Music of Howard Hanson. David Craighead, organ; Eileen Malone, harp; Meliora Quartet; Brian Preston, piano; Theodore Sipes, baritone; Barbara Harbach, organ; Robert Shewan, Roberts Wesleyan College Chorale; David Fetler, Rochester Chamber Orchestra. HDTT Troy129.
Composer, conductor, educator, and music theorist Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was, indeed, an “American romantic.” He was among the last of the breed, a kind of twentieth-century throwback to the nineteenth century, so you’ll find little of the avant-garde here, the experimental, the dissonant, the discordant, the odd, the atonal, or the eccentric. Yet as a prizewinning composer and director of the Eastman School of Music for over forty years, he continually championed new American music (Copland, Barber, Carter, Thomson, Sessions, Harris, etc.). On the present album, recorded over thirty years ago, released on the Albany label, and here remastered from the original tapes by HDTT (High Definition Tape Masters), we hear a lighter side of the composer, chamber and choral music mainly. It is not among his most-popular material nor is it his best, but some of it can be downright entertaining, and HDTT’s recording quality, as always, is excellent.
The first of five selections on the program is the Concerto for Organ, Harp and String Orchestra, with David Fetler leading the Rochester Chamber Orchestra. Despite the title, however, it’s not much of an “organ concerto” per se. It’s more like an orchestral piece that just happens to include an organ because often the organ goes by almost unnoticed. Don’t expect a full-blown Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, or the work will disappoint you. This is a more easygoing piece of music, a kind of lyric idyll for strings with minor organ and harp accompaniment.
The Concerto, at least under Fetler, the only time I've heard it, sort of ambles lazily along in a kind of Frederick Delius manner, with no real starting point or destination. Yet that may be part of the work's appeal, as it is wonderfully relaxed. Besides, when the organ does make its occasional appearances, it does so with authority.
Next up is the ballet suite Nymphs and Satyr, which Hanson wrote in 1979, one of his final works. Again it's Fetler and his Rochester Chamber Orchestra who perform it, the same forces that gave it its Rochester première shortly before this recording. So I imagine theirs to be a definitive performance of the music.
Unlike the Organ and Harp Concerto, which runs along in a single movement, the equally brief ballet is in three movements: Prelude and Fantasy, Scherzo, and Epilogue. It's a bit more animated than the Concerto, with several lively sections, and there's more sense of atmosphere throughout. It still doesn't leave one with much actually to remember, but its often playful warmth seems heartfelt.
The final items on the agenda are a bit more unusual and, in their way, more impressive. The Concerto da Camera for Piano and String Quartet has a melancholy though winsome quality to it as performed by Brian Preston, piano, and the Meliora Quartet. I quite enjoyed it, particularly Preston's commanding piano playing and the Quartet's longing accompaniment.
Two Yuletide Pieces for Piano, also performed by Brian Preston, seem more important than they probably are and left me somewhat unmoved. However, perhaps saving the best for last, we find an a cappella motet, A Prayer of the Middle Ages, and three Psalms, performed by the Roberts Wesleyan College Chorale, Robert Shewan conducting, to conclude the program. The choir sings them beautifully, and they project a sweet and affecting attitude, the latter three selections enjoying the accompaniment of organist Barbara Harbach and baritone Theodore Sipes.
John Proffitt produced and engineered the recordings around 1981 using Neumann condenser microphones, an analog Studer professional recorder, and DBX Type 1 professional noise reduction. Some years later, Albany Records released the recording on CD, and in 2013 HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered it from the original DBX-encoded, 2-track, 15-ips master tapes to DXD 24-bit 352.8kHz. The results on HDTT’s compact disc are probably about as close as one can come to the sound of the master tapes.
The sound has an attractively big, airy, ambient feeling to it, with a wide dynamic range and plenty of serious impact. The stereo spread is quite expansive, too, and the transient response quick, as we might expect of a good master tape. During the Concerto the organ displays an especially taut, well-defined control, set against some natural-sounding strings. A realistic sense of hall and orchestral depth help to reinforce the notion of being in the audience, not too far away from the players.
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To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: