October 9, 2012

Suggested Recordings: Howard Hanson's "Nordic" Symphony

Hanson: Symphony No. 1 (“Nordic”)
Kenneth Schermerhorn, Nashville Symphony
Naxos CD 559072

Howard Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, but his parents were Swedish, and his favorite composer was Finland’s Jean Sibelius. In fact, when George Eastman established the Eastman School of Music (ESM), he first offered its directorship to Sibelius (old George knew far more about classical music than he ever let on); Hanson, just returning from several years of study at the American Academy in Rome, was the second choice, began in 1924, and the rest, as they say, is history.

There are only three recordings available of Hanson’s “Nordic Symphony”, and they set my expectations on their head. (So much for relying on memory of judgments made long ago.) Howard Hanson’s own recording with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra came up the loser. It contains the Mercury label’s worst possible engineering: the orchestra sounds raw, dry, and so congested that the only inner details you can in full passages are either piccolos or trumpets blaring at triple-forte. While Hanson does move things along, his rhythmic pulse can be quite foursquare.

I thought the Seattle Symphony on Delos (re-released on Naxos) would be better, but not so. While the sound is certainly warmer and more resonant, far too many details are still inaudible, and Gerard Schwarz allows the flow to become sluggish too often.

To my surprise, the recording I can best live with until a better one comes along is Kenneth Schermerhorn’s. He’s not as animated as Hanson the conductor, and in the last movement his “Allegro” is hardly “con fuoco”. But he maintains his chosen pulses, has a good grasp of form, and for once I could actually hear the harp, the contrabassoon, and an array of colors the woodwinds add when “doubling” the lines of other instruments.

Final conclusion: this symphony, written in 1923 when Hanson was finishing up his time in Rome, is poorly orchestrated—that’s why so many details (and there are loads of them) remain inaudible. So there’s the challenge for Arild Remmereit and the RPO: will enough colors and details support the obvious melody lines and harmonies to make this performance a thrilling experience? If the answer is yes, the world is still waiting for a really good recording!

By the way, there’s one error in the Naxos liner notes. The writer confuses the Eastman Philharmonia (ESM’s upper classmen’s and graduate students’ orchestra) with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. For the American Composers Concerts that Hanson began at ESM in 1925, he created the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra (ERSO), comprised of ESM artists’ faculty, advanced students, and members of the Eastman Theatre Orchestra that, with the advent of “talkies”, became the Rochester Civic Orchestra in 1929. In 1941 the ERSO began giving public concerts as part of ESM’s annual Symposium of American Orchestral Music. By the time it (and the Eastman Wind Ensemble) began recording for the Mercury label in the early 1950s, its name had changed to just Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. Mercury stopped making classical recordings in the mid 1960s, and the orchestra ceased operating in 1973.  

Gil French is a music critic living in Rochester. 

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