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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