Organ Concerto Fantasy Variat
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|1. Concerto For Organ, Harp And Strings, Op.22 No.3|
|2. I. Prelude/II. Fantasy For Clarinet And Chamber Orchestra|
|3. III. Scherzo For Bassoon And Chamber Orchestra|
|4. IV. Epilog|
|5. Fantasy Variations On A Theme Of Youth For Piano And Strings|
|6. Serenade For Flute, Harp And Strings, Op.35|
|7. Summer Seascape No.2 For Viola And Strings|
|8. Pastorale For Oboe, Harp And Strings|
Howard Hanson was an unabashed Romantic and this collection of some of his shorter works shows him in that light, brightly. The longest work here, at 16 minutes, is the concerto for organ, harp, and strings: it begins with great mystery, quietly, with the harp popping out of the string texture frequently; there follow solos for the organ which lead back to the earlier vagueness--then all the forces are called into play, and the piece ends with a solo for the organ. The "Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite" has lovely solos for a bassoon and clarinet; "Fantasy Variations" for piano and strings is a solemn piece, very cinematic in structure. "Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings" is influenced by French impressionism and is very lovely; "Summer Seascape" for viola and strings is both stark and attractive; "Pastorale for Oboe" is also impressionist and has a nice, solitary feel to it. The performances under Daniel Spalding are superb with each soloist worthy of his or her assignment. A special treat for those who love American music. --Robert Levine
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The Organ Concerto has had a life of sorts, but it has rarely been played in its original form for organ and full symphony orchestra. It was recast for strings and organ and is occasionally trotted out primarily in church settings. It was written for musicians at Hanson's own Eastman School, where he was the director for decades, and premiered by organist Eastman's Harold Gleason and later played and recorded by an Eastman successor, David Craighead. In one movement it is in typical Hansonian fantasia format with a misterioso beginning and a livelier middle section leading to a development section of sorts making use of the first section's materials. It ends briskly after an exuberant virtuoso pedal cadenza. Organist Joseph Jackson, playing a fine new Reuter organ at Philadelphia's First Presbyterian Church, is given sensitive support by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Spalding.
The succeeding pieces are slight in comparison to the Organ Concerto, but nonetheless charming and interesting in turn. All are tuneful, romantic in tone, and expertly written. The slightest of these works is the 1979 'Nymphs and Satyr' suite which is the last thing Hanson wrote. It is rather thrown together, by my lights, by combining some scraps and independent pieces he'd written including a Fantasy for clarinet and chamber orchestra and a Scherzo for bassoon and chamber orchestra. Neither is particularly memorable -- well, that's not entirely true, the almost simple-minded changes wrung on a second inversion triad by the solo bassoon in the scherzo has a tenacity in the mind's ear that is just this side of irritating. The soloists, Doris Hall-Gulati, clarinet, and Holly Blake, bassoon, are excellent. 'Fantasy Variation on a Theme of Youth, for Piano and Strings' (1951) was commissioned by Northwestern University for their centenary. Hanson fittingly took a theme he'd written as a student there in 1917 and made this set of variations in which the piano is more an obbligato instrument than a concerto-like soloist. There are four variations that, while all based on the somber theme, differ remarkably from each other. Variation form in the guise of elaboration of themes was particularly congenial for Hanson, and this is an attractive if rather slight work.
'Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings' (1945) and 'Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings' (1948-49) were both written as presents for Hanson's wife -- he had not married Margaret Nelson until almost he was almost fifty, in 1946. The latter work was originally for oboe and piano but he orchestrated it in 1950 for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra; the legendary Marcel Tabuteau was the oboist. Each work is rhapsodic, almost impressionistic and yet Sibelian as well. Andrew Bolotowski, flute, and Jonathan Blumenfeld, oboe, are the fine soloists. Solo harpist in these two works as well as the organ concerto is Jacqueline Pollard.
