Hanson: Merry Mount Suite (CD review)

Also, Bold Island Suite; Symphony No. 2 "Romantic." Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Telarc CD-80649.

American composer, conductor, and teacher Howard Hanson (1896-1981) extracted the Merry Mount Suite from his 1933 opera, and it's anything but merry. The drama depicts some rather brutal encounters between early New England Puritans and newly arrived Cavaliers, the core of the conflict centering on the preacher's illicit lust for a woman. If it sounds a little like Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, you'd be right. Hawthorne wrote the original short story, "The Maypole of Merry Mount." In the tale you'll find names like Wrestling Bradford, Marigold Sandys, and Sir Gower Lackland, which in itself makes it hard to take seriously. Anyway, the suite is much less dour than the opera, its four movements concertrating on the lighter, more ardent aspects of the story, at least as conductor Erich Kunzel and his Cincinnati Pops Orchestra interpret it.

The Bold Island Suite from 1961 gets its world première recording here; it's a series of three tone pictures portraying birds, the seascape, and nature on Bold Island, just off the Maine coast. The concluding composition, the Second Symphony, may be familiar to some listeners as background music in the movie Alien, and it is quite atmospheric. Kunzel and the Cincinnati players do their usual professional job interpreting all three pieces, and the album makes a strong introduction to the composer's work.

Telarc's sound from 2005 seems more refined than previous releases. I compared their Hanson offering to an earlier Telarc-Kunzel recording and found the older one brighter and more closely miked. I also noticed that the Telarc engineers used an entirely different chain of recording equipment here than in earlier days--microphones, consoles, preamps, monitors, interconnect cables--and that the company used Direct Stream Digital for their encoding, all of which may have helped account for the differences I heard. I'm not sure which sound I liked best, though. The new sonics retain all of the old Telarc trademarks of bass and dynamics while rendering the sound stage quite naturally, but the old sonics seemed more outgoing and robust. In any case, the new recording seems to fit the mood of the music pretty well, so I'm not complaining.

One might keep in mind, however, that Hanson himself recorded many of his own works for Mercury, including the Second Symphony, and they still sound terrific remastered on CD.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa