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See latest reviews of other albums..., December 2016

This double CD features a live recording made in 1996 at the Seattle Center Opera House to mark the composer’s centenary. It was directed by Joseph Crnko and features the excellent Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Singers include the Seattle Symphony Choir as well as Lauren Flanigan, Walter MacNeil, Richard Zeller and Charles Robert Austin. This fine recording of Merry Mount shows that Howard Hanson’s only grand opera is a wonderfully passionate and richly tuneful experience. © 2016 Read complete review

Walter Simmons
Fanfare, November 2007

The performance is well paced and beautifully shaped. …The soloists in the leading roles are fine, and the chorus and orchestra are more than adequate to the demands of the work. © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

Walter Simmons
Fanfare, November 2007

this Seattle performance…represents the work handsomely and is the natural capstone of Gerard Schwarz’s valuable, comprehensive survey of the composer’s orchestral music. To read the complete review, please visit Fanfare online.

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, September 2007

Good tunes and the Devil combine in an unabashed romantic American rarity

Howard Hanson's grand opera has had a strange career. A Met commission staged in 1934, it was rapturously received with a total of pine performances but no revival. Then the critics struck with Olin Downes's assessment: "at times conventional and noisily effective ... it displays neither originality nor any special aptitude for the theatre". The New Grove doesn't mention it. There was an original cast recording from which Laurence Tibbett's performance of one aria was regularly reissued; Hanson himself conducted a recording of excerpts and made an orchestral suite, also recorded. Now this live recording has waited more than a decade to get released.

The libretto is based on The Maypole of Merry Mount, a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which he describes as a "slight sketch". So the plot had to be considerably elaborated by Richard L Stokes to turn it into a grand opera a horrifying saga of religious fanaticism and violence. The story is set in colonial times in which the repressive practices of the Puritans are challenged by new arrivals from England who prefer to enjoy life, symbolised by their dancing before the maypole. In the end the leading Puritan, Bradford, gives himself to the Devil, is crowned Emperor of Hell, and carries off the leading lady, Marigold, with him into the flames he has brought down on the village. The details are convoluted so the extended synopsis in the CD booklet is essential, but unfortunately there is no libretto.

As a spectacular display Merry Mount must have seemed the great American opera. There are elaborate choruses with syncopated rhythms for the children, the maypole dances and Bradford's nightmare; passionate Puccinian arias; and sensuous orchestral textures recalling Hanson's unabashedly romantic symphonies. The leading roles are splendidly characterised by Lauren Flanigan and Richard Zeller, well supported in a rehabilitation that is a credit to all involved.

Andrew Quint
The Absolute Sound, September 2007

Following the first performance of Howard Hanson's Merry Mount at the Metropolitan Opera in 1934, the artists received over 50 curtain calls, and there were eight additional MET perfromances that season. But the work was never revived in New York and, despite the popularity of the composer's less-than-10-minute suite of music from the opera on LP and CD, there hasn't been a modern recording of the complete score until this one, led by Hanson specialist Gerard Schwarz. This is surprising, as the work is a dramatic and musical juggernaut.

Merry Mount is based in a Nathanial Hawthorne story concerning the discord between dour, self-righteous Puritans and entrepreneurial, pleasure-seeking English Cavaliers in early 17th century New England. The central character is the conflicted Wrestling Bradford, the Pilgrims' stern religious leader. Bradford passes judgment on all manner of sinfulness (whoring, blasphemy, Indian sorcery) in the first of the opera's three acts but finds himself lustfully consumed with one of the Cavalier women, Lady Marigold Sandys, who is engaged to Sir Gower Lockland. In Act II, the Puritans ambush the Cavaliersat their extravagantly festive maypole celebration and Bradford abducts Lady Marigold, allegedly to "wrestle with ther soul" but clearly with other things in mind. Merry Mount's high point is Act II's final scene, "Bradford's Dream: The Hellish Rendezvous," in which the minister imagines an exotic and vividly terryfying netherworld where he ultimately sells his sould and accepts the mark of Satan on his forehead. In the final act, amidst a scene of devastation, we learn that Bradford's conversion was real.

This is a large-scale composition in every way with full-blooded, lyrical vocal tunes, lots of choral writing for the many crowd scenes, and brilliant orchestrations. The composer's harmonic syntax was conservative, of course, but there's no denying that Hanson knew what he was doing within the stylistic boundaries he had set for himself. Those who enjoy Hanson's symphonies and other orchestral works will savor several extended instrumental passages, such as in "Bradford's Dream." The Seattle Symphony plays magnificently and the principal singers, while not household names, are well suited to their roles, notably baritone Richard Zeller (Bradford) soprano Lauren Flanigan (Marigold), and Walter MacNeil (Gower).

