by Walter Simmons
SCHUMAN: Judith. Night Journey. Eastman Philharmonia conducted by David Effron (Judith); Endymion Ensemble conducted by Jon Goldberg (Night Journey). CRI SD-500.
Together with CRI’s recent reissue of his Sixth and Ninth Symphonies (see Fanfare VII:4, pp. 252-3), this new release documents some of the finest works of William Schuman’s distinguished composing career. Featured are two choreographic scores based on ancient myths and composed during the late 1940s at the request of Martha Graham. This was the period when Schuman’s wide-ranging talent and driving ambition catalyzed into the musical embodiment of American cultural progressivism—an intellectual attitude that was influential at the time. It was then that Schuman assumed leadership of the Juilliard School with a mandate to undertake an aggressive restructuring of the declining institution. It was also a time when Schuman’s Symphony No.6 appeared, the milestone work in which he truly asserted his own strikingly original musical identity—a bold, confident individualism no longer under the mantle of his mentor Roy Harris. Schuman’s language was now freshly honed for a vigorous, incisive eloquence, while displaying remarkable sensitivity and inventiveness. These were Schuman’s crowning moments as a composer. Although many fine works were to follow later on, they were often separated by lapses into mannerism, self-quotation, and a rather artificial grandiloquence.
Of the works from the late 1940s, the Symphony No.6 is perhaps the best known and most highly regarded. However, while brilliantly conceived, its consistent severity and abstract framework may present a formidable challenge to the listener not yet comfortable with Schuman’s musical discourse. Judith, on the other hand, uses the same language to explore a subject of considerable dramatic power: 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 tonal 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 hocketing 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 regarded as the ideal entry point into the heart of Schuman’s work—indeed, it may be his masterpiece. One might therefore expect it to hold an established place in the orchestral repertoire. Strangely enough, no recording of the work has been available for years, since the demise of two different performances by the Louisville Orchestra under the direction of Robert Whitney. The first appeared around 1951 on Mercury MG-10088 (the very first commercial recording by the orchestra, if I am not mistaken), and the second in 1960, on Louisville LOU-604. Thus this new CRI recording, featuring the Eastman Philharmonia conducted by David Effron, has been awaited with great anticipation. Purely as a sonic experience it is a revelation: Schuman’s powerful, massive sonorities achieve a stunning impact only implied on the earlier recordings. And the orchestral playing displays a solidity and precision beyond the reach of the scrappy Louisville group. But both of their recordings exhibited (more solidly and securely on the earlier one) a sense of urgency, momentum, and formal continuity—even a fluency and panache in executing the jazzy rhythms—quite missing from this new performance. True, both of Whitney’s performances pushed Schuman’s tempos, reducing the composer’s specified duration by several minutes; Effron takes the full 24 minutes. But the problems are only partly due to tempo: Listening to Effron’s interpretation, one has the disturbing impression of hearing a person from another country reading English with correct pronunciation but no comprehension. There is also the matter of balance, a crucial factor with Schuman, because both linear counterpoint and the counterpoint of sonorities must be balanced. Here one notes subsidiary figurations proclaimed mightily while primary lines remain inaudible (e.g., mm. 308ff). The main concerns of the Eastman musicians seem to be: How soft can we play without blowing the intonation? How loud can we play without losing tonal control? Let’s get those rhythms right and those attacks together. I am afraid there is one more important question: What is the meaning of this work, and how does every musical phrase contribute to that meaning?
Considering the possibility that some massive subconscious bias might be in operation, I sought the reactions of several colleagues familiar with the work; my observations were confirmed unanimously. I doubt that anyone who listens, say, to the old Mercury recording—despite a miserably primitive sound quality almost completely devoid of sonority—in direct comparison with this new CRI will fail to be struck by these shortcomings. It is disappointing to arrive at this conclusion, because nothing would give me greater pleasure than to recommend a new recording of one of the finest works in the American repertoire—and, in lieu of any alternative source, I do recommend this one.
But there is unquestionably a tremendous need for conductors who have some affinity for the language of 20th-century American orchestral music—a genre, after all, that by now has more than 50 years of tradition behind it. At one time Leonard Bernstein showed interest, but Beethoven proved to be an easier road to fame and fortune. Is there a current candidate? Leonard Slatkin? Pavel Kogan (see Fanfare VI:3, pp. 226-28)? Is any American orchestra looking for such a person?
Night Journey, composed in 1947, is new to me, as this concert version was only done in 1981. Overall, stylistically it is quite similar to Judith, using many of the same techniques to accomplish its message, although its scoring for only 15 instruments gives it a degree of intimacy and detail quite the opposite of Judith’s symphonic grandeur. Based on the Oedipus myth, Night Journey creates a gripping sense of stark fatalism with sounds that are still surprisingly fresh. The new release provides a welcome opportunity finally to become acquainted with this work. The performance by the Endymion Ensemble, under the direction of Jon Goldberg, seems to be quite good.
Both sides of the disc offer superb sound quality.