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Mono Maven
Mercury Living Presence
Vol. 2 Howard Hanson

Review By Leonard Norwitz
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  In the January 2006 Enjoy the Music.com™’s Review Magazine I began my survey of some of the lesser-known mono LPs from each of Mercury's principal conductors.  In that issue I looked at some of Mercury's better mono recordings of Paul Paray, the conductor of the Detroit Symphony.  Now on to one of our home grown boys, Howard Hanson.  Hanson is well known among audiophiles for a number of valued stereo recordings, among them: Hanson's own Second Symphony (the "Romantic" – SR90192), Chadwick's Symphonic Sketches (SR90018), the colorful "Fiesta in Hi-Fi" (SR90134), the brilliant "The Eastman Philharmonia: Musical Diplomats U.S.A." (SR90299) and Samuel Barber's Medea (SR90224) – all of which sound very nice in their mono manifestations, and are much cheaper in the bargain. Musical Diplomats is a knock out, either way.

Hanson is particularly identified with "Neo-Romanticism," which is one way to describe a certain reluctance to have embraced the current Avant-Garde. He wasn't the only twentieth century composer whose music remained lush and "harmonious," but he was one of the more visible this side of the Atlantic.  Hanson's recordings, especially for Mercury, are often associated with American music of a particular stripe, sometimes (somewhat disparagingly) known as the "Prairie School." A number of the better examples are collected on Mercury's Golden Lyre American Music Festival Series.  These were later reissued as part of the core Olympian series starting from 1957.  They are particularly difficult to find in good shape in their original editions, but are well worth investigating in either form.

Howard Hanson was born in Nebraska in 1896 to Swedish parents.  He studied and taught music theory and composition in New York, the College of the Pacific, Northwestern University, and even Italy for three years between the world wars.  It was during this latter period that he began to make his mark as a composer.  Afterward, Hanson settled in Rochester, where he was to become a most important part of the Eastman School of Music, one of the most prestigious institutions of its kind in the U.S.  It was here that he founded the ensemble that would be associated with his name and that he was to conduct for Mercury beginning in 1952 and for about the next ten years, the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra.

Hanson was not without his share of honors.  Some credit him with the first truly "American" opera: Merry Mount, premiered at the Met in 1934 (a year before Porgy, if you're keeping score.)  He won the Prix de Rome a couple of times, a Peabody, and – let's see – oh, yes, the Pulitzer for his Fourth Symphony in 1944.  His Second Symphony would later be used as the finale to Ridley Scott's Alien, a rather apt choice, I always thought.  The symphony's appearance in that film, just two years before the composer's death, caused something of a spike in sales for Mercury since it was not included on the original soundtrack recording.  More subtly, as an educator and in his quiet, parochial way, Howard Hanson did as much for the appreciation of concert music in America as Leonard Bernstein in roughly the same period.  (You might find the contrast in teaching styles between Bernstein and Hanson fascinating. cf. Columbia MLC 5868: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and Mercury MG50175: "The Composer And His Orchestra." Hanson, didactic, detailed, thorough; Bernstein, engaging, speculative.)

 

Griffes: The Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan; The White Peacock; Clouds; Bacchanale. Loeffler: Memories of My Childhood (Life in a Russian Village); Poem for Orchestra ("La Bonne Chanson"). Eastman-Rochester Symphony, Howard Hanson, cond.
Mercury MG50085

Charles Tomlinson Griffes, who died at only 35 from influenza, and not to be confused with the fellow who made Birth of a Nation, may be the American Respighi. He is certainly an impressive impressionist, if not a little derivative. The White Peacock and Clouds are orchestrations of his own piano pieces (Nos. 1 & 4 of the "Roman Sketches") and could very well have passed for yet another of Ottorino's Roman Holidays. The work with the oriental title is inspired by the same poem whose opening lines are part of the newsreel that introduces Citizen Kane ("In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree.") Even though less than ten minutes, it stands as Griffes's most substantial piece for orchestra.