This recording derives from two concert performances at the Seattle Center Opera House in October of 1996. The presentation of the orchestra isn't especially dimensional, and you must be sure to turn the gain up sufficiently to assure that Hanson's evocative, colorful music makes its full impact. Balances between stage and pit ar good. There is a very detailed plot synopsis to follow in the liner notes, and most of the English texts are intelligible. This gem of the still largely unrecorded American operatic repertoire shouldn't be missed.

Lawrence A. Johnson
Miami Herald, August 2007

Like many neo-Romantic composers of the mid-20th century, Howard Hanson's music has been neglected in recent decades. Conductor Gerard Schwarz has been a tireless Hanson advocate, recording his complete symphonies and other major works on the Delos label. With the belated release of Hanson's opera Merry Mount on Naxos, Schwarz's cycle is rounded off in style.

Merry Mount enjoyed great success at its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1934 starring Lawrence Tibbett, though the opera quickly dropped from sight. Set in New England in 1625, it relates the era's political and religious conflicts, with the ascetic Puritans set against the more earthy Cavaliers.

Hanson's opera has its hoary stentorian moments. But rather than empty pageantry, Merry Mount also presents a surprisingly sharp-eyed view of religious hypocrisy as reflected in the conflicted clergyman Wrestling Bradford. With religious extremism among the more urgent issues of our time, Hanson's opera seems more relevant than ever.

The opera is characteristic of Hanson, with a rugged American rhythmic vitality and plaintive lyricism. There is much marvelous music including a soaring love duet, a majestic close to Act 1 and a strange, unearthly dream sequence, highlighted by Bradford's long solo soliloquy.

Soprano Lauren Flanigan brings fine expressive power to the role of Marigiold, well matched by baritone Richard Zeller in the central role of Bradford.

The other soloists are more variable and there are some rough edges and odd balances in this live 1996 concert performance. But Schwarz draws impassioned playing from the Seattle Symphony and robust yet nimble ensemble support from the various choirs.

It may not be the greatest of American operas but Merry Mount is a compelling and melodically rich work that deserves renewed attention, and this Naxos two-CD set is invaluable in restoring Hanson's long-lost opera to the public.

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, July 2007

“BRIGHT were the days at Merry Mount, when the Maypole was the banner staff of that gay colony!” This is a line from Hawthorne’s description of an early conflict in what was then known as Plymouth Plantation, now Massachusetts. As Thomas Morton was a friend of Johnson and Marlowe, held no religious prejudices and treated the Native Americans as equals, he might have expected to be well-received anywhere in North America. But as the Puritans in Plymouth were too strict even for their brethren in England and did not want anyone interfering with their “Indian trade”, not to mention distracting them with the “carnal” delights of seventeenth century masques, Morton and his colony of Cavaliers were an instant threat. It is also to be remembered that back in England the Cavaliers and the Puritans were also political opponents.

When commissioned for a grand opera by the Met in New York Hanson collaborated with the music critic Richard Stokes, who used the disparate accounts of Morton and the Puritans in addition to Hawthorne for his libretto. The first Met performance was in 1934, having been preceded by a concert performance in 1933 at the Ann Arbor Festival which included Nelson Eddy and John Charles Thomas among the singers. At the actual premiere the cast included Lawrence Tibbett, Gjota Lundbjorg and Gladys Swarthout. It received over fifty curtain calls as well as being carried nationally on radio. It then went into the semi-oblivion of so many American operas of the period. The version here derives from two concert performances on successive days in October 1996 celebrating the Hanson centenary.

“Merry Mount” opens in 1625 with the Puritans singing “Be as a lion dread Jehovah …” whose tune will recur frequently in the opera. They are led by their minister Wrestling Bradford who is soon to marry the young Plentiful Tewke, a prospect he finds unappealing when compared with that of the mystery woman (Astoreth) he has been seeing in his dreams. The Puritans are horrified to find that Morton and his Cavaliers have set up a Maypole for their “pagan” celebrations and this provokes violent events when Bradford breaks a truce with the Cavaliers in order to prevent the marriage of Lady Marigold Sandys, in whom he recognizes the subject of his dreams. In Act 2 the Cavaliers and Indians are inaugurating the village (Maypole Dances-track 2) when they are attacked by the Puritans, who destroy the village, thereby also alienating the Indians. Marigold is carried off to the Puritan settlement where there is a dream sequence in which occurs the well-known love-duet “Rise up, my love, my fair one” (Track 13 of Act 2) with words from The Song of Songs. In Act 3 the Indians destroy the Puritan settlement, for which Lady Marigold is blamed. The Puritans are about to kill her when she is seized by Bradford, who marches the two of them into the burning church, accompanied by the music that opened the opera.

