begins with one of Hanson's musical fingerprints:
rising modal scale fragments, in this case caught between Phrygian (E to
E' scale on the white keys of the piano) and Dorian (D to D' on the white
keys). This leads to a fast section over a pulsing ostinato -- again, another
of the composer's favorite devices. In a way, it reminds me of Barber's
Essay No. 1, but Hanson has gotten there first by about a decade. A mighty
cadenza, featuring some fancy pedal-work and based mainly on the fast material,
bridges to the recap. One hears a considerable symphonic talent, a composer
with the gift of taking you across a vast span, who doesn't resort to standard
symphonic structures and who sticks to a limited number of basic ideas
(just two or three) to generate the music. The architecture, while interesting,
is nevertheless a bit beside the point: sweeping, dramatic expression.
Hanson aims at moving listeners, mainly through a highly individual application
of traditional means, rather than impressing them. The technique serves
In Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth, Hanson recycles an idea from
his Concerto da Camera of thirty years before. The earlier work really
sounds like a student wrote it. It's thick in scoring and moves clumsily.
Young Hanson makes the elementary mistake of confusing the number of musical
lines with power, a mistake he quickly got over. The Fantasy Variations improves on the Concerto da Camera in just about every way. Again, the
form is unusual in that it's not a set of distinct variations. Instead,
the theme of youth gets taken on a scenic trip. So it's a combination of
both variations and fantasia, with the emphasis on the latter. Hanson takes
that theme and two other very powerful ideas (one fast, one really little
more than a cadence and yet another upward scalar run) and weaves one of
his tightest works. But, again, the considerable compositional technique
becomes de trop. The piece, above all, moves, both from one high point
to the next as well as the listener's psyche. From the opening bars, it
strikes a deep note within you. The muddle of the Concerto da Camera becomes
mature eloquence, with a sense of elegy -- Wordsworth's "emotions
recollected" (mostly) "in tranquility."
I always tie together the Serenade and the Pastorale, two brief yet intense
gems from the mid- to late Forties. Hanson wrote the Serenade as a courtship
present to his future wife, Peggy. A propos of nothing, I always fantasized
I would write an effective seduction piece, but I suspect that Hanson's
motives were purer than mine. It begins in Oriental languor with a pentatonic
idea (playable entirely on the black keys of the piano). The opening not
only ravishes the ear but is a virtuoso display of counterpoint, so beautiful
that it took me decades to realize exactly how astonishing it is. The composer
also plays with two more themes. One sings; the other dances. The song
first appears as a kind of pendant to the Orientalia and gradually assumes
more importance -- and more ardor -- as the Serenade proceeds. The dance
animates and shuttles the work along. It's surprising how often this dichotomy
appears in Hanson's music. Indeed, it's part of every work discussed so
far. All these themes combine with one another in various permutations
and characters. I also want to emphasize how much Hanson gets out of essentially
chamber forces. Everything on the program requires something far less than
a symphony orchestra -- usually just solo instrument and strings, with
or without harp -- and yet you don't feel short-changed or "pared
down." The Serenade strongly reminds me of Griffes's Poem for Flute
and Orchestra, a score Hanson loved to conduct, and it ends, I think, with
a subtle audacity on a very simple, very real dissonance between the solo
flute and the strings. This imparts a sense of uncertainty to the entire
work. We don't end on a simplistic Cloud Nine.
The Pastorale, dedicated to the composer's Peggy (by then his wife), features
the solo oboe, the instrumental icon for pastoral. The musical materials
are more complex than in the Serenade and the mood darker, mainly a kind
of Oriental funk. It reminds me of the Song of Songs: "Stay me with
flagons … for I am sick of love." I wouldn't read too much biography
into this. The harp functions differently here than in the Serenade. In
the earlier score, it works mostly rhythmically, giving the music a nudge.
Here, it almost always increases the lushness of the accompaniment. We
get almost to the end for the mood to briefly change to something more
animated. Apparently, the shepherd has roused himself. Still, the energy
flares and flickers. The dark mood returns momentarily, but the piece manages
to end serenely.
The Summer Seascape takes on some of the musical complexity of the Pastorale.
It has the feel of a more "constructed" piece as well. That is,
its structural manipulations come more to the fore than in much of Hanson.
In many ways, it foreshadows the Sixth Symphony, the symphony least typical
of the composer's set. Much of it elaborates a three-note group -- C-G-A
(not G-G-A, as printed in the liner notes). However, of the rhetoric is
much the same as what we've seen so far: slow, in this case dreaming, opening,
agitated middle, and return to slow again. I admit it's not as tuneful
as the Serenade or any of the other pieces on the program, but it more
than repays attention. Furthermore, Hanson doesn't forsake his primary
aim, simply because he has shifted his normal emphasis. Now, although he
wants you to look under the hood, he also wants you to feel what he felt,
looking at the sea around his Maine summer home. As the title suggests,
it's less a tone poem than a picture, something to be taken in altogether
rather than an unfolding of events.
I've left the late ballet, Nymphs and Satyr, for last, since I feel it
came from Hanson's second drawer. Hanson conceived it as a ballet, but
Hanson's music doesn't strike me as something that dancers would want to
move to. Despite the dancing passages throughout his work, the power of
his music derives from song, rather than -- in the case of Stravinsky,
for example -- from dance. Furthermore, the "plot" supplied by
the composer is pretty bland, essentially the same as Debussy's Prelude
to the Afternoon of a Faun. The difference between the two damns the Hanson,
unfortunately. Debussy involves you, takes you over. The Hanson, often
quite pleasantly, just goes by. My favorite movement, the scherzo, sings
a slightly loopy Swiss-yodel tune, like the one in Walton's Façade.
Significantly, it began not as a dance but as a song, one that Hanson made
up to sing to his dog Molly while he fed her biscuits. Again, it doesn't
give a dancer much opportunity.
The CD duplicates some of the Albany CD TROY129: the organ concerto and
Nymphs and Satyr. In both cases, I prefer the Albany performances -- better
execution, more impact. I disagree somewhat with other reviewers, better
disposed to the Naxos players. I object mainly to the Philadelphia Virtuosi
Chamber Orchestra violins, which seem scratchy and slightly sharp. Their
rhythm could improve as well. No such reserve about almost all the soloists.
I except flutist Andrew Bolotowsky in the Serenade, who flats a surprising
part of the time. Still, Spalding manages to keep things together, and
this CD conveniently bundles like pieces, as well as the Seascape, as far
as I know unavailable anywhere else. How does Naxos do it? The label has
issued one of the most complete series of recorded American music from
the LP era on. It hits all parts of the spectrum -- masterpieces to throwaways,
famous to obscure, mossback to space alien. And this is just one Naxos
series of American music. I assume the label makes money. Why don't others?
S.G.S. (December 2006)