SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 5; Judith; New England Triptych.IVES/SCHUMAN: Variations on “America“. Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. DELOS–DE 3115 [DDDJ; 63:57. Produced by Amelia S. Haygood
SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 10, “American Muse”; New England Triptych; American Festival Overture. IVES/SCHUMAN: Variations on “America”.Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. RCA VICTOR RED SEAL 09026-61282-2 [DDD]; 62:10 Produced by Joanna Nickrenz.
The simultaneous appearance of these two discs will either delight or annoy (or both) the American music enthusiast. Each offers a hearty serving of some major works by the late William Schuman, performed magnificently by forces that have demonstrated a real affinity and commitment to reviving the American orchestral repertoire. But fully one-third of each disc contains overlapping repertoire. Are the Variations on “America” and New England Triptych so indispensable to an all-Schuman disc? Do they really sell more CDs? Even when the prospective purchaser already has them on recording? Is there really no communication among conductors or record company executives? I wonder.
William Schuman has long been held as one of the most important figures in American music — as composer, administrator, educator, and, in his later years, as musical public statesman Yet I have often been surprised by how many listeners — at all levels of sophistication — fail to be engaged by much of his work. Even Edward Rothstein, in a memorial commentary published in the New York Times, wrote of Schuman’s music, “It has passions within it, but it is not music of passion; it contains elements of sentiment, but not of deep feeling. It is never less than professional, but it rarely seems much more.” This assessment fails to do adequate justice to Schuman’s achievement as a composer. However, Schuman’s output is uneven, and those who know only a smattering of works, which means most listeners, Rothstein likely among them, may know the wrong smattering. A number of Schuman’s works do display a cold, mannered, artificial quality that is probably responsible for alienating some listeners. However, his ten or fifteen finest works reveal a unique musical personality characterized by a brash, exuberant but hard-edged optimism, balanced by a deep, solemn contemplativeness, defining one of the most eloquent creative voices of his generation — a voice that is distinctively and unmistakably American, without recourse to vernacular references.
I invite anyone who questions this last statement to listen to Judith, written in 1949 for Martha Graham and based on the apocryphal story of a widow who saves the Jews from the evil Holofernes by charming him and then cutting off his head. Schuman emphasizes the story’s loftiest implications through a succession of compelling episodes that capture moods of enraged dignity, violence, and solemn triumph. The work is also fully satisfying as an autonomous musical entity, with consistent threads of thematic logic that unify the strongly contrasting sections. Here, serving the highest goals of musical communication, are the most distinctive features of Schuman’s language: instrumental choirs moving in separate textural planes; an eerily effective use of polytonality; long, flowing, yet angular melodic lines that culminate in a highly personal quasi-schizoid counterpoint; jagged, brittle rhythms; an extended example of hard-bitten brass pocketing that is one of the most memorable passages in the American orchestral literature. These are sounds that soon found their way into the music of many other American composers, Leonard Bernstein among them. Because of its dramatic substructure and its lucid formal coherence, Judith may be the ideal entry point into the heart of Schuman’s music, if not his masterpiece.
It is hard to believe that a work of such importance has not had an adequate recording in thirty years. (The CRI recording issued in 1954, featuring the Eastman Philharmonia, conducted by David Effron, cannot be considered adequate.) Therefore, this excellently conceptualized and executed new recording by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony is a significant and welcome addition to the Schuman discography.
Schuman composed ten symphonies, although the first two are withdrawn The Third is his most popular — a brilliantly constructed and tremendously exciting work, though one I have often described as the best symphony Roy Harris never wrote. The Sixth, composed at about the same time as Judith, is a very ambitious work and a major achievement, defining a personal symphonic language unique to the composer. Schuman’s remaining symphonies maintain a high standard, exploring the possibilities and implications of this language in challenging and refreshing ways. But Symphonies 4 and 5 are relatively weak — rather thin and flimsy in content, compared to their predecessor and to those symphonies that followed.
Symphony No. 5 was composed in 1943 for strings only. It is a textbook example of Schuman’s use of polytonality, and the long slow movement has some beautiful moments. But the outer movements seem to me loose, unfocused, and routine. (A point of comparison too apt not to mention is Vincent Persichetti’s Symphony No. 5 (New World–NW 370-23, composed in 1953–also for strings, approximately the same duration, and using what most listeners would hear as the same general language. The Persichetti emerges as a work of far more concentration, substance, and depth.) The standard-bearing recording of Schuman’s Fifth has been the 1971 Columbia release (MS-7442) featuring the composer’s devoted advocate, Leonard Bernstein, with the strings of the New York Philharmonic. Aided by today’s sonic advantages, the Schwarz/Seattle Symphony performance holds its own in that company.
Turning for a moment to the Slatkin/Saint Louis Symphony disc, one encounters the premier recording of Schuman’s Tenth Symphony, “American Muse,” composed in 1975 for the United States Bicentennial and “dedicated to our country’s creative artists past, present and future.” Despite its subtitle, the work is generally consistent in style with its four symphonic predecessors, as suggested earlier, with no overt national references. There is, however, as with many Schuman works, a “public” quality to the symphony, as if the composer were addressing his audience as a “chief executive officer,” so to speak, rather than as a private individual. Like the Symphony for Strings, the Tenth features a long, weighty slow movement, sandwiched between two shorter, more vigorous movements. This slow movement conveys a bleak, solemn contemplativeness that is one of the chief characteristics of the mature Schuman symphonies, comparable, in its own way, to the long slow movements of some of Shostakovich’s later symphonies. It is also revealing to compare the work to Judith, and to note the ways that what is essentially the same language evolved over the course of 25 years. In the compositions of his later years, Schuman turned to an expanded range of percussion sonorities, as well as a few untraditional textural effects, most likely influenced by the explorations of some of his younger colleagues. The outer movements of the Tenth bristle with a taut, bracing, brilliantly-colored affirmativeness. Leonard Slatkin leads a stupendously exciting performance of this hard-edged work.
The new RCA release also includes the American Festival Overture, an exhilarating if somewhat self-consciously American curtain-raiser based on a New York street-call. This work, composed in 1939, introduces the composer’s brash, self-assertive exuberance in one of its earliest manifestations, with many premonitions of the Third Symphony, which was to appear two years later. Slatkin leads a sizzlingly dynamic performance that pretty much equals Bernstein’s reading with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
As implied at the beginning of this review, his orchestration of Ives’ organ piece,Variations on “America”, and the New England Triptych are fast becoming Schuman’s ubiquitous “chestnuts,” like the Adagio for Strings is for Barber. New England Triptych, based on hymns by the American colonial William Billings, is a marvelous piece of workmanship and a delicious piece of music, though peripheral to the mainstream of Schuman’s output. His orchestration of the satirical Ives piece is expert, but how many times can one enjoy even this clever joke? By now I am tired of it. I find that Schwarz captures its satirical qualities better than Slatkin in his rather tight-lipped reading. On the other hand, Slatkin’s rendition of the New England Triptych is extraordinary–the best I’ve heard–while Schwarz becomes a bit frantic in this one.
I suppose that these two new releases pose a bit of a problem for the prospective purchaser who wishes to buy just one. The presence of Judith gives the Delos a slight edge, I think. Furthermore, there is something troubling about the disc: no timings are given for the individual works anywhere on the package; only the total timing of the disc appears — and the printed timing is five minutes longer than the actual timing! I wonder what is going on here.