HANSON: Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 21 "Nordic."
Merry Mount Suite. Pan and the Priest, Op. 26 (Symphonic
Poem). Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns.
Between January 1988 and the middle of 1992, Gerard Schwarz recorded all seven of Hanson's symphonies and a good deal more for Delos with the Seattle and New York Chamber Symphonies. Most of this repertory has been repackaged since its original release on midprice CDs, and still sounds as committed and sonorous as ever. Both orchestras are notable, and John Eargle's engineering has been praised transatlantically. Now Naxos has embarked on a Hanson overview in its "American Classics" series with Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony, powerfully recorded in Andrew Jackson Hall, their handsome, wood-paneled home since the parent Tennessee Performing Arts Center opened 20 years ago.
Schermerhorn came to national attention as conductor of the American Ballet Theatre from 1952 to 1963 (a post he resumed in 1982-84), then the New Jersey Symphony (1963-68), and after that the Milwaukee Symphony until the spring of 1980. He was also principal conductor in Hong Kong, but since 1983 has been Nashville's maestro. Walter Sharp (the husband of Maxwell House Coffee's sole heiress) founded the orchestra in 1946; William Strickland and Guy Taylor were his conductors in early years. Willis Page and Harry Newsome followed. Not, however, until Thor Johnson came to Grand Ole Opry-land (aka "The Athens of the South") in 1967 did Nashville flourish in performance stature as well as prestige. After TJ's death in 1975, Michael Charry was recruited from Cleveland, then Schermerhorn. While the Nashville Symphony doesn't challenge Atlanta's leadership in the American southeast, it is an estimable ensemble among upper third-tier American orchestras, and will play in Carnegie Hall during the 2000-01 season.
What it conspicuously lacks is string power, violins in particular---no small disadvantage in Hanson's orotund sonorities. Seattle performances, based on comparisons of the "Nordic" Symphony and Merry Mount Suite, sound weightier -- more "symphonic" if you will. Schermerhorn, on the other hand, is a born ballet conductor whose rhythmic vivacity is a decided asset, even if his tempi in the symphony are notably slower than Schwarz's. Hanson needs weight of utterance, however, not more rhetoric -- his music was already filmic, if you will, a decade before movies had soundtracks. Serge Koussevitzky became a voluble champion of the First Symphony among other Hanson works, many of which the composer recorded with his Eastman-Rochester School of Music orchestra in the heyday of Mercury "Living Presence." Yet these always sounded shrill to me, perhaps because they were so dry acoustically, which no one can say of the Seattle series, or the new one from Nashville.
Schermerhorn is most persuasive in the suite from Merry Mount, Hanson's Puritan opera, especially the Love-Duet slow movement, and in the late-period Rhythmic Variations on Two Ancient Hymns. This recording of the 1925-26 tone poem, Pan and the Priest, a blood relative of the "Nordic" Symphony despite its remote locale, is a first, I believe-in any case not in Schwarz's Delos discography. If you're turned on by Hanson's music and already have the Schwarz oeuvre, there's no need to replace it. If, however, you want to investigate the composer's music, apart from the popular Second Symphony, without investing in a four-CD set, Schermerhorn and his enthusiastic "Vols" offer a viable alternative at Naxos' budget price.
R.D. (JULY 2000)