Many of the comments on “Merry Mount” describe it as basically a stage counterpart to his best-known orchestral works. On the surface this is true and there is plenty of the luscious melody, dramatic ostinati and sequential development that are so associated with Hanson. But the sinister asceticism of the libretto brings out music that is more despairing than usual with the composer. At the same time he is writing about New England and must substitute the psalmodic atmosphere of the Bay Psalm Book for his usual chorales. This too serves to distinguish the opera from his other works and makes one wonder what he could have done with an opera based on any of Hawthorne’s novels. Finally one should not forget that one of the main musical characters is the sense of the primeval forest of North America in 1625, perhaps familiar to Hanson from reading Francis Parkman.

Of the singers praise must be given to Richard Zeller for sustaining, both dramatically and technically a role in which he is not only the main character of the opera, but on stage almost all the time. Even in a conflation of two performances such as this one that is very impressive. While his voice is not as beautiful as that of Lawrence Tibbett or Jerry Crawford he is their equal for drama and competes well with Tibbett in the latter’s signature aria “Tis an earth defiled” (Act1-Track 4) (see below). Lauren Flanigan is one of the most intelligent of American singers and her performance here is no exception, especially in the third scene of Act 2 and most of Act 3. However, I felt that she did not fully grasp the forceful part of Marigold’s character along with the pathetic and attractive ones. I found Walter MacNeil disappointing in the role of Marigold’s fiancé Sir Gower Lackland, although this may have been partially due to the live recording. On the other hand Charles Robert Austin is unexpectedly good as the village elder Praise-God Tewke, as is Louise Marley as his daughter Plentiful, Bradford’s intended. The other singers are mostly quite serviceable. The choral complement is phenomenal. The adult singers enunciate Hanson’s contrapuntal lines with thrilling effect and the children provide the exact modal tone needed.

The most surprising thing about this recording is the variability of Schwarz’s conducting. Much of the accompaniment to the singers and several of the purely orchestral sections is both shrill and poorly phrased, at least to me. One does not expect his phrasing to sound like Hanson but one may be forgiven disappointment when it doesn’t sound like Schwarz as we know him from the five discs of the Complete Symphonies on Delos. While there were many sections of beautiful conducting I did not feel comfortable overall with his rendition on these discs. Perhaps again it was due to the nature of the performance.

As said above the opera never totally went way and tapes of the premiere performances circulated among collectors for decades until Naxos remastered them and put them in its Naxos Historical series (see review). Howard Hanson himself conducted an incomplete concert performance on the radio in the mid-fifties that was archived and this too has circulated. Hanson recorded the suite he made from the opera at least three times as well as our conductor here, Gerard Schwarz, and also Kenneth Schermerhorn and Erich Kunzel. Hanson also recorded a selection of excerpts with singers and chorus in the early stereo days. From the viewpoint of both completeness and sound quality there is no competition to this recording, not even considering quality of performance. Unfortunately, there is no libretto (nor is it available from the Naxos site) although there is a comprehensive  track analysis by Keith Anderson.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, June 2007

Hanson's opera Merry Mount has been something of a speciality for Naxos. The suite from the opera is one of the companions to the First Symphony as recorded by the Nashville Symphony and Kenneth Schermerhorn on 8.559012 (see review) . The whole opera was issued from acetates of the 1934 Serafin-conducted Met broadcasts (see review) in 1998 as part of the Naxos historic opera series. Now Naxos is the host to the digital recording of the Seattle 1996 revival. The suite was also recorded recently by Telarc with Kunzel, by the composer at least twice, by Schwarz and by others. Extracts from the opera were issued on a Mercury LP with the composer conducting; that really should be reissued.

In 1932 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novella ‘The Maypole of Merry Mount’ became the subject of a published poem by Richard Stokes. The poem caught the attention of the Nebraskan composer Howard Hanson who at that time had two distinctively romantic symphonies to his name. He had completed his signature work - Symphony No. 2 Romantic - only two years earlier and suggestions of that work can be heard in the grandiloquent love music of the resulting opera.

In this opera the sensual delights and torments of puritan Pastor Wrestling Bradford are played out against the backdrop of a New England community in the 1600s. A ship arrives from England with a contingent of dissolute Cavaliers. With them is the beautiful Lady Marigold Sandys who becomes the centre of Bradford’s obsession. On Merry Mount, with the maypole at the centre of the open-air dancing ground, Sandys is to be married to Gower Lackland. Bradford intervenes and carries her off. Finally alone with her Bradford unveils his love for Marigold. Lackland appears, there is struggle and Lackland is killed by Bradford. Act II scene 3 is a vision of hell but because this is in the similitude of Bradford’s dream it is an erotic vision in which amid the sensuality he replays his killing of Gower who appears as Lucifer. Bradford wakes as the RedIndians - who have been treated abysmally throughout the opera – sack the village and begin to kill and scalp the setters. The village burns as Bradford and Sandys return. The settlers put the Indians to flight but Bradford, conscious of the condemnation awaiting Marigold and himself, sweeps her up into his arms and strides into the furnace flames of his blazing church – a suitably Puccinian end to a superheated opera.

