This month Naxos released two more CDs in their series of recordings of the Seattle Symphony under the baton of their former Music Director Gerard Schwarz. As was the case with the first round, which I reviewed about a month ago, the composers represented are Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Howard Hanson. At that time I suggested that Schwarz may well have selected these composers as a platform for the Symphony to show off its sonorities at their grandest. I also suggested that, because grandeur is not everything, we do not find much of the works Schwarz chose to record on concert programs very often.
When I wrote those words, I tried to frame programming preferences in terms of prevailing ideologies. While I still think this is the case, I also believe that it is possible to listen sympathetically to these selections, not for either the aesthetic values they espouse or for how they espouse them but because of how they represent the positions of their respective composers in those influence networks that provide the infrastructure for any comprehensive understanding of music history. Put another way, the composer who is in favor today is likely to be a product of the influence of one no longer in favor (and vice versa).
Thus, while there are many ways that Rimsky-Korsakov may be criticized for just about anything other than his skill at orchestration, we would do well to recognize him as a “mediating influence” between two Russian composers who currently receive far more attention: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky. Through the new Schwarz recording of orchestral suites, all related to extended operas that Rimsky-Korsakov composed, we can recognize traces through which the rhetoric of Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores was reconceived for opera by Rimsky-Korsakov and then restored to the field of ballet in Stravinsky’s score for “The Firebird.” (Along the way we may also encounter an influence that I have yet to see “officially” acknowledged: a very Chinese-like theme from the suite for The Snow Maiden that bears uncanny resemblance to the chinoiserie of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot!)
The new CD of works by Howard Hanson covers about a quarter-century of that composer’s life, the period from 1943 to 1967. It consists of four compositions in chronological order, the fourth (1943) and fifth (1954) symphonies, followed by an elegy composed in memory of Serge Koussevitzky and “Dies Natalis,” a set of variations on the Lutheran Christmas carol by the sixteenth-century composer Philip Nicolai, best known in English as “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star.” In terms of influence, it is worth noting that two of the authors for the accompanying notes (Steven C. Smith for the fifth symphony and Steven Lowe for the Koussevitzky elegy) invoke the name of Jean Sibelius in writing about Hanson’s orchestral sonorities. (Lowe also mentions a citation of Richard Wagner that is too obvious to ignore.)
Within this frame of reference, Hanson may be taken as a “way station” between the influences of lush nineteenth-century romanticism (which, for all of his work in the twentieth century, Sibelius never rejected) and the return to those lush qualities in the reaction against the austerity of serialism that flourished in the last quarter of the twentieth century. These are qualities that we readily associate with John Adams and what some call his “maximal minimalism;” but, in terms of the sonorities themselves, many Hanson passages, particularly for brass, anticipate the lesser-known Ingram Marshall (who has been quite open about the influence of Sibelius on his work).
Thus, while one may wonder why Schwarz has chosen to champion so many compositions that currently receive so little attention, there is probably sound logic in his method. Ours has become a culture in which concert programs are no longer conceived to present compositions in isolation. They are brought together on a single program by virtue of connections; and, even if those connections are subtly implicit, we are encouraged to try to detect them. Often they emerge from the far more complex network of connections through which we understand the broader scope of music history itself. Thus, Schwarz invites us to listen to his selections because they connect to other works with which we are more familiar. In doing so we become better listeners; and we “buy into” Schwarz’ strategies.