A surprisingly effective work, if obscure (which simply means I'd never heard of it until I read about it in Walter Simmons's monumental book about six American neoromanticists 'Voices in the Wilderness'), is the 'Summer Seascape No. 2 for Viola and Strings' (1965). It is called 'No. 2' because the middle movement of Hanson's 'Bold Island Suite' is also called 'Summer Seascape' and started life as an independent piece. This is a starkly beautiful tone poem in which the plangent tones of the solo viola stand in contrast to the silken, yet sometimes pungent, string mass. It is not hard to picture the dramatic Maine seacoast when listening to this short work. The playing of violist Adriana Linares is meltingly beautiful.
This is a definite must for those who love the big romantic canvases of Hanson's music but who are not familiar with his works in smaller forms. Sound is exemplary.
The major work here is the early Organ Concerto, a quarter-hour piece in Hanson's usual melodic, romantic idiom, with a little added Modern astringency. It is typically rhapsodic and poignant, as well as expertly crafted. I think this would be very enjoyable on the rare occasions of its performance (and it would be good to hear the version with full orchestra one day). I could also imagine it benefiting from a more spectacular solo instrument, though the one on this recording has its charms and is appropriate to the semi-chamber nature of this collection. My only real quibble here is the extreme pianissimo near the end, which makes the conclusion seem to come out of nowhere.
Next comes the Nymphs & Satyr ballet suite, the musical equivalent of a fawn nuzzling a teddy bear. But I mean that in a good way! It's just very sweet, in Hanson's particular melodic and harmonic way. The two middle movements feature nice solos for clarinet and bassoon. Some shadows do pass over the glade during the Epilog fourth movement.
Your ears will perk up when you hear the beginning of the Variations on a Theme of Youth. This is one of the few Hanson works for which there are several recordings readily available, and this performance is certainly competitive. The "theme of youth" is in fact a musical theme the composer wrote in his youth, but as developed in this piece there is a definite suggestion of bitter-sweet nostalgia. As with the Organ Concerto, I can't help wishing this chamber concertante work had been arranged for full orchestra, but bear in mind I do tend to favour orchestral over chamber music.
After the Variations, the remainder of the works on this CD tend to the gentle and ruminative, with no big endings, so they can seem to blend together. Each is of a high standard and has its individual charms if you care to listen, but as a set these last works seem ideal for lazy Sunday afternoon background listening.
Kudos to Naxos for releasing this CD of little-known music that's well worth hearing. Now, let's see them finish recording the symphonies!
Ken Suetterlin, Marshalltown, Iowa
Even the organ concerto (scored with strings and harp) is shorn of pomp and bombast, and is a reflective (mostly) work in the same lyrical vein. The drawback is that it contains absolutely nothing that could possibly sustain the listener's interest. It is, in other words, a drearily boring work, meandering and filled with empty gestures. The Nymphs and Satyr suite is delectably scored and tuneful but minor music, charming enough but with little lasting interest. The Fantasy Variations for piano and orchestra are more interesting if not among Hanson's very best music. Neither is the Summer Seascape no. 2 anything I can imagine myself returning to very often - it is a slightly diffuse work lacking any kind of inspired thematic material. It does remind me slightly of the music of Arnold Bax, and perhaps my problem is that Hanson's work has nothing of the craggy power and bold colors of Bax's music.
In short, this disc is one for those who already count themselves among the convinced fans of the composer. Nothing here comes close to what Hanson achieved in his symphonies, for instance, and only a few items (the serenade and fantasy variations, which are both featured on the Delos sets of Hanson's symphonies anyway) manage to create any lasting impression. I can find little fault with the performances - the soloists are overall very good and the orchestral contributions more than satisfactory, even if a tad more vibrancy and spirit might have helped - there is more breadth and opulence to be found in these scores, and given their slight contents they need everything they can get. The sound is fine if not spectacular. In the end, however, this disc is mostly for the convinced Hanson follower, and I cannot say that I am one of them (even if I really enjoy his best symphonies).