No wonder the subject appealed so strongly to Hanson. Harking back to the First Symphony the mood is brooding and fiercely devotional. This couples well with the Old Testament ferocity of the words. Early on in the first act the choral writing ascends to typically long-breathed nobility which is wonderfully contrasted with baritonal string writing. The Sibelian element is also present. Listen to the Pohjolan harp underpinning at 7:20 on tr. 2 for the women's voices. Attenmd also to the stertorous stentor of the horns on tr. 3 1:23. Schwarz gives Hanson's opera the dolcissima it clamantly demands and receives from orchestra and chorus, from Bradford and from the delightfully named Plentiful Tewke. Listen to Flanigan’s limning of the melodic pulse in tr. 7 when she is alone with Zeller’s Bradford. The rapturous romantic cantilena of Bradford and Lady Marigold Sandys in tr. 12 is positively symphonic in its stride. The hymnal and romantic meet in tense adversity - sacred and profane. It’s a potent mix. This contributes to the Mussorgskian glowering choral grandeur of end of act I. It is excitable and noble writing in line with Ireland’s These Things Shall Be and Hanson’s own masterwork Lament of Beowulf. At the end of each Act – thankfully not each scene - we are reminded by the applause that this is a recording of a live event. There is the occasional and rare cough as at start of tr. 4. CD1. In Act II we encounter playful zephyrs with these breezy gestures developing into a full-blown Borodin-like climax preceded by jazzy syncopations. The clapping rhythmic song rises to Prince Igor abandon. The Merry Mount scene of the wedding of Lady Marigold and Gower is carefully set but the Puritans enter and brutally end the merrymaking. The innocent maypole dances will be familiar if you know The Merry Mount suite from its many versions. Bradford's dream includes the most atmospheric of the music. In tr. 11 aggressively edgy rhythmic material is emphasised and accented by the brass with more ruthlessness than lilt - more hysteria than loving kindness. This is the Hanson equivalent of Night on the Bare Mountain. Scene 2 of Act III has it all: the brutality of the Indian attack and its repulse. The villagers turn against Lady Marigold and superstitiously blame her for the destruction. Bradford is tormented by passion and guilt and the music echoes this in climactic Puccinian ascent as he strides with the hapless Lady Marigold into the flames of the church.

Presentational issues: The two discs are in a single width case. Sadly there is no libretto. There's no Naxos site for downloading the libretto. We do get Keith Anderson's meticulously detailed synopsis which is pretty good. This keys in with the detailed tracking - 12 for CD1 and 19 for CD2.

It is a surprise it has not made more headway in opera houses. As it is it remains in the same category as Sessions Montezuma. Sure it is weakened by an excessive number of characters and generally by its jejune rocking horse name. However Hanson's singing and lyrical impulse is heard at full stretch in this opera. This splendidly representative red-blooded recording should win the work new admirers.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2007

Born in 1896 of Swedish parentage, Howard Hanson was one of the early American composers totally educated in the States, though his success in the Prix de Rome - the first American to win the prize - took him to live in that city for a time. Composed in 1933, Merry Mount is a story of conflict between Puritan and Cavalier settlers in the 17th century, Hanson's score depending upon a long list of soloists (the main ones shown in the heading) and a large chorus for the sweeping choral writing. The opening reverential orchestral chorale breaks into a dramatic outburst to set the scene for a score redolent with strong melodic content and rhythmic impact that supports the framework of a religious bigotry. From the actuality of the opening act, the story becomes increasingly improbable, the final village fire and the revelation of the pastor as the devil making for a rather contrived ending. The major roles, particularly the part of the pastor, Wrestling Bradford, are taxing, Richard Zeller, both ample in vocal weight and characterisation, going high in the baritone range with total conviction. Maybe the leading female voices are a little disappointing, but just listen to the fabulous children's chorus (track 8, disc 1) and you will surely be delighted. The Seattle chorus is a fine ensemble who sing with commendable fervour whether Cavaliers or Roundheads, and the orchestra add plenty of colour. Hanson later wrote an orchestral suite - probably despairing of the work's acceptance - the charming scene at The Maypole, which opens the second act, being the highlight. The recording was made at the performances in the Seattle Opera Centre that celebrated the centenary of Hanson's birth. The balance between singers and orchestra is ideal, and it was just a pity the audience applause that interrupts the first act has been included. Among American opera this is a 'must have' the performers at last giving the work its full justice.

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