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

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 expression.

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)