Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, "Romantic"
Review By John Shinners
CD Number: Telarc SACD-60649
More than any other modern musician, Howard Hanson (1896-1981) devoted his life to promoting and preserving the music of American composers. During his forty year tenure as director of the Eastman School of Music and later as head of its Institute for American Music he commissioned and premiered several hundred works by American composers with his Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra. This inviting sampler by Eric Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra features pieces drawn from across thirty years of Hanson's own career as a composer.
Hanson wrote his Second Symphony, his most famous work, in 1930. He titled it "Romantic" as a self-conscious reaction to the formalism he saw predominating so much concert music in the era of Stravinsky's neo-classicism and the Second Viennese School's serialism. At the time, Hanson wrote (presciently) "romanticism will find in this country rich soil for a new, young, and vigorous growth." In fact, it was a good year for American symphonists with a romantic bent, conscious or otherwise. William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony also premiered in 1930, and Hanson's near-contemporary, Randall Thompson, began his own Second Symphony that year, which Hanson and his band premiered in 1932. The two Seconds have such affinities for me that I find if I get the main theme of Hanson's Second playing in my head, it often morphs into the gorgeous melody of the finale of Thompson's Second and vice-versa.
The well-known "romantic" melody that anchors the symphony appears in all three movements and sounds like the love child of Rachmaninoff and Sibelius. (Sci-fi buffs will recognize it at the end of the first movement as the music that arrives, incongruously, with the blasting of the alien and then quietly settles over the last minute and closing credits of Ridley Scott's Alien — a musical cue added without the soundtrack composer Jerry Goldsmith's knowledge.) Hanson admired Sibelius, whose influence flashes through the work. Consider, for example, the very Sibelian rumbling of low brass and bassoons over low, pizzicato strings three minutes into the final movement, or, more significantly, the cyclical structure of the symphony, which relies on several basic musical ideas developed across all three movements.
There are other notable recordings of the symphony available including Leonard Slatkin's with the Saint Louis Symphony from the early 1990s (which I prefer) and Hanson's own Mercury Living Presence disc made in 1958 with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra (and now reissued in three-channel SACD by Mercury).
While Kunzel's account is beautifully played, to me it lacks both the energy and the sense of dramatic line of Slatkin's. For example, both the first and second movement crescendos to the main theme and the recapitulation of the theme in the finale of the third movement strike me as underpowered compared to Slatkin. The full-bodied Telarc sound, even more realistic when played in SACD surround-mode, recommends this account though I thought it lacked the dynamic range of Slatkin's EMI recording and it seemed to spread the instruments across too deep a sound space for my taste.
The brief, four-movement suite from Merry Mount has the classic Hanson sound: bold brass, super-octave piccolos highlighting forte cadences, lush unison strings. It's engaging enough music, which Hanson drew from his rather grim, 1933 opera of the same name, but it's neither very refined nor memorable. Likewise the minute-long Fanfare for the Signal Corps, composed during World War II, which is over almost before it has begun though its opening drum cadences are certainly thrilling.
The surprise here is the world-premiere recording of the 24-minute Bold Island Suite that Hanson composed in 1961 to capture the feel of his summer home off the coast of Maine. The first movement, "Birds of the Sea," is punctuated with instrumental bird calls, a few presented with some restrained atonality. "Summer Seascape," the second movement, is a lovely adagio meant to suggest a lazy summer day briefly interrupted by a squall. Here rocking and shimmering strings evoke lapping waves while the brass and woodwinds splash beautiful washes of sound over them. The final movement, "God in Nature," is a passacaglia, based on a modal hymn tune by Hanson, that closes with the peaceful return of another chorus of birdcalls. If not very deep in its depictions, the work is still a delight and it's strange that this is its first recording. A more substantial piece of music than the Merry Mount Suite, it deserves to be better known.