Picks of the Year: 2010

by Walter Simmons



The one entry that for me looms above other recent releases is the first complete recording, now issued as a boxed set, of all eight performable symphonies by William Schuman, issued in time to mark the 100th birthday of this distinguished American composer and musical administrator. Rather than quibble over his precise place in the pantheon of American symphonists, I think that few would dispute the claim that he was among the five most important contributors to the American symphonic repertoire of the 20th century—a repertoire sorely in need of revival these days. Spanning the years 1941 through 1975, these eight works document the composer’s evolution from disciple of his teacher Roy Harris through his emergence as American music’s foremost public statesman. His Symphony No. 3 embraced the language and rhetorical approach of Harris, while far exceeding the latter’s capabilities in symphonic composition. His Symphony No. 10, subtitled, “American Muse” on the occasion of the American Bi-centennial, was a hearty congratulation to his fellow creative artists for the legacy they left, as a source of pride for subsequent generations. In between is a bounty of major works of considerable substance and expressive power, which together form a boldly individual identity—brash, assertive, and exciting. Not every symphony is a masterpiece, and Schuman’s music had its less inspired moments, and even less inspired works. Some of the weaker symphonies have long passages that seem to exert great effort to reach profound insights that finally elude the composer’s grasp. But taken together they document the growing sophistication of an eloquent creative voice. Each listener has his own special favorites among the symphonies: Mine are Nos. 3, 6, and 9—a selection that seems to be shared among many of the composer’s admirers, but not by all, by any means. In addition to the eight symphonies, the Naxos set also includes such works as the ballets Judith and Night JourneyPrayer in Time of War, the perennially popular New England Triptych, Circus Overture, and a few other fillers. (Judith, incidentally, is my choice as Schuman’s single most fully consummated work.)

Schuman’s music earned the enthusiastic advocacy of Leonard Bernstein, dating back to the time of the ill-fated Symphony No. 2. Over the years Bernstein proved to be Schuman’s most passionately exuberant interpreter, and his recorded performances of the Symphonies Nos. 3, 5, and 8—and others among his works as well—are generally held to be definitive. Bernstein’s mantle was then passed on to Leonard Slatkin, who has proven to be at least as effective a proponent, although he has not been afforded the opportunity to document so many of his interpretations on recording. For the past 25 years or so, as conductor (until very recently) of the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz has focused much of his energy on American orchestral music; his contributions in this area have been of inestimable importance, and have contributed greatly to a modest revival of interest in this area of the repertoire among listeners. Generally inclined to favor a rich, opulent sound, and a relaxed sense of rhythmic progression, Schwarz has often seemed at his best in the works of neo-romantic composers like Howard Hanson. As I listened to the first release in his Schuman cycle, my expectations were modest. But I was most pleasantly surprised. While Schwarz does not, as Bernstein did, immediately reach for the music’s rhythmic electricity or for its sonic bombast, his readings are cleaner and more precise, with fuller, more carefully balanced sonorities, yet with no lack of energy or excitement.

Naxos’ American Classics series will certainly hold a pre-eminent position in the discographic history of American music. Their contribution has more than equaled such distinguished efforts of the past as Edward Cole’s series on MGM, the Hanson/Eastman/Mercury series, and the Louisville Orchestra series. My fervent hope is that Schwarz’s relationship with Naxos continues despite his departure from Seattle.

SCHUMAN Symphonies: Nos. 3-10 et al. orch. works ● Schwarz/Seattle SO ● NAXOS 8.505228  (5 CDs)