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William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Symphony No. 6 (1948) [29:10]
Prayer in a Time of War (1943) [15:35]
New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings (1956) [16:06]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, 10, 16 September 2008 (sym); 7 September 2005 (Prayer); Seattle Opera House, 24-25 September 1990. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559625 [60:51]
Experience Classicsonline


If we set to one side the disavowed first two symphonies Gerard Schwarz has now completed recording the Schuman symphonies. Only the Schwarz-Seattle-Naxos Eighth awaits issue. The series began with a handful of Schuman symphonies recorded by Delos in the 1990s. Naxos has picked up the baton dropped when the gloriously ambitious Delos project stumbled and fell. That they are doing this at bargain price is remarkable as with so much that Naxos does. Naxos have reissued all the Delos session symphonies and continued and completed the cycle in Seattle. This disc mixes the Delos-originated 1990 session for the Triptych with newer Naxos fixtures in 2005 and 2008. The transcript of an interview with Gerard Schwarz can be found on the Naxos website.

The Sixth Symphony was first recorded by Ormandy in the 1960s on CBS AML 4992 and reissued on Albany TROY256. It’s a work of nocturnal reclusion; not at all restful. Although Schuman has his lyric heart on display it is not close to his sleeve. The song is sweet but haunted and darkly clouded with Bergian strands – even a touch of Allan Pettersson about it. Barber in his most introspective brown study comes to mind and the tension never lets up. Kinetic fury has usually been part of the Schuman palette and so it is here (try. 20:00 onwards) although occluded lyricism dominates and acts as an indefatigable magnetic pull. The work is presented in a single half hour track. The Sixth was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra League and the Dallas orchestra premièred it with Antal Doráti conducting on 27 February 1949. It’s an impressive piece if without the compulsive concentration that bowls over listeners to the Third Symphony and the Violin Concerto.

Prayer in a Time of War
first saw light of day with Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Orchestra on 26 February 1943. It’s a substantial movement of symphonic bearing and unyielding seriousness as befits the subject. The language is touched with some bleakness but it is less convoluted than that of the Sixth Symphony. This is the Schuman of the Third Symphony admitting and radiating facets that recall Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. The brass writing is gaunt, statuesque and excoriating; the drum-taps and cold fanfares referencing Lincoln and Whitman. It’s is a grand statement to put alongside his works of similar concision: Credendum, In Praise of Shahn and American Hymn. This is not its first recording; that honour goes to the Louisville and Jorge Mester – still to be had on Louisville First Edition.

New England Triptych
is in three movements: I. Be Glad Then, America [5:05]; II. When Jesus Wept [7:53] III. Chester [3:08]. The outer movements are redolent of Tippett in zest, springiness and riotous exuberance. The Triptych was premièred in Miami on 28 October 1956, with Andre Kostelanetz conducting the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra. The next month Kostelanetz took it to the New York Phil. It is one of Schuman’s most accessible works despite its date. The three movements are based on hymns by the Revolutionary period figure, William Billings (1746– 1800). Schuman refers to “a fusion of styles and musical language”; acidic-epic Schuman meets devout Hanoverian. The middle movement recalls RVW’s Tallis and Bliss’s Blow Meditations.

Let’s not write off those first two symphonies (1935, 1937). I have heard the Second Symphony in a 1930s broadcast by Howard Barlow and the CBS orchestra and it’s by no means negligible. Then there are other works which will be worth revival – principally the Concerto on Old English Rounds and the spectacular symphonic cantata Casey at the Bat, superbly revived by Dorati in Washington as part of the American centennial event diary.

It’s a pleasure to report that this disc was generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts who seem to have moved away from a policy that appears at one time to favour only the work of the adherents of academic dissonance.

The notes are by Joseph W. Polisi, currently sixth president of The Juilliard School and author of “American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman” (Amadeus Press, 2008).

Keep watching for the Naxos Schuman Eighth secure in the knowledge that Schwarz and his Pacific Edge orchestra are fully equal to the challenges set by Schuman. Naxos will again, I am sure, provide a stunning recording as they have done here across a span of eighteen years – session to session.

Rob Barnett

Review index: all William Schuman works on MWI

 


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