You won’t find much in a catalogue of recorded works by Sydney composer Raymond Hanson (1913-1976). In fact, until this excellent two-disc set of his complete piano works was released, you would only find one album – a 2008 Tall Poppies release of his music for violin and piano.
His obscurity is illustrated by the fact that of the 14 works on this new album – played superbly by Australian-Sierra Leonean pianist Tonya Lemoh – 11 of them are world premiere recordings. They cover a comprehensive range, from a dramatic piano sonata, a sonatina and a substantial set of variations to miniatures and exercises for students.
As the leading lecturer in composition at the NSW Conservatorium of Music Hanson influenced a whole generation of Australian composers and performers, including Larry Sitsky, Nigel Butterly, Richard Meale, Don Burrows and Roger Woodward. He was an accomplished concert pianist and some of his works were performed by the likes of Walter Gieseking and Rudolf Firkusny. Part of the reason his music became neglected is that his scores only existed in manuscript form in the Sydney Conservatorium, but more likely he was shunned for his opposition to serialism and the prevailing trends of his time.
His extensive repertoire is now gradually seeing the light of day, thanks to champions like Lemoh, who is something of a pianistic archaeologist, recording works by the barely remembered Austrian Joseph Marx and Dane Sven Erik Tarp. Her excellent liner notes accompany the Hanson set, which was recorded in Newcastle, NSW, and Sydney as COVID began unfolding.
This survey is a treasure trove. His powerful and anguished Piano Sonata, written as a reaction to the Fall of France in 1940, is worth the purchase price alone. The outer movements, with their crashing chords and agitated counterpoint, contain some of the most harrowing music you are likely to hear, while the hazy harmonies of the Adagio pay homage to Debussy and Fauré.
The collection covers five decades with his first published work, the jaunty On Holidays, the opening track, immediately establishing the musical philosophy he set out by explaining why Beethoven was his favourite composer: “… What Beethoven had is the common touch… this wonderful contact between the creator and the listener… This is what I have endeavoured to do through my life.”
These works certainly connect with the listener, whether it’s the lessons in harmony and effects of Five Piano Pieces, the flirtation with jazz influences of Flight or the charming, child-like miniatures of My Day, none of which last beyond two minutes. Tributes to other composers abound – Daddy Bach in Five Portraits, Percy Grainger, Chopin and even Scriabin in Episodes On An English Folk Song Tarry Trousers – but Hanson always imprints his individual voice.
He is not short on humour. He christened a nine-month successful struggle to write a modern fugue Procrastination, and one of his portraits is dedicated to Ginger Megs.
Lemoh has re-established him on record. It remains for others to return his works to the concert hall.
Works: Complete Piano Works
Performer: Tonya Lemoh p
Label: Grand Piano GP860-61