SCHUMAN: Symphonies: Nos. 3, 5. Judith

by Walter Simmons

SCHUMAN Symphonies: Nos. 3, 5. Judith • Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO • NAXOS 8.559317 (67:45)

William Zagorski reviewed this recent release in Fanfare 30:5, so I will try to keep my comments brief. First of all, I should mention that only the Third Symphony is new to this recording: The other two performances were originally issued in 1992 on a Delos CD, together with a couple of other Schuman favorites that had already appeared on a previous Naxos release as well (played by a different orchestra and conductor). So the Third Symphony was presumably selected to avoid redundancy as well as to highlight one of the composer’s most important works. 

Schuman’s Third Symphony (1941) is a landmark in the history of American orchestral music—one of the first American symphonies that might be said to embody the values of “traditional modernism.” It is not the first, because it was preceded by Sessions’s Symphony No. 1, and Harris’s Symphony 1933 and his Third Symphony. However, Schuman’s is the first to display both the compositional skill and communicative appeal to transcend its time and place, so that it maintains its stature to this day. What is most remarkable about the work is that it embraces wholesale both the formal principles and the musical language of Roy Harris, and applies them with an eye to structural economy and an incisive dramatic sense that far exceeds the capabilities of his mentor. Though his own personal voice had yet to emerge fully, Schuman succeeded in producing what I have called “the greatest symphony that Roy Harris never wrote.”

Like Zagorski, I approached this new release with some skepticism, fully convinced that Leonard Bernstein so “owned” this music—and this work in particular—that no other conductor was likely to exceed the latter’s two masterful recordings of it. But upon listening, my reaction was virtually identical to that of my colleague. Yes, the opening moments are “weak and undercharacterized,” but after that, Schwarz commands a brilliant and compelling reading, fulfilled by precise and powerful playing by the Seattle Symphony, that owes no apology to Bernstein.

However, I also share Zagorski’s view that Bernstein’s rendition of Schuman’s Fifth Symphony (issued on a Sony CD with the same conductor’s reading of the Eighth and his first essaying of the Third) far surpasses Schwarz’s, which sounds quite pallid and indifferent by comparison. It should be noted that, in spite of a deeply moving slow movement, Schuman’s Fifth—for strings only—is a relatively weak work. (It is a point of interest that the Symphony No. 5 of Vincent Persichetti—a close colleague of Schuman’s for many years—is also for string orchestra, making it hard not to compare the two. But Persichetti’s, composed in 1953—ten years after Schuman’s, is one of that composer’s masterpieces. Considered together, the later work—currently available on two recordings—dwarfs Schuman’s effort, which seems crude and obvious by comparison.)

But while Zagorski makes only passing reference to Schuman’s choreographic score Judith, commissioned by and for Martha Graham, for me it is the high point of the disc. This inexplicably under-represented work dates from 1949, by which time the composer had evolved his own distinctive voice, but had yet to display what was to become a tendency toward pseudo-profound orotundity. Turning to the stark Old Testament story of the beautiful Israelite widow who seduces, then beheads the tyrannical Holofernes, 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, but at times expressively ambiguous counterpoint; jagged, brittle rhythms; and an extended example of hard-bitten brass hocketing that is especially effective. With a dramatic substructure that achieves lucid formal coherence, the work represents Schuman at his most individual, most concise, and most eloquent. Judith has been recorded only twice before, and neither performance was truly adequate. This Schwarz/Seattle reading stands as its best recorded representation to date.