Howard Hanson

0 of 5 stars

Fanfare for the Signal Corps
Merry Mount – Suite
Bold Island Suite
Symphony No.2, Op.30 (Romantic)

Cincinnati Pops Orchestra
Erich Kunzel

Recorded on 8 September 2004 in the Music Hall, Cincinatti, Ohio

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: October 2005
[CD/SACD Hybrid]
Duration: 66 minutes

A disc of thrilling and beautiful music, which has been recorded vividly, with natural perspective, and richness retained in the fullest-scored and loudest passages.

It was the Cincinnati Symphony that commissioned Howard Hanson’s Fanfare; this was ‘in time of war’, the 1942-43 season, when 18 composers were requested for pieces to honour the Allies. Hanson’s stirring Fanfare begins with various drum tattoos; and the rest of Hanson’s music here recorded, whether incidental or symphonic, might be said to be of cinematic-type gestures and melodic ‘purple patches’. It’s all good stuff; and, thankfully, there’s not a surfeit of powerful climaxes or credit-rolling grandiosity. Indeed, there’s much that’s deft and light, syncopated and enlivening; even better, this is music from the heart, superbly orchestrated, with many moving phrases that enrapture the senses.

“Merry Mount” is the opera Hanson completed for the Metropolitan Opera House in 1933. The title is something of a misnomer since the story concerns 17th-century New England conflict (Puritans against Cavaliers) with an oratorical pastor among the characters. After a short, imposing ‘Overture’, Hanson’s Suite concentrates on children merrymaking, the opera’s love interest, and concludes with some ‘Maypole Dances’ (which includes gentle hand-clapping); a one-sided view of the opera, seemingly, but a very attractive one.

There follows the first recording, surprisingly, of Bold Island Suite, commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra in 1961, and presumably played by this august body. No mention is made in the booklet-note of a premiere, let alone clarifying if George Szell conducted it (although it was more likely Louis Lane, Szell’s assistant, one imagines). It’s a terrific piece lasting about 24 minutes. Bold Island, near Maine, was Hanson’s summer retreat, and the composer (1896-1981) graphically notates the power of the sea, the cries of the birds, and the fertile experience of being there.

It’s a sonorous and animated piece; expansive, too, as seems to befit this craggy and pine-strewn location (one that Erich Kunzel can view from his own home). The mid-point ‘Summer Seascape’ is a rapturous evocation of sunlight on water, which seems to wind-down to nocturnal placidity, a swirling harp to the fore. The final section, mixing communion and calls-to-attention (and reminding of William Schuman’s New England Triptych), mixes grandeur with one of those gloriously broad and eloquent melodies that is pure ‘Americana’ (with a hint of Vaughan Williams!). Bold Island Suite is an effective and distinctive work, alone worth the price of acquiring this release.

But, of course, there’s also Hanson’s ‘Romantic’ Symphony, the work’s popularity having been enhanced by its use in the film “Alien”. First and foremost, this is a symphony, with all that is implied by such a designation, one written as far back as 1930 (for the Boston Symphony). No doubting, though, the work’s image-creating properties, its bold colours, its strong emotions, and Hanson’s abilities to write sweeping tunes. For all its panorama, though, Hanson’s Second Symphony is also a subtle and warm piece, quite nostalgic, and bursting with humanity, and it finds sensitive partners in Erich Kunzel and the skilled folk of the Cincinatti Pops Orchestra.

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