Merry Mount - Live stereo recording of Howard Hanson conducting his only opera
The first release of a remarkable lost recording of a great but neglected American classic - Hanson's only extant recording
This remarkable recording of Howard Hanson's only
opera is a wonderful find, and I'm deeply indebted to John Proffitt for
offering to me to remaster for Pristine. Recordings of the opera are
thin on the ground - the world stage première in 1934, conducted by
Serafin (sadly incomplete) has been joined my a more recent digital
recording on the Naxos label; beyond that we have a suite and excerpts.
This is the first time a full recording, conducted by the composer, has
been made available. Even more remarkably it's in stereo, of a kind! The
majority of the recording comes from the 1955 tapes, which vary in
quality from somewhat dim and hissy to quite clear and bright. I've
attempted to even out these differences and enhance the sound as much as
I can to give the best possible outing for this truly historic
HANSON Merry Mount Op. 31
Bernardt Tiede - Wrestling Bradford
Beverly Sparks - Lady Marigold Sandys
Patricia Berlin - Plentiful Tewke
Richard Gilley - Sir Gower Lackland
Craig Hankenson - Myles Brodrib
Wayne Leazer - Jonathan Banks
Donald Woods - Faint-Not Tinker
James Reichert - Samoset
Carolyn Sixbey - Desire Annable
Rolland Hurst - Praise-God Tewke
Jacqueline Mailloux - Peregrin Brodrib
Mary Barbara Williamson - Love Brewster
William Duvall - Thomas Morton
Charlene Chadwick - Bridget Crackston
Roy Hines - Jack Prence
Jacob Hamm - Jewel Scooby
John Burr - first Puritan
William Boland - second PuritanEastman School Symphony Orchestra
Howard Hanson, conductor
Leonard Treasch, musical director
Live recording at the Eastman Theater, 16-17 May 1955.
NB. Due to damage to the original tapes, two short sections have been patched in from Howard Hanson's 1957 stereo recording of excerpts from Merry Mount, issued on the Mercury LP SR-90524. It is believed that the original tapes were derived from two performances on 16 and 17 May 1955. Cast list shown here is taken from the archive listings of the Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester. The recording was originally prepared for broadcast on National Public Radio in the 1980s, after which a slightly different list of performers was credited. The present release derives from a digital copy of the radio broadcast supplied by the Radio Manager of WXXI-FM, Rochester.
Background to the discovery and preparation of this recording
This recording has a somewhat convoluted history. The existence of this in-performance taping in the Eastman Theatre was re-discovered by me in Fall, 1985, while researching the old index-card catalogue of the Sibley Music Library, where a single card had the information "Merry Mount, May 1955, binaural." When a librarian finally located the tapes in a school annex, I learned that they were experimental binaural stereo captured on a staggered-head Magnecorder tape recorder. (This was a full year before the first commercial stereo sessions engineered by Mercury Records). When that single machine "died" at some subsequent point, no transfer to standard in-line stereo had ever been made to the best of our knowledge...and we looked! Eastman Recording Services and their engineer, Ross Ritchie, rented a then-very-expensive full-frequency digital delay box to slow down the advance channel to match the follow channel. When I heard the synchronized output, I was overjoyed at the quality of the early "experimental" stereo and, most of all, of the magnificent interpretation of this wonderful opera by its composer.
At that time I was the Radio Manager for the NPR radio station in Rochester, WXXI-FM. We were quite collaborative with the network producers in Washington, DC, so it was very natural for me to approach Andy Trudeau of NPR to co-produce with WXXI-FM the first-ever network-radio broadcast of this historic performance.
Damage to some portions of the original tape - especially the overture and first minutes of the recording - led us to the decision to edit in "repair" sections of Merry Mount from the 1957 commercial recording for Mercury of selections from the Opera, once again with Dr Hanson conducting. These patches were derived from an ERA LP disc.
John Proffitt, former Radio Manager, WXXI-FM, in a letter to the producer (excerpt)
Article, Rochester Review, September 1955
A brilliant climax to the Eastman School of Music's twenty-fifth annual Festival of American Music came on May 16 and 17 with two performances of Dr. Howard Hanson's monumental music drama of seventeenth century New England, "Merry Mount,” before capacity audiences in the Eastman Theatre.
