Howard Hanson: Symphony No.2, "Romantic," Lux Aeterna, Mosaics
Seattle Symphony with conductor Gerard Schwarz
Naxos has re-released the late '80s/early '90s recordings by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony of the symphonies of American composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981). Esteemed during his lifetime as a composer, conductor, and educator, his music has been surprisingly under-recorded. Thus, these reissued CDs containing all seven symphonies and other choice orchestral and choral works are most welcome. The recording I've selected offers a new generation of admirers an excellent introduction to the music of this true American treasure.
Hanson, of Scandinavian heritage, imbued his music with a brooding melancholy typical of Jean Sibelius and other Nordic composers of the period. It also has a distinctly American sound, particularly in its rhythmic vitality and directness of its expression. Hanson himself, though, credited Gregorian chant and the music of Giovanni Palestrina as his biggest stylistic influences, which can be seen in his fascination with modes and the flow of his musical lines.
The convergence of these influences produced a rich, deeply felt, late Romantic style to which he remained true throughout his compositional life and for which he received due recognition - including the first American Prix de Rome for his tone poem Before the Dawn and the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 4 "Requiem."
The three works on this month's disc span a period of nearly 35 years in the composer's creative life, from the end of his three-year American Prix de Rome stay in Italy to well into his 40-year tenure as director of the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. The Symphony #2 "Romantic" (1930), deservedly his best known work, is the star of the show.
Hanson's three-movement symphony is a model of conciseness and directness of expression; not a gesture or phrase is out of place. The work's subtitle is expressed by heroic fanfares and flourishes that emerge from an ominous, oppressive atmosphere and alternate with themes of tender yearning in a seamless, flowing narrative. The clearly delineated themes lend a cinematic sweep to the piece, and the glow of the exultant finale leaves the listener basking in its warmth. The Seattle Symphony turns in a thrilling performance that conveys all the emotions Hanson sought to express in his music.
The other two works on the disc, Lux Aeterna (1923), which features an obbligato part for the viola, and Mosaics (1957), a theme and variations written for the Cleveland Orchestra, demonstrate Hanson's fascination with modes and Nordic-inspired intensity. The Seattleites pay convincing attention to detail in their performances of these dramatic but lesser-known compositions.--Mark