Hanson: Merry Mount / Schwarz, Flanigan, Macneil, Et Al

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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...
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.

-- Rob Barnett, Musicweb International, June 2007

Product Description:

  • Release Date: May 29, 2007

  • UPC: 730099691222

  • Catalog Number: 8669012-13

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Howard Hanson

  • Conductor: Gerard Schwarz

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Northwest Boys' Choir, Seattle Girls' Choir, Seattle Symphony Chorus, Seattle Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Charles Austin, Lauren Flanigan, Richard Zeller, Walter MacNeil