Hanson Conducts American Music Vol. 2. PISTON: Symphony No. 3. COWELL: Symphony No. 4. LOEFFLER: Poem for Orchestra.
Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson.
Pristine Audio PASC 295 TT: 70:33.
Hanson Conducts American Music Vol. 3. CARTER: The Minotaur Suite. RIEGGER: New Dance. MACDOWELL: "Indian" Suite.
Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson.
Pristine Audio PASC 302 TT: 64:19.
Hanson Conducts American Music Vol. 4. HARRIS: Symphony No. 3. GRIFFES: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. The White Peacock. Clouds. Bacchanale. BARBER: Symphony No. 1.
Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson.
Pristine Audio PASC 315 TT: 59:59.

An historic return. Perhaps I succumb to unwarranted nostalgia, but it seems to me that the recording opportunities for works by American composers were greater years ago than now. Columbia had several series, including a "Black Composers in America." CRI, Louisville First Edition, New World, Composers Recordings Inc. -- all devoted their resources largely to promoting the American composer
Mercury had two stalwarts: Antal Doráti and Howard Hanson. Hanson largely confined himself to Americans -- recording not only his own music and the music of those trained at his Eastman School, but also an eclectic, although not particularly "hard-nosed Modern" mix. He was particularly interested in American Romantics like Paine, Chadwick, Parker, and MacDowell. At the request of the Mercury label, he, like a good teammate, also recorded composers he normally had little interest in. The performances were always meticulously prepared. He sloughed off nothing.

This resulted in a wide representation of the American scene. I dare say, with the exceptions of Barber and Carter, few of the composers here are often played now, and frankly I feel sorry for us. I wouldn't call everything here superstar-wonderful, but I do find pieces and composers we are the poorer for having lost.

Walter Piston stands chief among these. For years a jewel of the Harvard faculty and the author of standard textbooks on harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration, Piston wrote perhaps the most Apollonian music in America. His central achievement, his cycle of symphonies, sings elegantly and eloquently. Unlike that of Copland and Thomson, Piston's music was never self-consciously "American." He fostered an "international," Stravinskian neoclassical outlook. Nevertheless, his music sounds not like Stravinsky's but as if only an American could have written it. Of Piston's eight symphonies, numbers 3-5 to me best exhibit Piston's virtues of emotional balance and power. There is a stereo version of the Third on Albany with a student orchestra, but it lacks the excitement and lyricism of Hanson's reading. The stereo sound doesn't significantly improve upon Pristine's mono.

Henry Cowell, a musical omnivore, fostered what Michael Tilson Thomas would probably call musical maverick-ism. He began as an avant-gardiste and promoted the music of Charles Ives rather early on. In the late Thirties, he began to explore American folk sources, particularly the music of New England and Appalachia and of Celtic traditions within the United States. Afterwards, the music of Asia and the Middle East inspired him. The Symphony No. 4 from 1946 belongs to the Americanist part of Cowell's output. However, Cowell's Americana sounds nothing like Copland's or the standard Copland knock-off. More rough-hewn, it takes off from the block-like counterpoint and melody of the New England and Southern singing schools. The harmonies, stark rather than lush, run so far off the beaten track that, despite the lack of dissonance, they almost always surprise the ear. Its four movements include an opening "Hymn," a slow ballad, a scherzo jig, and a concluding "fuguing tune," the first and last forms used by colonial composer and "singing master" William Billings. It gives off a primitive quality, filtered through a very sophisticated mind. This is the only current recording. Cowell hasn't been particularly well-recorded, and this performance stands out, both for interpretation and for orchestral playing.

The public has forgotten Charles [Karl] Martin Loeffler, but during the first third of the 20th century, he counted as an important figure in American musical life. Born in Berlin, he reacted strongly against all things German (he later claimed Alsatian ancestry) and spent much time in Paris. His contemporaries considered him an Impressionist, but I think his a Germanic take on Impressionism. He still, for example, relies on functional rather than coloristic harmony, and the music seems heavier, although not in a good way -- more like Blutwurstcasserole vs. soufflé. You don't mistake him for Debussy or even Dukas. The thickly scored Poem for Orchestra relentlessly sticks to the same register and texture and wore me down after a while. Your mileage may vary.

Before Elliott Carter became the Destroyer of All Musical Beauty, he worked a Pistonian vein, similar to what other composers of the time took up. There's an "American" ballet Pocahontas, in the line of the Copland ballets and David Diamond's Tom. The Forties, mainly due to Martha Graham's commissions, saw a spate of dance scores based on Greek myth, like Barber's Cave of the Heart. Carter wrote The Minotaur, I think one of his early masterpieces. It's never had the success it deserved, but then ballet finds itself between the two stools of the Beloved Favorite and the Transitorily Trendy, as far as its repertory goes. The music shares a lot with the Stravinsky orchestral scores of the late Thirties and Forties -- the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements, for example -- although it's not as superficially pretty. Carter sloughs off nothing in any part of it. All of it shows a consistently high level of invention and art. My one caveat: Gerard Schwarz on Nonesuch supersedes it. Schwarz gives you the complete ballet and in true stereo, besides.

