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Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, December 2011

Holly Blake’s bassoon makes a splendid case for the fluidity and lyricism of this versatile instrument. Jonathan Blumenfeld, oboe, captures the relatively somber mood of the piece…Conductor Spalding evokes some warm sentiments from this reserved composition… © 2011 Audiophile Audition Read complete review

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, February 2007

The most involving work here as far as I was concerned is also the largest – Hanson’s Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings which dates from 1926 but is heard here in its 1941 expansion. And how well the rather Nordic misterioso element is allowed to marinate at the work’s beginning. The organ is adroitly balanced – it couldn’t have been easy – and the harp is rightly prominent in the balance. The initially subdued organ part gradually expands and increases until in the work’s second half we have a full scale terpsichorean ostinato. This is a work of warmth, of lyrical appeal and considerable attraction.

The ballet suite Nymphs and Satyr is a late work, having been written two years before Hanson’s death. It was his last completed major score. He returned to earlier themes of his to construct a thirteen-minute four-movement suite. Two solo instruments take important roles – the clarinet and the bassoon. It’s a work that also discloses some pertinent influences even as late as 1979. Those Sibelian horn-calls summon up gaunt, vast vistas but there is also Francophile filigree writing as well. The scherzo for the bassoon has a vaguely operatic air to it.

The Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth dates from Hanson’s middle years and is a warmly urgent series of variations. The slow section is particularly appealing. It has a sense of isolation and withdrawal that hints of the banishments of the past. The energising piano part in the finale moves forward to a more serene reflectiveness. The Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings was a courtship gift for his future wife and is suitably affecting.

There’s keen and elegant writing for the discreet viola in Summer Seascape No. 2. Finally there’s the Pastorale which was written in the late 1940s and fully orchestrated for Ormandy’s Philadelphians in 1950. It has its moments of urgency but is predominately another warmly lyrical effusion, sensitively played.

This is a fine selection though one must be honest and note that Hanson is operating on lower voltage here. Nevertheless this is a tempting and bargain priced programme, excellently performed and recorded.

Walter Simmons
Fanfare, December 2006

This new release will be of variable interest to different groups oflisteners. Focusing chiefly on Hanson's slighter works, it serves as a worthy follow-up for those who have enjoyed the American neo-Romantic's symphonies and are interested in a budget-priced exploration of what else this com­poser might have to offer. More advanced Hansonians will notice that there is a fair amount of over­lap with the higher-priced Albany TROY 129. But that CD offers some indispensable entries not included here, while true Hanson completists will notice one piece included here that is not found anywhere else (as far as I know)-and it is not even indicated on the CD as a "first recording:" I refer to Summer Seascape No.2.

No, this is not the 1959 piece called Summer Seascape which two years later was sandwiched between two new movements, to make a new piece entitled Bold Island Suite (which had its premiere recording just last year). No, this is an independent eight-minute piece for viola and string orchestra, composed in 1965. In his intelligent, informative program notes, Carson Cooman points out that the work may be seen as a study, or preparation, for the Symphony No.6, which was to follow two years later, as it explores the same intervallic motif as the one on which that symphony is based. The short piece is rather atypical of its composer, with an uneasily searching, questing tone that never achieves resolution. Furthermore, the strings-only scoring-without resorting to rich, chorale sonorities--creates a sinewy texture that contributes to its uncharacteristic impact. The result is a considerably more interesting and provocative piece than the central movement of the Bold Island Suite. My only reservation is that the intonation of viola soloist Adriana Lenares is not always on-target.

The Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings is the final and fairly-often-heard revision, made in 1941, of a concerto for organ with full orchestra that Hanson had composed in 1926. Although I don't believe that the larger version is still available for performance, I recently had the opportunity to hear documentary recordings of two performances of that original. I must say that it does have its virtues, chief among them the larger, more expansive statement it makes. On the other hand, the 1941 revision is tighter formally, and more practical to perform. The music is characteristic of 1920s Hanson: the sort of piece that his admirers love in spite of its faults- i.e., it is flagrantly episodic, but chock full of throbbing melodies and lush sonorities. The Albany CD mentioned above offers a fine performance of the revised version, but this new one strikes me as just as good.

The chief point of interest concerning the ballet suite Nymphs and Satyr is the fact that it is Hanson's final major work, composed in 1979, when he was 83. It is characteristic of his late works in its inflation of very paltry substance into large gestures and full sonorities. Heard with some indulgence, it is not unpleasant, although the scherzo portion is based on a little diatonic ditty that fails to meet my personal criteria of tolerability. However, the performance, though interpretively similar to the one on the aforementioned Albany CD, is played with considerably more refinement here.

The Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth is based on the opening theme of Hanson's early (1917) Concerto da camera for piano and string quartet-a lovely piece not represented here, but included on that Albany release. Although of no great moment, the 10-minute set of variations he composed some 35 years later comprises one of the composer's most fully consummated works. Requiring no special indulgence in order to appreciate fully, it is relaxed, relatively unpretentious, and varied in character, while remaining within the composer's consistently euphonious expressive range. Scored for piano and strings, there are moments that call to mind the textures found in Bloch's Concerto grosso No. 1 (of which Hanson conducted a superb recording). The performance offered here is quite fine.

The remaining two items, Serenade and Pastorale, are very brief but pleasant mood pieces­similar in scope and impact-from the 1940s. The Pastorale, which features the oboe, is a bit cooler and more reflective, while the Serenade, which highlights the flute, is somewhat warmer and more ardent. Oboist Jonathan Blumenfeld offers an excellent performance, but flutist Andrew Bolotowsky has a few intonation problems.

The Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra was formed by conductor-composer-percussionist Daniel Spalding in 1991. They offer consistently tasteful, well-coordinated performances.

American Record Guide, December 2006

The Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings is a 16-minute work of fascinating variety and odd juxtapositions. It was recorded in Philadelphia's First Presbyterian Church with Joseph Jackson playing a restored 1872 Reuter organ. Low string bass figures near the start evolve into a fully rendered orchestral fantasy- not quite a concerto grosso, but, as the title suggests, a combination of unusual instrumental textures. The organ is not bombastic, but contributes a tone color not often experienced in such orchestral works, while the harp adds atmospheric flavor. Romantic string lines sometimes share the acoustic with moody organ motifs, yet there is plenty of rhythmic variety as well. Since the strings are romantically set, as is Hanson's way, the organ adds a little "Gothic romanticism", one might say­ though the piece ebbs and flows with enough modern chromaticism, color, and contrast to make a description futile. You have to hear it. Each time I did, I liked it all the more.

Nymphs and Satyr, according to the notes, was Hanson's last completed major composition. The Fantasy Variations are for piano and strings- beautiful, dark, and delicate. The Serenade is for flute, harp, and strings, the Pastorale for oboe, harp, and strings. I loved all of these pieces. They are wonderfully melodic, often deeply moving, and show the compositional skill of a great 20th Century composer. Daniel Spalding and his musicians are superb interpreters. The sound is some of the best I've heard from this best-known bargain label. Even if you have all the Hanson symphonies and more, you'll want to add this.

Paul Cook
MusicWeb International, November 2006

Howard Hanson was about as mainstream American Romantic as you can get. He was part of a flourishing generation of Middle American composers of Romanticism - and by that I mean writing coming out of the American Midwest - that blossomed in the 1930s and continued until they all died off in the 1980s and 1990s. These would include Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Henry Cowell, Samuel Barber and Paul Creston, to name but a significant few. Variously, these men were getting much of their instruction from Europe; mostly from Nadia Boulanger. Hanson, however, studied under the Italian great, Ottorino Respighi, and it’s from him that Hanson learned his skill at orchestration. Hanson, in 1924, became the director of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and made musical history for his advocacy of American music.

The disc at hand is a collection of extraordinary lyrical chamber works composed across Hanson’s life. If there was any one influence in Hanson’s life - besides Respighi - it was Jean Sibelius. Sibelius was a master of the clear lyric and balanced harmonics. A good example of this appears in this disc’s two most dynamic works, the Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings and his Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite. The organ, of course, has traditionally been used for music of a religious nature, with the occasional foray into the ordinary classical repertoire such as Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. It’s a cumbersome solo instrument and recording of it generally has to be done in churches which sometimes do not have the best acoustics for recorded work. The balances have to be just right or the organ can drown everyone out. Here the physical sound of both the organ and the strings match each other well - with a bias given to the strings which come off as lush and wondrously romantic. Strangely, from the second bar o nward - after the organ has announced its presence - Hanson’s inimitable “voice” enters and, if you’re already familiar with his work, you’re right at home. It’s one of Hanson’s most enjoyable works.

The standout on this disc, however, is the Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite. This late-in-life work finds Hanson filled with the exuberance of youth and an almost unexpected optimism. A great deal of Romanticism tends to be more brooding or melancholy than anything else: think: Sibelius in his Fourth Symphony or Shostakovich in his Eighth. This work belies all of that. And it was this piece alone that made me sit up and pay close attention to this ensemble which I had never heard before; I was particularly taken Doris Hall-Gulati on the clarinet.

