February 09, 2012


Hanson: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 (“A Sea Symphony”); Lumen in Christo. Seattle Symphony Chorale and Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Roussel: Le festin de l’araignée (complete); Padmȃvatî: Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève. Naxos. $9.99.

     Two top-notch Naxos series here come to an end at the same high level they have maintained throughout. The re-release of the Delos International recordings of the complete symphonies of Howard Hanson concludes with the composer’s final works in the form, played by the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz with as much warmth, skill and stylistic attentiveness as the earlier volumes received. Symphony No. 6 (1968) flows elegantly through six interconnected sections that in effect make up a single movement – a structure similar to that of the final symphony of Sibelius, a lifelong influence on Hanson. A simple three-note theme sounds as the start of the work and knits the entire symphony together, with Hanson showing his skill in treating the theme in a wide variety of ways: sensitively in the Adagio, colorfully in the Allegro assai, and so on. After undergoing numerous changes, the theme returns triumphantly at the very end of the work, whose structure is tight and whose essentially tonal language is attractive. Hanson’s final symphony, No. 7, dates to 1977 and bears the same title, “A Sea Symphony,” as Vaughan Williams’ First. It is based on the same source, too: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But while Vaughan Williams’ work was to be his longest symphony, running some 70 minutes, Hanson’s is one of his shortest, lasting only 18. There are clever and well-considered metrical shifts in the first movement, “Lo, the unbounded sea,” reflecting the ever-changing rhythms of the water. The short second movement, “The untold want,” is more chromatic than usual in Hanson’s work, ending quietly with strings and alto voices. The finale – “Joy, shipmate, joy!” – is a wonderful conclusion from the then-81-year-old composer, filled with ebullience and deliberately quoting from his Symphony No. 2, “Romantic,” as if asserting the continued importance of Romanticism for Hanson, even though the musical world had largely turned its back on that form of expressiveness. The affirmation of this final movement is infectious – it is a worthy conclusion to Hanson’s symphonic output. Also on this CD is Lumen in Christo (1974), a two-movement work for women’s voices and orchestra that is sometimes meditative and sometimes sounds rather like Orff’s Carmina Burana. This piece lasts longer than either of the symphonies, includes a number of the metrical changes of which Hanson was fond, and uses its text (from Genesis, Isaiah, IV Esdras and the Requiem Mass) to produce effects ranging from the poignant to the dramatic to the yearningly expressive. The Hanson cycle was a significant accomplishment when originally released and remains one in Naxos’ fine reissue.

     Equally fine, despite the tremendous difference in its sensibility, is the five-CD Naxos sequence of music by Albert Roussel, played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the knowing and sensitive Stéphane Denève. The final CD includes two sort-of-ballet scores: the composer called Le festin de l’araignée (“The Spider’s Banquet”) a ballet-pantomime, and designated Padmȃvatî an “opera-ballet.” Both works are about 100 years old (the former dates to 1912, the latter to 1914-18), but both sound fresh and modern even today. Le festin de l’araignée, which depicts insect life in a garden (and by implication tells the audience something of the human world), is characterized by particularly clever use of instrumental combinations, including woodwind and strings for “Entrance of the Ants,” brass and percussion with strings for praying-mantis music, and a decline into silence followed by use of the full orchestra (for the only time in the work) when a mantis strikes down the spider. Le festin de l’araignée is a series of miniatures, each carefully constructed and each distinctive. The colors of the orchestra are beautifully displayed here. As for Padmȃvatî, it incorporates elements of Indian music into Roussel’s typically haunting use of carefully chosen orchestral sections: woodwind and harp, lower strings with woodwind above, horns and strings in surging gestures, and more. Again, Denève brings out the coloristic effects while shaping the music well and keeping it moving smartly ahead, producing a highly effective reading of a work that never achieved significant popularity but that, in the context of this excellent overview of Roussel’s orchestral music, fits the composer’s oeuvre well and certainly deserves more-frequent performance.

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