Wallingford Riegger, always to some extent a "composer's composer," is hardly even a name any more. He early on associated with the avant-garde -- mainly Varèse, Ives, Ruggles, and Cowell -- and wound up an early American practitioner of dodecaphony. However, his output actually covers a range of styles. Written for Doris Humphrey (Riegger also worked with Martha Graham and Hanya Holm) New Dance comes from the Thirties. Unlike Graham, Humphrey gravitated toward architectural patterns of movement, rather than to extra-musical meaning. Riegger provided a score that a dancer would want to move to, a celebration of rhythm and gesture in mixed meters (including 7/8) and jazzy melodic turns.
Prior to the rediscovery of Ives, Beach, and Chadwick, critics deemed Edward MacDowell our most eminent pre-Modern composer. Europeans talked about his d-minor piano concerto in the same breath as Schumann's. In many ways, MacDowell was indeed the American Schumann. Outside of the aforementioned piano concerto, his major achievement lies in his piano suites of character-pieces. The Suite No. 2 is probably his best orchestral score. As the genocide against the Native Americans played out, Europe and the Northeastern United States especially indulged in sentimental Romanticism and myth-making, aided by such diverse sources as Cooper's Leatherstocking tales, Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and the Winnetou novels of Karl May. Some composers thought to write an American music based on the melodies and dances of the Amerindian, an interesting idea subverted by the fact that few of these people had ever heard the real thing. MacDowell, for example, uses Amerindian themes in every movement, but you barely notice, due to his strictly European, Late Romantic treatment. It sounds like the rest of MacDowell. The suite divides into pieces of exotica -- little postcards of native life, a war dance, village scenes -- and more general movements -- a love song and a dirge. Revealing its very tenuous connection to Amerindian folkways, the "Dirge" was actually inspired by the death of Joachim Raff, MacDowell's composition teacher in Frankfurt, Germany. Hanson and the Eastman are at their best here, and the performance is preserved in very good recorded sound.

Early in his career, Roy Harris was considered either the equal or even the superior of Copland. However, he peaked critically by the end of World War II, and he saw himself outstripped by younger men, like Barber, Schuman, and Bernstein. Harris's Third, however, still remains on listeners' juke boxes, even if concert performances are few and far between. Harris built this symphony by a process he called "autogenesis," where variation of one idea leads to other ideas, also varied. He compared it to the flowering of a seed. You might think that this would lead to sprawl, but Harris also manages, like his pupil William Schuman, to undergird the continuous development with classical structures, most notably a sonorous, athletic fugue toward the end. The definitive recording, I think, is Bernstein's first stereo account with the New York Philharmonic (Sony 60594), but Hanson's is quite good, concentrated more on the architecture than on the sonic "punch." I think the transfer especially noteworthy -- spectacular mono sound.

Hanson's recordings of the Griffes became classics almost the day of release and played a large part in restoring Griffes to critical and scholarly consciousness. All four pieces show the Impressionist side of Griffes's art, although the composer never contented himself with mere copying and indeed drifted away from Debussy's example toward a very personal Modernism at the end of his short life. Hanson's readings, visually vivid, make you see the eccentric motion of the peacock, the splendid palace Xanadu rising from and sinking back into an opium mist, the eerie corybantic energy of revelers, and the serene suspension of summer clouds. Again, the mono sound is superb.

Some of Hanson's recordings of Samuel Barber have never been bettered. I think especially of his account of the First Essay, still the benchmark after all these years, and of his reading of Barber's First. If Barber had had his way, it would have been his only symphony, since he became dissatisfied with his Second and tried to destroy all copies of it. His composing conscience was too easily pricked. He wrote far more than he published, much of which leaves you shaking your head as to why he consigned these works to limbo. Fortunately, we have begun to hear some of these scores. At any rate, the Symphony No. 1 remains one of the pillars of his catalogue. In one movement, it takes a motto theme through four major sections: sonata-allegro, scherzo, slow movement, and final passacaglia. Hanson gives you the excitement of the quick sections and the broodiness of the reflective passages, but he really shines in the singing slow movement.

I had nearly all of these performances on the original Mercury LPs. In the 1970s, Philips somehow got their mitts on them and subjected them to a horrible electronic stereo as part of its "Golden Import" series. I bought those as well. I can attest that Pristine has kept true to the original Mercury sound quality, but with cleaner surfaces. Some of the tracks (The Minotaur, for example), a bit thin, lack sufficient bass, but then so did the originals. Still, I thank whatever gods there be for the return of these works in Hanson's readings.

S.G.S. (April 2012)