Charles Martin Loeffler is from Alsace, but made the U.S. his adopted home for the last two-thirds of his life. "Memories of My Childhood" is a nostalgic, sometimes vigorous rhapsody in several continuous movements, effectively mixing Liadov-like colorations with Western European and American textures. His Poem for Orchestra is less interesting, though pleasant enough. (Loeffler's Deux Rhapsodies for piano, oboe and viola, on Mercury SR90277, is one of those expensive collectables based primarily on its rarity; the mono version of which, MG50277 is plenty good enough, and you can doubtless find it for less than a tenth of the stereo.) The present record was first released as part of the Golden Lyre American Music Festival Series, MG40012, which, despite the more variable vinyl, is probably of more interest to the avid collector than the music lover. As MG-500085 Olympian Series, it saw life first as an MF pressing, and later as an FR.

 

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Roy Harris: Symphony #3. Howard Hanson: Symphony #4. Eastman-Rochester Symphony / Howard Hanson, cond.
Mercury MG50077

If Aaron Copland is the high priest of American classical music in the century just past, then Roy Harris must be his alter boy. In this symphony, completed in 1938, the feeling of the Midwest is so vividly evoked, images - both visual and emotional - of Grapes of Wrath, Raintree County, our own Civil War, the plains, the Indian - all of this is there, though not with specific programmatic intent. Hanson's Fourth Symphony is not as lyrical as his second, nor as lush; but it has plenty enough interest and emotional appeal for several visits.  This is the composition that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1944.

The original version of this recording, MG40004, is to be found as part of the Golden Lyre series, which tend to have less than stellar vinyl. I have an RFR pressing of MG50077 that is outstanding.

 

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Kent Kennan: Three Pieces For Orchestra. William Bergsma: Gold & The Señor Commandante. Bernard Rogers: Once Upon A Time. Eastman-Rochester Symphony / Howard Hanson, cond.
Mercury MG50147

Along with Columbia in the fifties and early sixties, Mercury supported numerous native composers, without which recordings, some might not be known at all today.  In addition to more established composers such as Copland, Harris, Cowell, Piston, Riegger, Ives, and Barber, Mercury's classical recording director, Wilma Cozart and musical supervisor, Harold Lawrence oversaw recordings of the music of Griffes, Loeffler, Hively, Porter, Donovan, Moore, Carpenter, Phillips, and the three gentleman before us on the present LP.  It was Cozart who secured Howard Hanson and his Eastman band of players a certain level of immortality for their work in these recordings, documenting an entire period of American concert music.

I find that a not inconsiderable amount of American twentieth century music, while it's appetizing during the meal, doesn't stay with you very long. To some degree, this is true of the music on this album, yet I find more substance here than usually is the case. This music is eminently revisitable, especially the Kennan pieces and the first four of the five fairy tale movements of Bernard Rogers. Unlike Carpenter's Perambulator, the music on this program (composed in 1936, 1941, and 1934, respectively) sets out to be a little more serious, and somehow manages to avoid the trappings of pretension. The recording was done in 1957; and the engineering is first rate, as we have come to expect of the Mercury/ERSO venues. By the way, I have seen stereo copies of this recording for as high as $195!

 

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Piston: The Incredible Flutist. Douglas Moore: Pageant of P.T. Barnum. Eastman-Rochester Symphony / Howard Hanson, cond.
Mercury MG50206

I'm a sucker for a catchy title, and here are two of them. Piston's music is a suite drawn from his ballet, and to our surprise does not feature the flute. (Such restraint!) The action of the ballet centers around a circus come to town, and a melodrama in which the title character is a charmer of snakes as well as the ladies. Moore's folksy score, while exuberant, is not circus music. It is, however, programmatic in that the various movements relate to episodes in the life of P.T. Barnum, including some of his most infamous acts, notably the General and Mrs. Tom Thumb. Jenny Lind is represented by some coloratura flute work, and the whole affair ends with a circus march. Both pieces sound better than they look on paper. By the way, this is one of those Mercurys whose tape-to-disc transfer was not done by George Piros.  John Johnson (yes, that's who those JJ initials you keep seeing around the leadout groove belong to) did the honors, and damn well, particularly on the Moore.

 

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Wallingford Riegger: New Dance. Alan Hovhaness: Concerto No. 1 for Orchestra "Arevakel;" Henry Cowell: Symphony #4. Eastman-Rochester Symphony / Howard Hanson, cond.
Mercury MG50078

Originally Vol. 6 from the American Music Festival Series on Mercury's Golden Lyre, these pieces eventually found there way into the Olympian Series with much better vinyl, enabling us to hear more deeply into the often subtle textures of this relatively obscure music.  Riegger is the oldest of the three composers represented.  New Dance is a reworked and orchestrated version of the finale of a 1935 dance composition for piano four hands.  New Dance is vigorous and propulsive, and it's over almost before you know it. 

