Hanson conducts American Music, Vol. 2 = PISTON; COWELL; LOEFFLER – Eastman-Rochester Sym. Orch./Howard Hanson – Pristine

by | Jul 26, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Hanson conducts American Music, Vol. 2 = PISTON: Symphony No. 3; COWELL: Symphony No. 4; LOEFFLER: Poem for Orchestra “La Bonne Chanson” – Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra/Howard Hanson – Pristine Audio PASC 295, 70:33 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Pristine offers a second installment of neglected American scores culled from the Mercury Records archives of the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra led by composer-conductor Howard Hanson (1891-1986). The Piston Third Symphony (1947-1948) derives from a commission by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, and it won a Pulitzer Prize for Music Composition.  Recorded 11 May 1953 by Howard Hanson’s mix of Rochester Philharmonic and Eastman School of Music students, the elegiac Third Symphony reveals its essentially four-movement Classical roots, especially given its rhythmic likeness in 5/4 of the opening Andantino to Tchaikovsky’s second movement of the Pathetique.  A harp and dark strings announce the primary motive of the Andantino, which moves toward a chorale sensibility with tragic yearnings.  The music achieves a temporary serenity in which the woodwinds invoke bucolic impulses. The Coda projects a decidedly martial urgency, almost a prelude to the ensuing Allegro (Scherzo).
Indeed, the skittering figures of the Scherzo alternately twitter and thunder, a series of athletic gestures we might find in Prokofiev or Alwyn. More delicately scored landscape music with harp marks the trio section. The large Adagio proceeds as a dignified, if subdued, meditation – perhaps a dirge meant to lament the global conflict of the period. The harp and dark distinctive color of the low Eastman-Rochester strings in polyphony make for a potent valediction that rises through the brass into unequivocal grief. The extended coda conveys reverential acceptance, the tenor of the viola solo a voice in the wilderness. The final Allegro re-establishes that American optimism that survives the inevitable crises that plague our spirit. A martial tune infiltrates the progression in the strings, woodwinds, brass, and tympani. Piston depends much of counterpoint, which invests an academic sensibility some might find at odds with his inherent spontaneity. Lyricism and grandeur combine smoothly to the last pages, exuberant and confident of the future.
Critic Virgil Thomson once noted that “the variety of [Cowell’s] sources and composing methods is probably the broadest in our time.” The 1946 Fourth Symphony’s natural lyricism belies the “tone-cluster” epithet that usually dogs this composer’s reputation.  We do find those pentatonic or “Eastern” elements that often compelled the composer’s ear in the melodic tissue of the opening Hymn: Allegro first movement, a movement sadly brief, given its musical fluency. Ballad: Andante likewise reveals a diaphanous sensitivity to color and orchestration, more Loeffler and Griffes than anything of the post-serial generation. At moments, it plays like a deft brass and woodwind serenade with violin and string obbligato–it could be mistaken for Sibelius.  The Vivace recalls Cowell’s deep devotion to Irish and Celtic music, here enhanced by colorful scoring in the battery. Cowell conceived something like eighteen Hymn and Fuguing Tunes, contrapuntal exercises for various instrumental combinations, and his last movement Moderato con moto offers such an invention. The bass line  moves in passacaglia fashion while the upper voices convey modally chorale like riffs that might owe something to Bach’s body of Lutheran chorales. Recall that in the early 1960s Cowell taught the summer session of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, so this fine recorded document serves as a homecoming of a sort, idiomatic and reverent at once.
Charles Martin Loffler (1961-1935) was a German-born violinist and composer who migrated eventually to Boston, where he appeared as co-concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1882-1903. His symphonic poems take their cue from Cesar Franck and the impressionists, of which A Pagan Poem is the most famous. La Bonne Chanson (1901; rec. 29 October 1954) pays homage to Gabriel Faure, among Loeffler’s many mentors.  The coloring is thick and hyper-romantic, often anticipatory of Scriabin in its lavish and audacious colors and harmonies. The sensuous melodic contour more than once hints at Chausson, again the Flemish or Belgian side of French music. Some eleven minutes into the otherwise bucolic score, the music flames up momentarily, then a low bassoon and high strings take us into shimmering regions where the harp rules in post-Wagnerian ecstasies. Much like Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral, the lofty sentiments and clarion horns subside and settle into a bubbling froth of luxuriant harmony.
— Gary Lemco

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