Hanson: Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” (CD review)

Also, Lux Aeterna; Mosaics. Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony. Naxos 8.559701.

If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror movie Alien, you’ve heard a part of Howard Hanson’s Second Symphony, or if you have any Mercury LP’s or CD’s, you might have heard Hanson conducting any number of recordings he made in the Fifties and Sixties. Hanson (1896-1981) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, conductor, teacher, and musicologist who gave the world quite few good musical compositions as well as an equal number of good audiophile recordings. On the present disc, we hear his Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” and several shorter works, Lux Aeterna and Mosaics, all recorded by Maestro Gerard Schwarz and his Seattle Symphony in 1988, 1992, and 1994 for the Delos label and re-released by Naxos in 2011. Schwarz’s disc makes an excellent alternative to Hanson’s own recording of the Second Symphony for Mercury.

Hanson wrote the Symphony No. 2 in D-flat major, Opus 30, in 1930, with the subtitle “Romantic.” The subtitle is entirely appropriate as the work sounds much like a continuation of late nineteenth-century Romanticism, with shades of his Romantic contemporaries Rachmaninov and Sibelius along the way. Hanson was something of an old-fashioned holdover in this regard, saying that his intent was to write music “young in spirit, lyrical and romantic in temperament”; with the Symphony No. 2 he obviously succeeded. Viewed today, it’s probably his most-famous, most-accessible work. It’s no wonder we hear bits and pieces of it throughout popular culture.

The introductory segment of this three-movement symphony begins with a grandly melodramatic sweep and then opens up to a beautifully melodic theme we’ll hear in various guises throughout the work. Schwarz takes particular delight in the more poetic aspects of the score, while giving full measure to its rhapsodic qualities. Although Hanson tended to throw quite a lot into the stew, Schwarz holds it all together without its becoming too sentimental. Alien lovers will, well, love it.

Hanson once said that he did “not believe that music is primarily a matter of the intellect, but rather a manifestation of the emotions.” The symphony’s Andante con tenerezza (“moderately slow, with tenderness”) reiterates some of the first movement’s thematic content, although in much altered form, with Schwarz taking more of his time with it than the composer did in his own recording.

The concluding Allegro con brio (“quick and lively, with vigor and vivacity”) starts with a flourish worthy of Hanson’s teacher Ottorino Respighi and The Pines of Rome before settling into its lush, rhapsodic closing material. Schwarz again emphasizes the recurring theme, this time on a more grandiloquent scale, closing the show in fine fashion.

As companion works, Schwarz and company provide two of Hanson’s briefer pieces, first the Lux Aeterna (“Eternal Light”), from 1923. It was a common chant for a Requiem Mass and probably came about as a result of Hanson’s fascination for sixteenth-century Italian composer Giuseppe Palestrina and for Gregorian chant. It’s a rather somber, almost melancholic work, and Schwarz probably does more than anyone to make it seem more important and less pompous than it is. I admit it does exude a strangely calming effect.

The second filler, Mosaic (1957), is a later piece from Hanson, a brief set of variations in his usual brooding Nordic style. This is maybe Hanson at his most Sibelian, so take that as you will. Certainly, Schwarz does his best to bring out all the color and emotional intensity in the work.

Originally, it was Delos who recorded the sound, all three selections at the Seattle Opera House in 1988 (Symphony), 1992 (Mosaics), and 1994 (Lux Aeterna). The sound is quite expansive, stretching across the speakers and beyond, with a smooth response and a reasonable degree of depth besides. The midrange sounds a trifle thick, not as transparent in the Second as Hanson’s Mercury recording, which remains an audiophile choice, and there is just a hint of edge to the Seattle recording’s lower treble, evident in the strings from time to time. A strong dynamic thrust and a touch of ambient bloom complete a fairly lifelike acoustic picture.


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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.

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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa