Hanson: Symphony No. 1 "Nordic" (CD review)

Also, The Lament for Beowulf. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony and Chorale. Naxos 8.559700.

Even if you can't place the name Howard Hanson, you might have heard music from his Second Symphony in the movie Alien, or you might have heard him conducting any number of recordings for Mercury dating from the Fifties and Sixties. Hanson (1896-1981) was an American conductor, teacher, musicologist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who gave us any number of good compositions as well as quite a few fine audiophile recordings. On the present disc, we hear his Symphony No. 1 "Nordic" and his work for orchestra and chorus The Lament for Beowulf, both conducted by Maestro Gerard Schwarz and his Seattle Symphony and Chorale in 1988 and 1990 for the Delos label and re-released by Naxos in 2011. Alongside Hanson's own recordings of these pieces for Mercury, Schwarz's recordings of Hanson's music make a formidable alternative.

The disc begins with the relatively short, three-movement Symphony No. 1, "Nordic," from 1922.  Hanson was of Swedish descent and had a great affection for Scandinavian music. He patterned his First Symphony after Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 1, so you'll hear some of the same dark, vast, brooding northern landscapes pictured in both works. In comparison to Hanson's own recording of the piece, Schwarz's rendition is marginally broader, which some listeners may prefer for its greater drama and others may not, finding it simply slower.

Hanson described the first movement as singing "of the solemnity, austerity and grandeur of the North, of its restless surging and strife, of its somberness and melancholy." Under Schwarz, it sounds more leisurely than under Hanson, more lyrical and flowing. It seems warm and comforting on the one hand yet deeply agitated, almost threatening on the other, all the while evoking a lonely, distant, and, yes, Romantic, mood.

The second movement Andante is more gentle, rhapsodic, and serene than the first movement, although it never falls into the sentimental category. Schwarz establishes and maintains a mood of calm that slightly surpasses that of Hanson himself. It's especially tranquil in its suggestion of seagulls in flight.

Finally, the third-movement Allegro con fuoco tackles themes that are more folklike yet more ardent and assertive, more tempestuous, more stormy than anything in the preceding two segments. Here, Hanson the conductor has the upper hand, producing a somewhat more energetic closing statement. Still, Schwarz involves the listener sufficiently in the composer's colorful melodies and whirling rhythms. Even though Schwarz may not close the show as emphatically as Hanson does, he ensures a satisfying conclusion, nonetheless.

The Lament for Beowulf, 1925, is music in a similar vein as the First Symphony in that it is ominous and somber. However, this time Hanson sets the music to orchestra and chorus. Of course, the composer based it on the early eighth-century English poem (set in Scandinavia) that recounts the daring feats of the hero Beowulf.  Upon his death, the people express their sorrow at his funeral. The women mourn, and Beowulf's wife and handmaidens voice their anguish beside the hero's funeral pyre by the sea. Schwarz's interpretation, again slower than Hanson's own, is aptly elegiac, solemn, harsh, grave, and grim, while still being epic in scope.

Delos recorded the music at Seattle Opera House, Seattle, Washington, the Symphony in 1988 and the Lament in 1990. The sound is smooth and wide--wide in stereo spread, dynamic range, and frequency response. Midrange clarity is fine, although it is not as transparent as in the Hanson Mercury recording, which remains an audiophile choice. There is just a bit of edge in the Seattle recording's lower treble, evident in the higher strings from time to time. A good sense of orchestral depth and a touch of ambient bloom complete a reasonably realistic acoustic picture.

About my only serious reservation with the disc is its length. At just over forty-eight minutes, it seems a little short on content, particularly when compared to the Hanson-Mercury recording, which includes the Second Symphony along with the First (although you'll have to buy a second disc if you want The Lament for Beowulf).


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa