Hanson: American Music, Volume 5. HANSON: Symphony No. 5 "Sinfonia sacra." The Cherubic Hymn*. GOULD: Latin-American Symphonette. BARBER: Overture to "The School for Scandal." Adagio for Strings. Essay for Orchestra No. 1.
*Eastman School of Music Chorus; Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra/Howard Hanson.
Pristine Audio MONO PASC 332 TT: 70:49.
(THIS RECORDING IS AVAILABLE FROM PRISTINE AUDIO


American classics back in the catalogue, where they belong. Sometimes I think Pristine, the label which specializes in resurrecting old and out-of-print recordings and restoring them with state-of-the-art digital élan, has burrowed inside my head. They have worked so much on my wish list -- stuff I didn't believe I'd ever hear again -- I can't conceive of any other explanation for their catalogue. I've begun to feel the same way I do when I fall (all the time) for a stage magician's trick. I owned the original Mercury LPs of all the items on the program (in one case, its horrid electronic stereo equivalent), and because they were particular favorites, I've retained that original sound, or at least the sound that came out of my crummy record player.

Many view Howard Hanson as the standard bearer for Romantic music in the Modern era. I take a slightly different view, even from Hanson himself. To me, the music is too individual to become the basis of an artistic movement. Imitating Hanson is like imitating van Gogh: everybody knows that's your source, only you don't do it as well as the original. Also the "manifesto" work proposed, the Symphony No. 2, frankly isn't strong enough to bear the weight, as Le sacre, Moses und Aron, and Rhapsody in Blue surely are. Furthermore, Hanson's music changed at various points in his career. After World War II, the lushness of, say, the Symphony No. 2 or the opera Merry Mount gets pruned back for more concise and more dissonant work. The Symphonies 5 and 6 -- my favorites of the cycle -- don't really sound like the Hanson Everybody Knows.

Hanson subtitled the one-movement Fifth "Sinfonia sacra," because he was inspired by passages on the Resurrection in the Gospel of John, but you needn't know that to make sense of the work. It stands on its own. It begins with scalar lines heavily in the Phrygian mode, reminiscent of chant, but so does a lot of Hanson. However, its compression and its eschewal of song-like themes distinguish it from its older siblings. I've described the symphony in detail in a previous review of Gerard Schwarz's release on Naxos and won't repeat myself here. I will, however, speak to Hanson's performance. A very capable conductor, Hanson let his composer self down here in that he gives merely a good performance. Compared to Schwarz, however, the reading seems cramped and relatively undifferentiated -- a "wad" of music. A lot of this comes down to the playing of the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, which simply does not reach the level of the Seattle Symphony. Furthermore, Schwarz had the benefit of Hanson's recording to guide him. I'm almost certain Schwarz knew Hanson's recorded legacy, since he reproduced so much of it.

Chorus and orchestra often drew Hanson to compose. The Lament for Beowulf (1925) is a flat-out masterpiece, while the Songs from Drum-Taps (1935) has more than its share of effective moments. The choral writing in the opera Merry Mount (1933) represents some of the most powerful parts of the score. The Cherubic Hymn for chorus and orchestra (1949) I've never warmed to, probably because I know it only in this performance. My dissatisfaction comes down to the singing of the Eastman School of Music Chorus, who puree the text into a slurry of pretty vowels. I have no idea of the text, and Pristine doesn't provide a copy or even a link to one -- a serious lapse, since Hanson wanted to write music that expressed its meaning. Consequently, the score comes over as another wad.

Although around in the earliest jazz as "the Spanish tinge," during the Thirties and Forties, American pop succumbed to a feverish mania for Latin-American music, especially rhumba, tango, and conga. Cole Porter wrote quite a few beguines (other than "When They Begin"). Latin dance bands like Xavier Cugat's influenced others, notably Duke Ellington, to incorporate Latin rhythms into numbers like "Caravan" and "Perdido." The craze hit even classical music with examples including George Gershwin's Cuban Overture and Aaron Copland's El Salón México. Morton Gould, who had two musical careers -- one in concert music, the other in pop -- composed a great deal to deadline for the radio program he hosted. I suspect this Latin-American Symphonette (Gould composed three more symphonettes) was written for that program. Why the term "symphonette" as opposed to the usual "sinfonietta?" Gould noted the suffix's popularity at the time and French as a Swing Era mark of class and sophistication, citing kitchenette and dinette as contemporary coinages. Nothing dates so quickly as the up-to-date.

