W. SCHUMAN: Violin Concerto. New England Triptych IVES-SCHUMAN: Variations on “America”

W. SCHUMAN Violin Concerto. New England Triptych  IVES-SCHUMAN Variations on “America” · José Serebrier, cond; Bournemouth SO; Philip Quint (vn) · NAXOS 8.559083 (56:54)

William Schuman’s Violin Concerto is one of his strongest compositions, deriving from the period (1940s through 1950s) when he produced most of his best work. Although it is comparable in stature to such pieces as the Barber Concerto and the Bernstein Serenade, it is a good deal less accessible than those better-known works. Lacking their ingratiating lyricism and surface excitement, it has never enjoyed their success with audiences. But Schuman’s is a deeper, more serious work than either of them–symphonic in attitude, and more concerned with abstract musical considerations than with virtuoso entertainment. In tone and weight, if not in style, it often calls to mind Shostakovich’s concertos for the instrument. Conductor José Serebrier also finds it “one of Schuman’s most powerful works. Emotionally packed, it could almost be considered a symphony for violin and orchestra….The work is indeed extremely theatrical, evoking powerful emotions in a highly charged romantic atmosphere.” Schuman himself described the concerto as “very romantic.” Powerful it certainly is, bristling with a barely containable vigor and dynamism; but it is romantic only in an abstract sense, rather than suggesting the rhetoric of 19th-century music, which it resembles not at all.

The composition of the Concerto seemed to give Schuman a great deal of difficulty, as he labored over it from the late 1940s through the late 50s. Although it enjoyed several auspicious public performances during that time, it failed to satisfy the composer, who continued to tinker with it. Not until 1959 did he feel he had achieved a form–two large, multisectional movements–that he could consider final. Yet despite its complicated birth, and despite its unconventional form, the work as it now stands displays considerable cohesiveness. Suffused with a restless urgency, the opening thematic statement is compelling; the slow portion of the first movement finds the composer in his most gravely eloquent, reflective mood, while other passages display his characteristic propensity for tense, nervous rhythmic irregularities. The second movement is rather austere. Despite some brilliant moments, there are long stretches of the sort of arid rumination that weakens many of Schuman’s more ambitious works, although the movement eventually arrives at the grandly triumphant peroration that is one of the composer’s trademarks.

This is the third recording of Schuman’s Violin Concerto. The first appeared during the early 1970s, and featured Paul Zukofsky with the Boston Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, in a performance that seemed impossible to surpass. Then, in 1989 Robert McDuffie joined Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony in a rendition that earned Schuman’s own endorsement. I must admit that I did not expect this new recording, featuring the young Russian-born violinist Philip Quint, to approach the standard set by these two virtuosos. So I was quite surprised to discover that this performance need not defer to its two predecessors in any way; in fact, Quint’s handling of the work’s formidable technical demands is perhaps marginally more precisely accurate than either of them.

However, in confronting a recording such as this, one cannot help wondering for whom it is intended. The remainder of the disc is filled out by Schuman’s two most popular and most frequently recorded pieces: the New England Triptych and his orchestration of Ives’s Variations on “America.” One assumes that it is directed toward the segment of the audience that doesn’t already own several performances of the New England Triptych. But I question whether those listeners will be drawn in by a work as uncompromising as the Violin Concerto, while Schuman-sympathizers ready to tackle the Concerto are likely to resist yet another recording of the two chestnuts.

As is true of most composers whose output has yet to be fully digested, the reputation that Schuman’s body of work has garnered is more the result of a series of historical accidents than of a determination, based on a systematic overview and assessment of the core issues addressed in his music, of those works in which these core issues achieve their most eloquent articulation. Schuman initially adopted a language deeply indebted to Roy Harris, whose music attained considerable prominence during the 1930s and 40s. However, he soon adapted Harris’s formal and aesthetic principles to his own purposes, in the process developing a distinctive voice and an individual artistic vision that produced some of the greatest American works of the mid 20th century. Yet Schuman’s best-known work is one that he saw as a “fusion” of his style with that of the 18th-century amateur American hymnsmith William Billings, i.e., New England Triptych. On its own terms it is a fine, intriguingly crafted work, and an exhilarating one as well, although I suspect that its popularity is largely attributable to its inclusion of diatonic hymn-tunes, its picturesque title, and its modest length. Schuman’s other well-known work (aside from his delightful if relatively insignificant orchestration of Ives’s mischievous set of variations) is his Symphony No. 3, a major statement of considerable appeal, but one in which he had yet to liberate his voice from the dominating influence of Harris. It would seem to me that a release aimed at the tentative newcomer to the repertoire of “American Classics” might include, along with these two “hits,” one of the works that display Schuman’s unmistakable and distinctive vision within a framework that is relatively easy to grasp and absorb, e.g. Judith, a choreographic poem composed in 1949 for Martha Graham (see Fanfare 16:1), or Credendum, a symphonic work commissioned in 1954 on behalf of UNESCO (see Fanfare 21:6). (This last is probably the best single entry point into Schuman’s unique aesthetic world.) But, with typical irony, since these two compositions are less well known, they continue to remain less well known.

José Serebrier has been active as a conductor for many years, turning out dozens of recordings of perplexingly uneven quality, without ever seeming to have fulfilled the promise noted when he was a young protegé of Stokowski and Szell. But his accomplishment here, aided by the superb playing of the Bournemouth Symphony, is extraordinary. Not only does his interpretive conception of the Concerto reveal a masterful grasp of this challenging work, but he lends to the Triptych and the Variations a rhythmic elasticity and other nuances of style that add richness and flair to music that is often simply driven hard and fast. In conclusion, therefore, I assure those who might be moved to invest in this CD but resent being forced into over-duplication of repertoire that these performances really surpass the competition. Perhaps this factor, along with the budget price, will persuade such listeners to make an exception here.