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Pristine Audio Revives Mid-20th Century American Classics

Posted on: August 1st, 2011 by Art Leonard No Comments

Pristine Audio, the French-based historical recordings label operated by British audio engineer Andrew Rose, has undertaken a project to digitize and restore the important mid-20th century American musical legacy of Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra, originally issued from the early 1950s through the mid-1960s on the Mercury LP label.  Hanson, himself an important composer and competent conductor, was the director of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he constructed a special orchestra made of up members of the Rochester Philharmonic and the best instrumental students form the Eastman School of Music, to present concerts of American orchestral music.  Somehow he persuaded Mercury Records that recording the best of these pieces with this orchestra could be a commercial proposition, unusual for that time (although Columbia Records did record some music from this repertory with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but not in the sheer volume of the Hanson recordings).

Hanson strongly believed that recordings were important as a way of helping to establish an American orchestral repertory.  There was a significant group of composers at mid-century writing symphonies, overtures, tone poems, and other orchestral works, bucking the mid-century trend by clinging to tonality and lyricism in their music, and not getting played or broadcast very much.  As a member of this group, Hanson was eager to proselytize for their music, and the recordings emanating from Rochester made vivid propaganda.  Unfortunately, they did not have their intended goal of embedding lots of this music in the regular repertory, and Mercury allowed the monaural recordings to go out of print during the 1960s.  There was a brief revival of some of these recordings during the 1970s, in simulated stereo, but they went in and out of the catalogue quickly, and the advent of CD did not bring a wholesale revival, as Universal – the owner of the master recordings – restricted its Mercury CD reissues larger to the stereo repertory, which involved only a portion of the Hanson legacy.

So Andrew Rose's project is of prime importance for documenting a significant era in American composition, and bringing back to life an important recorded legacy.  The first two CDs in the series have recently become available, and they are beauties.  Volume 1 includes two of Hanson's works, his Symphony No. 4 "Requiem", and "Songs from Drum Taps," a three-movement setting with baritone soloist (David Meyers) of verses by Walt Whitman.  Charles Martin Loeffler's Memories of my Childhood (Life in a Russian Village) and Randall Thompson's Testament of Freedom (choral settings of passages from the writings of Thomas Jefferson) round out the disc.  These were all world premiere recordings in their time, 1952-1954.  Rose has largely tamed the somewhat raw quality of those Mercury mono recordings, producing rich, smooth sound.  The Eastman-Rochester Orchestra was a bit understaffed in the string section but had excellent winds and percussion and played with reasonable precision and much enthusiasm for Hanson.  Although there are modern recordings of some of this repertory readily available, hearing the "original creations" is special, and the disk is good value at 72 minutes.

Volume 2, just released presented Walter Piston's Symphony No. 3 and Henry Cowell's Symphony No. 4, and Loeffler's Poem for Orchestra.  This makes a very full disk (about 70 minutes), bringing back important recordings from 1953-54, in superb performances.  The American Symphony Orchestra presented a fascinating all-Piston concert at Carnegie Hall last season, including Symphonies 2 and 4.  It is interesting to hear the symphony that came between those.  As usual with Piston, the work is brilliantly orchestrated (he literally wrote the book on American orchestration), and although the themes may lack the memorability to achieve regular repertory status, this piece could profitably be revived for concert hearing and would grace any program.  Henry Cowell's symphony is surprisingly folksy and listener-friendly, Loeffler's brand of American impressionism is easy on the ears. 

Rose's sterling efforts to revive worthy historical recordings that have been neglected by the big international corporations that own the rights to the original masters should be encouraged, and I hope he does well enough with these Hanson efforts to support continued reissues.  There are wonderful recordings of music by MacDowell, for example, Griffes, Sessions….  I hope Rose gets around to everything in the archives.

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