Like most music by Hovhaness, the Concerto No. 1 for Orchestra is impressionistic, atmospheric and subtly scored.  Arevakel dates from 1951.  It is inspired by traditional Armenian chants and purports to evoke some aspect of mystic ritual related to the coming of the sun.  The Cowell piece (also designated a "Short Symphony") takes all of the second side of the LP.  It is a much more folksy piece than one might expect from the inventor of the "chord cluster." I find the first movement, in Hanson's hands, a bit foursquare.  I keep thinking it's about to break out into Appalachian Spring, but never quite gets there.  Hanson finds the right affect for remaining movements, which are evocative, charming and energized by turns.  The recording is clear and focused, if somewhat lacking in bloom.

 

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Roger Sessions: Suite from The Black Maskers; Alan Hovhaness: Prelude & Quadruple Fugue; Ronald Lo Presti: The Masks. Eastman-Rochester Orchestra / Howard Hanson, cond.
Mercury MG50105

Hovhaness' Prelude & Quadruple Fugue is about as different from Arevakel as you can get.  It's robust, surging, dynamic and lush – a far cry from the spare folk-idioms of the later piece.  The work was originally composed for strings in 1936, but the composer reworked it for full orchestra twenty years later.  As programmed, Lo Presti's The Masks follows the Hovhaness, and at first feels like a second movement, but eventually find its own way.

Roger Sessions is the author of the book from which I learned the study of harmony; and, from such beginnings, I was able to achieve a passing grade and an eventual degree.  If it weren't for recordings such as this one I would have had no idea what sort of composer he was.  The Black Maskers is a drama by Leonid Andreyev, written about 1908.  Sessions composed incidental music for a performance of the play in Cleveland in 1923.  Five years later he extracted a suite for an enlarged orchestra.  The suite is busy, dynamic and colorful, and underscores the theme of "the disintegration of the human spirit" - effectively, I thought.  This is one of Hanson's best efforts, and is given a complementary recording by Mercury.

 

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Barber: Medea; Capricorn Concerto. Eastman-Rochester Orchestra / Howard Hanson, cond.
Mercury MG50224

Samuel Barber is arguably the most underappreciated American composer of the last century.  His music is always inventive, visceral and accessible, melodic and colorful.  The slow movement of his String Quartet, reconstituted as the "Adagio for Strings," is one of the most recognizable concert pieces to emerge from this continent.  That work and a handful of other Barberous gems can be found on another highly recommendable album conducted by Hanson: MG50148 (pictured).  A stereo performance of the Adagio, First Symphony, the Overture to the School for Scandal and the Suite from Medea can all be found in the very acceptable Golden Imports stereo reissue, SRI 75012.  It's airier, but lacks the impact of the mono; and, of course, it will have CD-quiet surfaces, typical of Philips.

An aside: you might notice that Hanson's recording of Barber's expansive First Symphony crops up in a number of couplings.  Mercury must have been very proud of this recording – a very early stereo effort (1954) that sounds great in every version it appears in, including the original mono Golden Lyre MG40014, where it joins two of Hanson's better large scale works: the Fifth Symphony and the Cherubic Hymn in excellent performances and transfers.

I had an immediate liking for Barber's Medea when I first heard it; its tragic angst and compelling drama seemed to speak directly to me. But it was not until I saw Michael Smuin's choreography for the San Francisco Ballet in the early 70's (and for which I was honored to provide the program cover photograph of Medea triumphant in the murder of the Princess's children) that I discovered that Barber's music was first written for Martha Graham. The ERO under Hanson give a searing performance, almost good enough to visualize the tragedy in the mode of your choice. The Capricorn Concerto features flute, oboe, and trumpet, but it's no Brandenberger; rather Barber's work is a study of changing textures, listenable and dynamic; it seems to grow like an embryo. The stereo version is a worthy audiophile collectable; the FR mono is not only cheaper, it hold its own as a serious contender. If it weren't for the stereo, it could have been somebody.

 

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