The score stands perfectly poised between classical and pop. Its four movements take the form of dances: rhumba, tango, guaracha, and conga corresponding to opening allegro, slow movement, scherzo, and allegro finale. Each movement is both recognizably its dance and an extremely sophisticated concert work. Brilliantly and even poetically orchestrated, particularly the percussion, it appeals to popular taste without apology, and indeed has nothing to apologize for. The rhumba shakes booty. The tango goes from night phantoms to blazing sunlight and ends with spectral wisps. The guaracha, a favorite in Cuban brothels (like ragtime in American ones), sings a sly tune that I can't get out of my head. With the conga, a dance line sways and then snaps on the last beat.

For such a lively work, recordings have run rare on the ground. I dimly remember one from Felix Slatkin and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and one from Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony, but they rose and sank. Gould himself led the best performance I've heard with the London Symphony Orchestra on Citadel, now out of print, of course. Gould also used to excerpt the tango and guaracha as album fillers, and those have shown up on a couple of releases. Hanson's account seems to have had the most staying power. It's very good, very peppy, but it's mono and the LSO swings more than Eastman.

Hanson's artistic aims and sympathies lay closer to Samuel Barber than to Gould. Although Barber gradually incorporated some of Stravinsky in his music, he never belonged to the American Neoclassical school. Like Hanson, his music is sui generis, despite his stylistic progression to Modernism. He had the gift for creating memorable melodies practically from the beginning, and nearly all of his works stand out from one another, simply because you can remember their tunes. Hanson performs three early works. The School for Scandal overture Barber wrote while still a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Although a young composer with many masterpieces ahead, he came up with one of the great comic overtures. It bubbles like Strauss's Eulenspiegel, but it also, in its broad oboe theme, announces a new lyricism and an individual voice.

What can one say about the Adagio for Strings? Undoubtedly his greatest hit (especially after the movie Platoon), it has received so many rearrangements (two from Barber himself) that some label released all of them on one CD. Barber originally composed it as the second movement of his string quartet but almost immediately created a version for string orchestra. That version has consigned the rest of the quartet to relative oblivion and, ever since the death of FDR, has become our music of national mourning. Barber turns a very simple voice-leading technique into a masterpiece -- a giant arch of sound that builds from a whisper to a series of passionate outcries and then fades. It moves like a great sermon, with huge phrases and periods. It has reminded more than one writer of a stream widening on its way to the ocean. The composer grew to dislike the score and, when he had to attend a live performance, occupied himself by counting the mistakes the strings made. Apparently, its slow speed can mesmerize players so that they lose count.

The First Essay (known as the Essay until a second came along; later, he added a third) owes its title to Barber's scruples. He didn't produce a sonata movement or anything in Classical or Baroque forms, but something organic, exploring a few themes almost in the manner of writing an essay. He once claimed that the Essay was based on one idea, but that's pretty hard to sustain if you analyze the score. There's yet another big singing theme -- a lament -- a nervous scherzo, and a passage for brass that sounds like "Taps" blowing over a battlefield. The first two ideas combine to build to a climax. The brass passage briefly returns, dissolving into the main idea of the lament. But for those brass, one could analyze the work neatly. However, thematically they have nothing to do with either of the other two ideas. Nevertheless, the brass passages lift the piece from something well-made to something nearly profound, if you can describe music so. They add mystery. You ask yourself what they're doing there, isolated and yet rising spectrally from the music.

You can't say that any of Hanson's Barber wallows in sentiment or sonic gorgeousness. All the scores move crisply and clearly. In , I heard counterpoint that had previously eluded me. I normally like "crisp" and "clear," but not in the Adagio. I need to wallow. My favorite recording is Schippers and the New York Phil on Sony 770278 -- lush string textures and stereo, climaxes that go through you. However, Hanson's Essay No. 1 has been the best account on record for fifty years. I don't know why this piece should elude so many conductors, but as far as I'm concerned, Hanson's the only one truly to have nailed it. The usual errors include a too-slow scherzo and no idea how to integrate the "Taps" section into the rest of the work. Hanson takes us through the work with assurance, as if it were just one natural exhalation.

As I've said, I owned the LPs -- flat, boxy, and dull. Pristine has opened up and brightened the sound.

S.G.S. (December 2012)