W. SCHUMAN Credendum. Symphony No. 4. Piano Concerto · David Alan Miller, cond; Albany SO; John McCabe (pn)· ALBANY TROY-566 (64:54)
PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 4. LEES Passacaglia. DAUGHERTY Hell’s Angels. Symphony No. 3, “Philadelphia Stories” (Sundown on South Street) · James DePreist, cond; Oregon SO; Bassoon Brothers· DELOS DE-3291 (61:24)
The two recent releases discussed here are united by a particular fact-tangential, perhaps, to some, but quite relevant to most serious collectors: The two most important works-Schuman’s Credendum and Persichetti’s Fourth Symphony-have each been recorded but once before, by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. More to the point, these two recordings-originally released during the mid 1950s-were reissued in 1998 on a single Albany CD (TROY-276). During their long history of recording for Columbia Masterworks and, later, RCA, Ormandy and his orchestra produced a goodly number of remarkably dull, if technically accomplished, performances. So the question becomes: How do these newly-recorded performances compare with the 50-year-old Philadelphia efforts?
The unheralded appearance of these two recordings draws attention to another point as well: The modern American symphonic school represented by Schuman and Persichetti (not to mention Peter Mennin, Benjamin Lees, David Diamond, and others), which reached its pinnacle during the 1950s, seems to be in severe eclipse since the early 1990s, while the neo-romantic American symphonic school represented by Barber, Hanson, Creston et al. has enjoyed a considerable revival of interest during recent years. Perhaps the reason for this is that the lyrical melody and rich harmony of the latter group make their music readily accessible to the many general listeners who enjoy composers like Strauss and Rachmaninoff. The works of Schuman and the other symphonic modernists, on the other hand-though oriented around a tonal center, and articulated according to traditional notions of motivic development-exhibit a higher level of dissonance and harder-edged sonorities, making them as forbidding to many listeners as the music of the atonalists.
William Schuman (1910-1992) did not discover classical music until late in his teens, and did not decide to become a serious composer until he reached adulthood. Studying with Roy Harris during the mid 1930s, when the Oklahoman was gaining great renown as a major force in the forging of an American symphonic style, Schuman displayed in his early compositions many of the traits associated with his mentor. During the 1940s, as his own musical personality emerged, through the 1950s, and into the 60s he was recognized as a leading figure among America’s symphonic modernists, and, in a sense, Schuman came to represent the spirit of post-World War II America. During his formative years he had developed an optimistic, Dewey-based belief in progressive education that represented the cutting edge of pedagogical thinking in America during the middle third of the 20th century. Not only did his own music exude this positivist mentality, but his career, like that of so many other bright, ambitious young men during the post-war period, ascended rapidly, as he went from director of publications at G. Schirmer to president of the Juilliard School at age 35, to founding president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (a term he coined) at 52.
Schuman’s best 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. The most distinctive features of his musical language include the offsetting of instrumental choirs in distinct textural planes; a highly expressive use of polytonality; long, flowing, yet angular melodic lines; jagged, brittle gestures; and breathlessly nervous, irregular rhythms, often in intensely contrapuntal interaction. However, Schuman’s compositional output is marked by some unevenness with regard to expressive urgency, or “inspiration.” Some pieces strike one as a succession of familiar devices and effects punctuating long, barren expanses.
In his personal manner Schuman was rather like the CEO of a large corporation, displaying boundless enthusiasm and creative energy. As he aged, he became even more polished and “presidential” in his affable self-assurance and his gift for spontaneous public utterance. So there is something appropriate about his being commissioned in 1954 by the United States government to write a symphonic work in honor of UNESCO. This was a very fertile period for Schuman as a composer, and the work he completed the following year, which he called Credendum, is, in many ways, a quintessential statement-not just in capturing what John Proffitt has described as the composer’s “humanistic faith in the power of Education, Science, and Culture to shape mankind for the better,” but also as an expression of educated post-war America’s view of what our arts should address.
Not only is Credendum one of Schuman’s most characteristic orchestral compositions, but it is also perhaps the easiest of his major works to appreciate, making it an ideal point of entry into his output as a whole. The work is in three connected sections: the first, “Declaration,” is brash and brassy, assertive and declamatory, with bold percussion punctuations and nervous, syncopated rhythms; the second section, “Chorale,” is based on a solemn-even poignantly sad and longing-hymn melody introduced by the strings-one of the most beautiful melodies Schuman ever wrote. The mood of the music is broadened through a series of clearly-defined variations; “Finale” is fast, based largely on material heard earlier, with irregular rhythmic patterns (and string pizzicati that many will recognize from subsequent works by Leonard Bernstein), polytonal harmony, searing counterpoint, and cumulative pyramid effects, all culminating in an affirmation of unashamed grandiloquence.
The Philadelphia performance of Credendum is solid and powerful, although the work displays neither the subtlety nor the complexity that would make it a major interpretive challenge. The Albany Symphony, currently under the charismatic leadership of David Alan Miller, has been pursuing a mission to document many of the major works of the American symphonic repertoire. Their freshly-recorded account of Credendum supplies the necessary power and precision, incisively projecting the work’s sharply-chiseled counterpoint. Only the rather scrawny-sounding string section causes one to miss “the Philadelphia sound.”
