W. SCHUMAN: String Quartets: No. 2; No. 3; No. 5. Lydian String Quartet. HARMONIA MUNDI FRANCE HMU-907114 [ODD]; 71:41. Produced by Robina Young and Paul Witt. (Distributed by Harmonia Mundi USA.)
This new CD represents a significant contribution to the discography of William Schuman, with two works that have never before appeared on recordings and one that hasn’t been available for many years. Schuman was always drawn to large forms, large forces, and large statements, as exemplified by his best-known works. However, though he devoted little attention to producing chamber music in general, at each stage of his development he was drawn to the string quartet, a medium with a long tradition of distillation, concentration, economy, and understatement, producing a series of substantial and ambitious works that display his central compositional concerns at the times he composed them.
Schuman’s music falls naturally into four style-periods, rather neatly coinciding with the phases of other aspects of his distinguished career. Also rather neatly, each of his four extant string quartets falls into one of these style-periods. The first might be termed “introductory,” and consists of those pieces written before 1939, during which time the composer seemed to be searching for a voice and a language of his own. Schuman withdrew most of these works, such as the first two symphonies and the first string quartet, but he did allow the Quartet No. 2 to remain in his active catalog. Dating from 1937 — the same year as the Symphony No. 2 — the quartet shares with that work the massive gestures and loping rhythmic patterns found in the music of Roy Harris, with whom Schuman was studying at the time and who was to remain his chief compositional influence. The earliest of his works ever to appear on recording, the fifteen-minute Quartet No. 2 is severe in tone, chromatic in its linear unfolding, and relatively dissonant in its harmonic orientation, with an angular, crabbed quality soon to be ironed out in the next style-period.
This phase, which might be termed Schuman’s “early maturity,” dates from 1939 to the mid 1940s, and includes the American Festival Overture and the Symphonies Nos. 3, 4, and 5, as well as the Third String Quartet. Among these are some of the composer’s most accessible and best-known works, although the influence of Harris is perhaps even more evident — in their simpler textures, more leisurely, expansive formal structures, and their more diatonic thematic materials, often presented in organumlike parallelism. Along with these qualities, the Third Quartet shares in common with the Third Symphony an interest in Baroque forms, which are treated in the modem American manner, as defined by Harris, who was the dominant compositional voice in this country at the time. However, the severity, introspection, and abstraction of the quartet medium do not allow for the color and flashy exuberance that give Schuman’s Third Symphony (which I have called the best symphony Harris never wrote) such wide appeal.
Schuman’s “full maturity” as a composer coincides with his tenure as president of the Juilliard School, and then as the founding president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (roughly 1945-1970). During this period, Schuman developed his own distinctively individual voice, somewhat analogous to the “International Style” in architecture — bold, urbane, and confident, with clashing metallic sonorities, hard-edged planes of sound, and nervous, tightly coiled rhythms. Comparable in many ways to the Symphony No. 6, the Quartet No. 4 (1950) belongs to this period and is probably the most incontrovertibly great of Schuman’s quartets, but as it is, alas, not included on this disc, we will not dwell on it.
In 1969 Schuman retired from public life, although he continued to compose actively. But the music of his `’retirement” phase was — with some exceptions, such as the Symphony No. 10 — more intimate, reflective, and exploratory, sometimes even experimental — in concept, if not in language. In a number of these late works Schuman subjected preexisting melodic material to his own idiosyncratic form of variation, often involving startling stylistic juxtapositions. (Of course, this was not an entirely new direction for Schuman, viz. New England Triptych.) One of his last major works, the Quartet No. 5 was composed in 1987 in memory of Vincent Persichetti, who had died that year. The second of its two movements is such a set of variations, in this case based on a simple seventeenth-century Dutch carol. It is preceded, however, by a lengthy introduction of uncommonly haunting though icily austere beauty, capturing the composer in one of his most lofty and visionary frames of mind.
I would love to praise the Lydian String Quartet’s performances of this music and thus make this an easy disc to recommend. They are not bad, mind you, and they do indeed play the exquisite first movement of the Fifth Quartet with extraordinary delicacy and poignancy. But essential to the personality of Schuman’s music are a taut muscularity and razor-sharp incisiveness often missing from these performances, which often display a gentle liquidity more suited to, say, the music of Fauré. In their heyday, the Juilliard Quartet, which was formed by Schuman and which recorded his Third and Fourth Quartets, possessed those essential qualities. But I am sure that there are other quartets that can do justice to this repertoire today.