The occasion was one of brilliance and excitement, for in addition to the opera, probably the most ambitious production ever undertaken by any music school, it also marked the reopening of the theatre. One of the world’s finest auditoriums, it had been closed for five month for redecorating and repair; its magnificent ornamental ceiling, glittering crystal chandelier, and Ezra Winter murals shone in new radiance, and the famed acoustics were better than ever.
Presented by a huge cast of Eastman School students, with chorus and principals, ballet, and symphony orchestra, "Merry Mount," premiered by the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1934, provided rich pictorial, dramatic and musical beauty. Critics hailed its revival in glowing terms, commended its vividness and power, termed it "the most truly authentic of all American art creations on this subject," and called the performance better than the original by the Metropolitan. Although "Merry Mount” has been given frequently in concert form, this was its first full-scale production in twenty-one years. Bernhart Tiede, '37E, came back from Dallas, Tex., to sing the leading role of Wrestling Bradford for the opening night.
The American Music Festival ran from May 6—17, and attracted national notice in the musical world. President Eisenhower sent congratulations to the Eastman School and its Director, Dr. Hanson, in a message which said:
"Over the years, this festival has stimulated American composers and helped to win wider appreciation for their work. I send to all of you my best wishes for the long and successful continuance of this effort to enrich the cultural life of our country.”
Another high point of the Festival concert series was the presentation of the Koussevitzky Award, created last year by the Koussevitzky Foundation in recognition of the Eastman School Festival's twenty-fifth anniversary, for the best unpublished new work by an American composer under thirty-five years of age. The jury, which was deluged with compositions submitted from all over the country, consisted of Olin Downes, music critic of The New York Times, Winthrop Sargent, of the New Yorker, and Dr. Hanson. Madame Olga Koussevitzky came to the Eastman School to make the presentation to the winner, Ronald Lo Presti, a composition major at the Eastman School who received his Bachelor of Music degree in June. He received a $1,500 cash prize, plus assurance of publication of his work and recording privileges.
A scene from the gala production of Dr. Howard Hanson's American opera, "Merry Mount,” which brought to a triumphant close the
25th annual Festival of American Music, in the beautiful Eastman Theatre.
(Photo and caption from "Rochester Review", Septmember 1955)
MusicWeb International Review
A blistering account of Hanson's one and only opera. Do hear it.
Let this be a lesson to me. Glancing at Dr Mullenger's monthly release
lists I saw this and thought that Pristine had sprinkled their audio
magic over the 1934 broadcast acetates. No such thing. This is something
quite fresh: a stereo recording of Hanson himself conducting his own
Eastman School forces in an ardent performance of his one and only opera
Merry Mount. A couple of patches of damage to the original
1950s tapes was made good by scarfing in from Hanson's 1957 stereo
recording of excerpts from Merry Mount (Mercury LP SR-90524; also SR-90175).
As Andrew Rose, who is the producer and presided over the XR
re-mastering, recounts: 'The recording was originally prepared for
broadcast on National Public Radio in the 1980s ... The present release
derives from a digital copy of the radio broadcast supplied by the Radio
Manager of WXXI-FM, Rochester.' It's thanks to John Proffitt that
Pristine had the opportunity to rebirth the tapes originally made in
experimental binaural stereo on a staggered-head Magnecorder tape
recorder. Remarkably this brings to three the number of
versions of this opera available on CD. The others include a rather
rough-sounding but still incendiary Met/Serafin broadcast now eighty
years old and issued by Naxos in 1999. There's also a stunning modern digital recording from 1996 conducted by Gerard Schwarz also on Naxos. It will be recalled that Schwarz recorded all six Hanson symphonies initially for Delos; they too can be heard on Naxos.
Merry Mount is an opera to a libretto by Richard Stokes which in turn takes as its point of departure Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Maypole of Merry Mount". It's Hanson's only opera and was commissioned from him by the Metropolitan Opera when he was at the early apex of his fame. That was while the first two symphonies were a fixture for North American orchestras across that continent. I won't trouble you with the detail of the plot again. If you would like a reminder then have a look at the earlier reviews linked above. Suffice to say that it is a tale of obsession amid an early American Puritan settler community. Love and lust are fatally repressed and then explosively expressed to which concatenation is added a maypole dance, a red indian attack and a sensational flame-furnace of an ending in which the tragic lead couple are incinerated. As for the female love interest it comes in the shape of a character who from our modern tawdry perspective bears a name that might have been belonged to a Bond girl of the unreconstructed 1960s-1990s: Plentiful Tewke. Her tormented lover is the preacher Wrestling Bradford.
