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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