If “grandiloquent” is a word that can be applied to many works by William Schuman, it is virtually never applicable to music by Vincent Persichetti, a master of aphorism, small-scale structures, and lightness of touch. Unlike Schuman, Mennin, and many other American composers of that generation, Persichetti did not use the symphonic genre as the medium for his most significant or characteristic musical statements, although he did compose the obligatory nine (of which-as with Schuman and Mennin as well-the first two were withdrawn). Although the Fifth (for strings), Sixth (for band), and Ninth (for full orchestra) are masterpieces, Persichetti’s symphonies are far from the soul-baring, angst-ridden post-romantic prototype. James H. North has called Persichetti “a twentieth-century Haydn,” and no work could exemplify this more than the Symphony No. 4 of 1951, in many ways the consummate neo-classical symphony. The work is virtually devoid of what we think of as “drama,” lightly and transparently scored throughout, rarely rising above a mezzo-forte. As in so many Haydn symphonies, Persichetti’s Fourth opens with a slow, solemn introduction that proves to be the weightiest music of the entire work. This is followed by a lively allegro, which bounces along with a playful, joyful exuberance. The second movement is a gently wistful and deceptively simple burlesque, the third a gracious and whimsical intermezzo, while the finale is a brilliant whirlwind in perpetual motion, masterfully recalling most of the work’s thematic material with a joie de vivre that is irresistibly exhilarating.
Unfortunately little of the foregoing is suggested by Jim Svejda’s program notes (I would have expected more from him), which simply pass along the desiccated information that appears in any reference book, preparing the reader for a dull visit to academia. James DePreist, who studied with Persichetti years ago, has been a devoted advocate of the Fourth Symphony for some time, and I have long admired his musicianship, so I approached this opportunity to hear another perspective on the work with great eagerness. Therefore it pains me deeply to have to report his performance as rather disappointing. True, his slower tempos in the outer movements, along with the clear, transparent recording, reveal considerably more contrapuntal detail than can be heard in the venerable Philadelphia rendition. But the joie de vivre to which I referred is dampened to a great degree. This is most sorely the case in the last movement, and it is not only a matter of metronomic tempo: a playful, childlike quality is essential to Persichetti’s aesthetic. Gestures and motifs bounce among different components of the orchestra rather like cartoon characters, and the music has to be played that way-not simply as arithmetic note-values. An analogy might be a comparison between a jazz riff sung by a veteran scat-singer vs. the same notes sight-read by a timid vocal student. In the Philadelphia performance, the virtuoso orchestra breezes and swings with effortless effervescence, while one can almost see theOregon musicians counting out the rhythms.
As suggested earlier, the aesthetic values implicit in the music of Benjamin Lees place him among the traditionalist moderns like Schuman et al., although Lees’s music doesn’t usually resemble his or anyone else’s. His works are typically serious-minded, solidly crafted, and thoroughly musical, though rarely ingratiating or overtly visceral in appeal. His 12-minute Passacaglia of 1976 is a representative example-severe in tone, traditional in style and form, yet tonal only in a literal sense. Pressing forward with a grim inevitability, the work is satisfying as an abstract musical narrative, and is played here with precision and conviction.
Clearly the disc’s main emphasis is on the two selections by Michael Daugherty, the not-quite-50-year-old composer from Iowa, now in residence at the University of Michigan, who has garnered considerable attention for his meretriciously clever pieces with catchy titles (e.g. Le Tombeau de Liberace, an opera Jackie O, and pieces based on comic-strips like Superman)-in short, the sort of thing that one would expect to be anathema to composers like Lees. “Sundown on South Street” is the opening movement of Daugherty’s Third Symphony, subtitled Philadelphia Stories. It is an infectious, exciting piece, nicely elaborated and developed, in a language that recalls the modern jazz-influenced film and TV scores of Henry Mancini from the late 1950s and early 60s. One can well imagine a piece like this becoming a hit on symphony concert programs, in their desperate attempt to reach younger, hipper listeners. I’d like to hear the rest of the symphony.
Less successful is Daugherty’s Hell’s Angels, a sort of one-movement concerto for bassoon quartet and orchestra. Capitalizing on the concertino’s sonorous suggestions of motorcycling, the piece is cut from much the same cloth as Jan Sandström’s more elaborate Motorbike Concerto for trombone and orchestra, composed during the late 1980s and recorded by Christian Lindberg (BIS CD-538). Like the Sandström concerto, Daugherty’s is designed to be a cleverly entertaining novelty, drawing upon rock music and utilizing theatrical elements, all handled with a light touch. Yet despite the effort to create a “fun piece,” I found it surprisingly resistant to attentive listening.
Returning now to the Schuman disc, we come to the Symphony No. 4 (1941-42). This work and its successor have always been “sleepers” in the Schuman canon, falling between the excitingly extroverted No. 3 and the abstract, brilliantly complex No. 6. A mediocre recording of No. 4 by the Louisville Orchestra under Jorge Mester from around 1970 was rather unconvincing. Miller/Albany provide a more incisive reading, but much of the piece continues to strike me as second-rate. Still in evidence are Harris’s incessant parallelisms (but that’s not why I dislike it; Schuman’s Third reveals even more traces of Harris, yet I still find it a marvelous work). The first movement lacks a strong profile, while the third is rambling and discursive, though unmistakably Schuman in every measure. The second movement looms above the rest of the work, with an elegantly dignified, reflective beauty.
Schuman’s Piano Concerto (1943) is another “sleeper,” this sort of concertante writing not so much a part of his personality. First performed by Rosalyn Tureck (!), the work has been rarely played since then. Uncharacteristically neo-classical in effect, the outer movements are lean in texture, and brusque, acerbic, and feisty in character, with none of the grandiosity so central to Schuman’s mature compositional personality. The slow movement is again the high point of the work, with moments of haunting, poignant contemplation. The English pianist and composer John McCabe fulfills the solo role with considerable conviction, although I find the piano miked a bit too far in the background. Gary Steigerwalt was equally convincing in his 1978 recording on a Turnabout LP, but the Albany Symphony far surpasses the MIT Symphony Orchestra featured on the earlier recording.