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.
(ALL OF THESE ARE AVAILABLE FROM PRISTINE
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
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
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.
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
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
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
is the only current recording. Cowell hasn't been particularly well-recorded,
and this performance stands out, both for interpretation and for orchestral
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
(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
There's an "American" ballet Pocahontas, in the line of the
Copland ballets and David Diamond's Tom. The Forties, mainly due to Martha
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
orchestral scores of the late Thirties and Forties -- the Symphony in
C and the Symphony in Three Movements, for example -- although it's not
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
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
(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
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
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
due to his strictly European, Late Romantic treatment. It sounds like
the rest of MacDowell. The suite divides into pieces of exotica -- little
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,
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
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
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
from and sinking back into an opium mist, the eerie corybantic energy
of revelers, and the serene suspension of summer clouds. Again, the mono
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
sonata-allegro, scherzo, slow movement, and final passacaglia. Hanson
gives you the excitement of the quick sections and the broodiness of
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
return of these works in Hanson's readings.
S.G.S. (April 2012)