SCHUMAN Symphony No. 6. Prayer in Time of War. New England Triptych

SCHUMAN Symphony No. 6. Prayer in Time of War. New England Triptych ● Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO ● NAXOS 8.559625 (60:51)

This appears to be the penultimate installment of Gerard Schwarz’s survey of the symphonies of William Schuman for Naxos, No. 8 being the one as yet unreleased (Nos. 1 and 2 having been withdrawn by the composer). One assumes, this being the year of Schuman’s centennial, that the series will be completed within the next few months. Overall, as documented in prior reviews, the performances have been excellent, even when measured against the standard set by Leonard Bernstein, probably the composer’s most sympathetic and enthusiastic exponent. Not only has this series offered performances that meet a high standard with regard to both interpretation and execution, but they also bring to the attention of listeners—including perhaps a generation of younger listeners—a body of work that has rather peremptorily faded from view during the less-than-20 years since the composer’s death.

The Symphony No. 6, composed in 1948, represented a crucial point in Schuman’s compositional career. This was the symphony that marked his emancipation from the syntax and rhetoric of Roy Harris, and was the first one to fully proclaim Schuman’s own individual creative voice (although it was preceded by several other works—notably the ballet Undertow—that had already staked that claim). It is a very challenging work: contrapuntally dense, structurally complex, highly dissonant harmonically, and atonal, for the most part, in its impact on listeners. Most serious musicians and critics typically cite it as the greatest of Schuman’s symphonies, but many listeners have found it to be coldly mechanical, impersonal, and unpleasant to listen to. For the former group, it is a major step forward, affirming Schuman’s dominance within the pantheon of American symphonists; for the latter group, it marks the point (among the symphonies) where Schuman abandoned his audience by renouncing a concern with communication in favor of seeking acceptance from the advocates of modernism. (However, during the 1950s he wrote many pieces that were less demanding and more accessible to audiences—e.g., The Mighty CaseyCredendum, and, of course, New England Triptych. Symphony No. 7 did not appear until 1960, returning to the severity of No. 6.)

My own feelings acknowledge the legitimacy of both these points of view: Yes, it is indeed a difficult work to digest and grasp fully; but it is also a masterpiece of concentrated expression, in which Schuman attained a new, higher level of compositional artistry. More than a few hearings may be necessary to persuade the listener that it is worth the effort. But I believe that it is, and that this work stands with the composer’s No. 3 and No. 9 as his foremost achievements in the symphonic genre.

There have been two previous commercial recordings: The first, released in 1955, featured the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy in a performance of considerable technical precision, but little dynamism—a rendition that was later released on an Albany CD (TROY256); the second featured the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Keelan, in a well-intentioned but rather tentative performance whose chief asset was up-to-date recorded sound. Thus this Schwarz/Seattle reading is most welcome, as it offers the virtues of both previous recordings, with the added factor of a good deal of power and intensity. The work is still difficult to absorb, but here it is heard in its most advantageous recorded representation.

The remainder of the release is less pleasing. Not only is New England Triptych—Schuman’s most popular work—included on virtually every all-Schuman recording, but Naxos themselves already have in their catalogue one of the work’s finest recorded performances, with José Serebrier conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The main point: I can’t imagine any listener whose appetite is whetted by a new recording of Schuman’s Sixth who wouldn’t already have all the recordings of New England Triptych that he needs or wants. The performance offered here is the same perfectly respectable one that appeared on the Delos all-Schuman recording released in 1992. Let me be clear: This is a delightfully bracing and refreshing piece; but, as with virtually every American composer who has achieved public recognition, Schuman’s one popular piece becomes the first choice for every lazy conductor who finds himself pressured by circumstance into having to program an American work. It’s not as though there aren’t other of the composer’s orchestral works in need of recording: American Hymn, a major work from the early 1980s has never been released on CD, as far as I know, and it is a most worthy composition. Prayer in Time of War was composed in 1943—Schuman’s main contribution to the war effort, after he was rejected for active military duty because of a serious neurological condition that plagued him all his life. Without intending to cast aspersions on the sincerity of the composer’s patriotism, one cannot avoid the conclusion that this is a very weak piece of music. Its chief virtue is that it offers the most pristine example of the sort of polyharmony that Schuman adopted from Harris, before he developed it in his own distinctive ways. The work is wholly within the Harris manner, sharing the older composer’s episodic structural tendencies as well as a host of other musical usages. It is also an early example of Schuman’s inclination—most flagrant in his later works—toward solemn but empty bloviation. There was a previous recording, released in 1973, with Jorge Mester conducting the Louisville Orchestra. Schwarz’s new one is much better, but it doesn’t save the piece. I would have much preferred AmericanHymn to have replaced this and the Triptych.