Classical Reissue Reviews

HANSON: Organ Concerto & other works – Soloists/Philadelphia Virtuosi/Daniel Spalding – Naxos

Intimate and idyllic pieces from “a natural American Romantic” composer, eager to express his sentiments in unabashedly conventional melodic terms.

Published on December 26, 2011

HANSON: Organ Concerto & other works – Soloists/Philadelphia Virtuosi/Daniel Spalding – Naxos

HOWARD HANSON: Organ Concerto, Op. 22, No. 3; Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite; Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth for Piano and Strings; Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings, Op. 35; Summer Seascape No. 2 for Viola and Strings; Pastorale for Oboe, Harp, and Strings, Op. 39 – 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 – Naxos 8.559251, 61:28 ****:

This one-hour tribute to the lyrical string writing of composer Howard Hanson was completed in two days by Delos Records, 14-15 March 2005, at the First Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA.  That Hanson embraced “a euphonious vehicle for untrammeled emotional expression” (Walter Simmons) should endear Hanson to lovers of American music unafraid of the romantic tradition and the lulling power of melody. The program opens with Hanson’s 1926 arrangement of his originally large-scale Organ Concerto of 1923, toned down to smaller forces and here performed on the sonorous Reuter Organ uniquely suited to the First Presbyterian Church.  In one unbroken movement, the music strikes at once with its eerie opening, with strings and harp, a combination Hanson favors.  The organ plies two main themes in a style often reminiscent of Franck. The dancing, ostinato second section leads to an intertwining of themes and then a potent cadenza for organ pedals alone. The opening music returns rather cyclically, and the coda takes us to a rarified apotheosis.

Nymphs and Satyr (1979) for chamber orchestra represents the last major composition by Hanson, a ballet commissioned by the Chautauqua Institute. A horn fanfare takes us into music actually composed earlier, various instrumental combinations for clarinet and bassoon. The suite falls into four sections: Prelude, Fantasy, Scherzo, and Epilog. The music evokes a Swiss mountain air, especially in the Scherzo section. The writing often takes its cue from Sibelius, a tendency noted insofar as both composes share a Nordic sensibility. Hanson wrote a poetic scenario for the ballet, a kind of American version of Mallarme, a hymn to happiness and the energies of life. Holly Blake’s bassoon makes a splendid case for the fluidity and lyricism of this versatile instrument. The Epilog embraces a bright aerial transparency, Valhalla without the egoism.

Commissioned by Hanson’s alma mater Northwestern University, the Fantasy Variations for Piano and Strings on a Theme of Youth (1951) reworks the earlier Concerto da Camera in C Minor for Piano and String Quartet from 1917. A brooding theme and four variations, the music embraces harmonies we might attribute to Copland of Appalachian Spring. After two alternately dark and aggressive variants, the third becomes meditatively lyrical, a nocturne of haunted power, especially as played by gifted Romanian pianist Gabriela Imreh, who has already had some successful moments for EMI. Furious energy animates the last variant, a dialogue with demanding staccati in the keyboard part. The coda enters quietly, moving to that idyll that Hanson favors for musical sunsets.

The 1945 Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings, Op. 35 had its first glorious inscription from Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. Hanson composed the piece as a courtship gift for Margaret Elizabeth Nelson, whom he married in 1946. The piece might be taken as a lofty combination of elements in Debussy and Mozart, especially the latter’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. The exoticism in the five-minute work certainly nods to Debussy. The Serenade was commissioned by Rochester radio station WHAM for their Treasures in Music program, and a treasure is what they received.

The haunting Summer Seascape No. 2 (1965) for viola and strings is dedicated to the memory of Edwin Hughes, a pianist and editor of piano repertory for publisher G. Schirmer. The viola presents a three-note motto: G-G-A, and this idee fixe permeates the development of the eight-minute work. The tone of the combination might look to Vaughan Williams, especially his Flos Campi. The seascape proper refers to Bold Island, Maine, where Hanson spent several summers. His own Symphony No. 6 (1967) exploits many of the same musical materials as this relatively obscure piece; and both utilize the three-note cell to express diverse moods and energetic possibilities.

The Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings (1949) bears another dedication to the composer’s wife. Jonathan Blumenfeld, oboe, captures the relatively somber mood of the piece, with its occasionally sweeping or throbbing string accompaniment. Conductor Spalding evokes some warm sentiments from this reserved composition, the responsive of the Philadelphia Virtuosi’s having been apparent from the outset of the entire disc. These are sympathetic, expressive readings of a natural American Romantic.

—Gary Lemco

 




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