Act I instantly asserts a strikingly gloomy and brooding romantic depth. It carries with it echoes of Hanson's Nordic Symphony. It's there to be heard in the sturdy male choral singing. Listen to the eager blaze of vocal tone at 2:05; akin to similar moments in Hanson's other choral masterwork of the previous decade, Lament for Beowulf (Hanson Schwarz). These first two tracks on CD 1 are striking and instantly grip the attention. It's all extraordinarily immediate. The paint melts under such emotional heat and that same fervour carries over into tr. 3 which also includes some entirely forgivable applause - a feature throughout. This superheated effect must have been secured by close and extended coaching by Hanson whose grip is palpable. The sound-picture is a bit one-dimensional but it is vividly close to the listener and on occasion may leave you flinching; no audio distortion though. In Act II we are treated to the Maypole Dances which have been excerpted for the orchestral suite from the opera. These dances reflects a lively stage production with the whirling excitement of Rimsky and Balakirev and the accelerating ecstasy of Borodin's Price Igor: Polovtsian Dances. In tr. 2 CD 2 the village dancing includes a clapping choir. This could so easily have sounded precious but it's crackingly convincing; not at all half-hearted. Again there are Russian influences here - principally Sheherazade. By time we get to tr. 4 the temperature has cooled a little but the interest continues. In tr. 5 those upward-whooping horns over the somewhat dullard singing of Wrestling Bradford are memorable. Once or twice the voices are over-run by the exultant orchestra as in tr. 9 but they come back with an avenging howl in tr. 10. Tr. 11 begins with an evocation of the wailing wind. It's one of the production's few miscalculations as it sounds lame: a howling high-pitched sopranino hoover or an electronic floor polisher. Never mind, over this unpromising effect Hanson builds tension and rhythmic grit. There's nothing backward about the brass here. At tr. 13 the despairingly lovely Puccinian theme is paraded in the doomed lovers' duet. Sadly their two voices are backwardly set so some of the impact is lost - and yet and yet. Act III scene 1 has an orchestral prelude with a magical gong and shivering woodwind. Tr. 15 sounds rather like Vaughan Williams but Hanson finds his feet again in the prayerful and then howling tr. 16. Before Wrestling Bradford strides into Ragnarok carrying his beloved we encounter yet another striking effect - a gleaming and somewhat Holstian ostinato with flute redolent of a similar tensely dripping figure in Hanson's Beowulf Lament. The long line-up of singers is from the Eastman School. They sing with full and glowing commitment; just a pity that they are not given more prominence in the sound-image. The choir is phenomenal being called on to take the multifarious roles of Puritans, men, women and children, male and female Cavaliers, Indian braves and squaws Maypole revellers, Princes, Warriors, Courtesans and Monsters of Hell.
This set was within a hair's breadth of Record of the Month status but ultimately the somewhat recessed solo voices of the lovers especially in the key Act II duet must deny the set that accolade ... by a whisker. Even now I haver over that decision such is the potency of this performance and recording. The orchestra is superbly rendered. If you like the towering, upfront and personal balance of the Mercury recordings of symphonies 1-3 and Lament of Beowulf then you know exactly what to expect.
Sadly there's no libretto or at least none that I could find; this despite what I thought was some intelligent or certainly persistent googling. The sung words can be found here but oddly that source omits the names of who is singing what. There is a fairly full synopsis here and here.
This opera really deserves a full production in the UK. It has however been revived in a concert version at Carnegie Hall in May 2014 with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra led by Michael Christie. Now that I would like to hear (link).
Pristine offer a nice span of download options for this recording: Stereo 24-bit FLAC; Stereo 16-bit FLAC; 320kbps Stereo MP3. I heard this set in conventional CD format and it sounded handsome.
A blistering account of Hanson's one and only opera. Do hear it.
MusicWeb International, September 2014