Classical Reissue Reviews
HANSON: Symphony No. 1 “Nordic”; Lament for Beowulf – Seattle Sym. and Chorale/ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos
Published on December 8, 2011
HANSON: Symphony No. 1 in E Minor “Nordic”; The Lament for Beowulf – Seattle Symphony and Chorale/ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos 8.559700, 48:34 ****:
Howard Hanson (1896-1981) remained a self-proclaimed “romantic” in temperament, and the Finn Sibelius served as his guiding light, given Hanson‘s Swedish ancestry. The so-called “Nordic” Symphony (1922), composed in Rome under the guidance of Ottorino Respighi, despite its close proximity in time to WW I, takes its cue from the First Symphony of Sibelius, also in E Minor, and shares with it a strong urgency and sense of melancholy. Hanson utilized the cyclic form in his symphony he knew from Liszt, Franck, and Saint-Saens, especially the intimations of heroism that the latter’s “Organ” Symphony posits.
Schwarz elicits some mighty resonance from his Seattle players (rec. 10 September 1988-16, 18 February 1990 for Delos), fusing Hanson’s natural lyricism with its occasional, dark turbulence. The Seattle winds and brass collaborate rather intimately for the second movement, marked Andante teneramente, con semplicita. A bucolic fiord or Northern forest scene emerges, luxuriant and free from strife. The last movement sweeps us along with an energy Hanson might have gleaned from both Sibelius and Respighi’s more pompous symphonic poems. The Seattle battery section, along with blazing trumpets and swirling high woodwinds, offers a cyclone, Allegro con fuoco, that challenges the North Wind. A martial theme heavy with tympani invokes a touch of Mahler’s Nachtmusik I from his E Minor Symphony or the Op. 59 Funeral March of Sibelius. The last pages achieve the kind of sunny contrapuntal peroration we know from Sibelius, high-flown and distant as an Alpine height.
The 1925 Lament for Beowulf derives from a trip Hanson made to England, where he encountered a happy translation by William Morris and A.J. Wyatt of the epic Beowulf (c. 700 A.D.). The Scottish hills helped provide the ambiance Hanson required to impart the “austerity and stoicism” the text required of music. The burial picture Hanson creates gives us a Geatan burial mound by the sea with a great funeral pyre. The general lament recounts the hero’s battles and victories, and the great gap his death leaves, “their liegelord’s quelling.” Recollections of Beowulf’s prowess find the music in full sympathy, heraldic, heroic, emblazoned. The Seattle Chorale sopranos, particularly, convey the (modal) sense of loss with a special mystical fervor. Intimate, elegiac, and portentous at once, the score as recorded by Schwarz and his Seattle forces makes a lasting and potent impression.