W. SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 6. HARRIS: Symphony No. 7

W. SCHUMAN Symphony No. 6. HARRIS Symphony No. 7 · Hugh Keelan (cond); New Zealand SO · KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7290-2 HI (49:05)

This is a most worthwhile new release, pairing representative examples from the heyday of the American symphony, composed by two of the genre’s most celebrated exponents. The two works bear sufficient relationship to each other that presenting them together provides interested listeners with an illuminating experience on several levels. Both William Schuman and Roy Harris had identical life-spans (82 years), although Schuman was twelve years younger. Schuman studied with Harris for several years during the late 1930s: not only did the older man influence the course of his student’s compositional development, but the latter retained an admiration for his mentor’s work for the rest of his life. Among the practices that left their mark on Schuman–his earlier work especially–were separate treatment of the instrumental choirs of the orchestra, plentiful use of parallelism in harmony (which Harris related to the medieval practice of organum), a fondness for polychords and polytonality, and one of Harris’s most influential conceptions: a non-Classical approach to symphonic structure, which he called “autogenesis,” often entailing the integration of several sections into a single movement. Thus it is no accident that both these symphonies are one-movement works (although the recording divides each into several tracks to facilitate listener comprehension). Both symphonies were composed within a decade of each other (although Schuman’s is the earlier of the two), and each has enjoyed one prior commercial recording, released during the 1950s, at the hands of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps I should also add that while I hold Schuman to be one of the dozen or so greatest American composers, I feel that Harris’s chief contribution lies in the influence of his ideas regarding musical structure, most of his actual compositions having sunk into a well-deserved oblivion.

Schuman composed ten symphonies, of which the strongest and most significant are No. 3 (for its infectious exuberance and immediate appeal, although its ingenious structure and overall sound owe much to Harris), No. 6 (for its concentrated structure and uncompromising seriousness of attitude), and No. 9 (for its power, intensity, and emotional commitment). Schuman completed his Sixth Symphony in 1948, several years after he assumed directorship of the Juilliard School, and when he was at the height of his creative power. It is a difficult work to discuss, because the focus of its interest is so abstract–more true of this work than perhaps any of his others. While some commentators, most notably Antal Dorati, who conducted the Dallas premiere, have praised its “passion and intensity,” my impression is that such qualities are coincidental analogues, rather than expressive objectives. The reader would not be wrong to infer from this comment that the work is rather cold, dry, and impersonal–indeed, many listeners have rejected it on just those grounds. But those who feel an affinity for Schuman’s language and general mode of expression are likely to find its brilliant concentration of content and tautness of energy both convincing and compelling, despite a harmonic language that is largely atonal in effect, if not in theory.

Harris composed more than a dozen symphonies (reference books seem to disagree as to the exact number). The Seventh appeared in 1952, and was revised three years later, for performance by Ormandy and the Philadelphians. It is one of Harris’s stronger efforts in the genre, exhibiting most of the characteristic traits that so clearly identify him: especially, the long, declamatory melodies, harmonized by non-tonal block-triads in parallel motion, and a strangely directionless, non-progressive syntax that pursues any idea–regardless of how appealing it may be initially–to the point of monotony. Indeed, a side-by-side comparison of the two symphonies highlights a painfully clear distinction between the profound eloquence of one versus the crude ineptitude of the other.

The reader is likely to wonder, perhaps rather smugly, what a group like the New Zealand Symphony might have to offer that would favor it over the Philadelphia Orchestra, especially in view of the fact that both latter performances have been reissued on a single Albany CD (TROY-256), together with Walter Piston’s delightful Fourth Symphony. Actually, the fact that these New Zealand performances have been sitting “in the can” since 1994 may indicate Koch International’s embarrassment about what it construes as an inevitably invidious comparison. True, the Albany disc is probably preferable for the listener who is unfamiliar with either work. But I will add to this statement just a few qualifications: First, I hold the view–perhaps not a majority view, but one shared by quite a few commentators–that many–not all–Ormandy performances, though technically accurate, sorely lack the dynamic nuances, inner vitality, and sense of conviction that bring a musical work to life. This is especially true and especially damaging in the case of works–such as those under discussion–represented on recording only by Ormandy/Philadelphia, because, of course, any dissatisfaction is more readily attributed to weaknesses in the music, rather than in the performance. Second, when a work is known by only one performance, its impact gradually becomes stale and flat, analogous to a historical personage known from only one photograph. In time the photo becomes synonymous with the person, rather than representing a slice-in-time of a three-dimensional human being. Third, while perhaps not offering orchestral virtuosity comparable to the Philadelphia renditions, these New Zealand performances–though perhaps approaching faster sections with a sense of cautious deliberation–are nevertheless neatly played and clearly recorded. While some past New Zealand Symphony releases have suffered from a certain tubbiness of acoustic ambience, this is not the case here. And in a work of such textural complexity as the Schuman, the auditory insight revealed by such vivid clarity is most welcome, and makes this new release an alternative of real value. Those listeners who agree that Schuman’s Sixth stands alongside Mennin’s Seventh, Persichetti’s Fifth, and Piston’s Seventh as the greatest examples of the mid-20th-century mainstream American symphony will definitely appreciate this new release.