Classical music listeners have always loved the music of Howard Hanson, but after his halcyon period in the 30s and 40s he fell from favor and was almost entirely absent from concert programs except for occasional airings of his Second Symphony, the 'Romantic', probably the piece for which he is best known. But he wrote a lot of music that has languished unplayed and unheard for decades. This CD from Naxos does a little to remedy that with six works primarily for string ensemble and solo instruments (the exception is the 'Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite' which uses a chamber orchestra rather than strings alone).
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.