Of the remaining works on this disc, the Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth for Piano and Strings (of 1951) is a bit more melancholy, perhaps with the composer in a mood for looking back upon his own youth with a more darker sensibility than usual. It also happens to be made of student pieces Hanson wrote when he was in his early twenties. The Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings (1945) opens with a strangely Japanese-sounding flute and might remind some listeners - quite accidentally - of the lyric works for flute and orchestra by Alan Hovhaness. This is followed by the very song-like Summer Seascape Number 2 for Viola and Strings (1965). Perhaps this is the sonically weaker of all the works here, though it certainly isn’t a slouch as far as melody is concerned. The viola, as a solo instrument, doesn’t project well and all the expert playing in the world - here performed warmly by Adriana Linares - can’t elevate the sound of the instrument to where it can stand out. Finally, the Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings (1948-49) has as slight British character to it, coming as it does from a plaintive oboe; one can almost hear Alwyn or Bax in some of the oboe’s lines.

Though Naxos is a lower mid-price label, for more than a decade they’ve been putting out some of the best music on the market. This disc is one of those excellent productions. The sound is balanced and lush - given the limited resources of string orchestras - and the playing, by everyone involved, is superior. I’m a Hanson fan and a sucker for this kind of music. I was just pleasantly surprised by the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra. Two words remain: Encore! and More!

David Hurwitz, October 2006

Howard Hanson's frankly romantic, occasionally kitschy music may arouse extremes of enthusiasm and distaste among listeners (I happen to like him), but there's no doubt that he was one of the few modern composers who had an instantly recognizable harmonic and melodic style. You can hear it at work in all of these pieces--and some of them, particularly the Serenade for flute, harp, and strings, and the Pastorale for oboe, harp, and strings, are extremely beautiful indeed. Even the Organ Concerto (with strings and harp) is lyrically affecting rather than noisy or bombastic. The ballet suite Nymphs and Satyr, effortlessly scored for chamber orchestra, is a late work that reveals that although Hanson developed not a jot over the course of his long career, neither did his fund of characteristic melody dry up. Here's the bottom line: these are eminently worthy performances, very well recorded, of genuinely pretty music. If that's your cup of tea, and it's kind of hard to figure that it would not be unless aural pain turns you on, you will certainly enjoy this and I recommend it to you without hesitation.

David Lewis, July 2006

Recording hasn’t been unkind to the legacy of Howard Hanson, and his own recordings as conductor of other composers’ music continues to stay in print and to thrive. However, when it comes to Hanson’s own work, recording has not been exceptionally generous as it has to some of his contemporaries (for example, Copland or George Gershwin); the vast majority of recordings devoted to Hanson concentrate on one work, his Symphony No. 2 “Romantic,” Op. 30. With Naxos American Classics’ Howard Hanson: Organ Concerto we finally encounter an all-Hanson collection that afford some depth to his orchestral oeuvre, and these pieces are all exceptionally fantastic offerings to boot.

This selection features Hanson’s early Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings, Op. 22/3 (1926), his Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings Op. 35 (1945), the Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth for Piano and Strings (1951 and his Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings (1948-1949) and the obscure Summer Seascape No. 2 for Viola and Strings (1965). Although scored in a concerted vein, all of these works are cast in an episodic, single movement format, and all but the Organ Concerto run less than 12 minutes in length. Rather than pressing Hanson’s own one-time orchestra, the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra into the service of these unfamiliar works, Naxos has located a superb foil for them in the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Spalding. There is an excellent lineup of soloists involved as well, including Spalding’s betrothed Gabriela Imreh in the Fantasy Variations and exciting young violist Adriana Linares in the Serenade. The only multi-movement work presented is the very late Hanson composition Nymph and Satyr Ballet Suite (1979) which features Doris Hall-Gulatt in a superb solo part for the clarinet.

Hanson’s music is multi-faceted and rich with resplendent beauty; the oft-repeated observation he never departed from his “unashamedly romantic idiom” limits one’s perception as to how much variety there is in Hanson. There are textures in the Nymph and Satyr Ballet Suite that bring to mind Philip Glass although in 1979 it’s hard to say whether one was aware of what the other was doing musically. The Organ Concerto is the total opposite of, say, that by Poulenc as the organ builds into the orchestral texture and matches it, rather than stands apart from it. All of the other pieces speak very eloquently for themselves, and are certainly easy to listen to, even for the first time. Naxos American Classics’ Howard Hanson: Organ Concerto makes clear that Hanson didn’t hang onto his romantic musical vocabulary because he was a conservative – Hanson did so as he knew what combination of his “13 herbs and spices” made the chicken taste right, and didn’t want anything else to spoil the recipe. Naxos’s recording is warm, up close and the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra sound like a bigger band than they are, the mark of any great chamber orchestra.

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