Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Violin Concerto (1947 rev 1954, 1958)
New England Triptych (1956)

Variations on America
Philip Quint (violin)
Bournemouth SO/José Serebrier
rec Poole Arts Centre, UK, 30-31 May 2001
NAXOS 8.559083 [58.47]
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Schuman rather like Mennin and Piston has been dogged by the image of the 'corporate suit'. He was successful as an academic and an administrator - nothing amiss with that. His music however is not touched with any deadening conventionality or orthodoxy. As anyone who has heard the Third Symphony or the CRI collection (CD791 Judith; Night Journey and In Sweet Music) will attest Schuman's violent sweetness, sentimental acidity and a scorching dynamism that bursts hackneyed bonds. Leonard Bernstein identified 'energetic drive, vigour of propulsion' and motor energy certainly galvanises many of Schuman's scores. It is not the only facet to Schuman's creative glossary. His melodic material is usually extremely fine and memorable. He can be complex but not drenched or fusty.

He was born in New York City and his earliest musical education was rudimentary in the extreme. He wrote arrangements and songs for night club performers (a good apprenticeship) and one of these, In Love With You (written with Frank Loesser), did well. He studied composition for two years with Roy Harris and the first two symphonies secured premieres in glittering company. However he ruthlessly withdrew both. Only with the American Festival Overture, the Third Quartet and the Third Symphony of 1938, 1939 and 1941 respectively did Schumann reach a maturity that he was prepared to accept. In 1945, after a few months at Schirmers, he became president of the Juilliard where he remained for many years.

Charles Ives, another iconoclast, wrote his Variations on the Hymn 'America' in 1891. In its original form this was for organ. Schuman's orchestration magnifies the unruly element in the original work. It bubbles in Brahmsian bonhomie, cackles and shouts, shakes the rafters with skills paralleling his transatlantic contemporary, Malcolm Arnold. Pomp, punctured pride and a Hispanic Jota are memorable vistas along the way. The New England Triptych is best thought of as a Sinfonietta. The work makes a salty contrast to Moeran's Sinfonietta. I find the usual references to Billings' hymn tunes a distraction so just sit back and let the impressions register. Drums, in one form or another, play a lead part in each movement and usually a subtle and recessed role. In the central panel the timps, reverently Whitmanesque, orate some Civil War elegy (Tallis meets Saving Private Ryan?). The flanking movements are bold with splashes of Hanson, Shostakovich, Arnold and Holst (Moorside Suite). The knockabout finale ends familiarly - familiar, that is, if you already know how the Schuman violin concerto ends with those high howling French horns and trumpets. In the Triptych Serebrier rivals Schwarz and Slatkin (Delos and BMG-RCA) but is more confident than Sedares on Koch.

While Schuman wrote concertos for piano and for viola and even A Song of Orpheus (taking Schuman's as its embarkation point his own song setting of the typically English text Orpheus with his Lute) for cello and orchestra it is the Violin Concerto that has won the laurels. The Concerto was introduced by Isaac Stern in three movement (rather than the final two movement) form with the Boston SO under Charles Munch in 1950. The composer was unhappy and it only settled in 1958 after several revisions. The final shape is of two serious dramatic episodes each of symphonic weight. Some have suggested that this is a symphony 'with violin'. The violin however has a prominent and commanding role and the dramatic struggle is most naturally that of a concerto.

This is not its first recording. The first came in 1971 with a Deutsche Grammophon LP (2530 103). Two young artists gave the work the performance of a lifetime. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted and the soloist was Paul Zukofsky (much associated with the CP2 label and recordings of Jón Leifs and Schnabel). The Boston SO (the orchestra who had premiered the work twenty years previously) play as if possessed. The work can be stark, tender, delicately dancing but always on the edge of the abyss. There is a comforting big city loneliness about this music as well as some awed perspectives on mortality. When I bought the LP (second-hand as an impoverished student in Bristol) I played it close to death. While the Piston Second Symphony (on the 'flipside') made an instant conquest the concerto insinuated its way into my musical armoury much more subtly. The language is not hard-going - nowhere near as testing as, say, the Frankel concerto. Impressions as I listen now: Paganinian celerity, shakes and trills, Nielsen-like skirling passages, a pleading call which pre-echoes Maria! Maria! from Westside Story and excoriating suggestions of Vaughan Williams from symphonies 4 and 6. In the second movement scurrying pitter-patter dialogue evolves into the ecstatic expression of early Tippett. Schuman is a master of writing for strings. The music has the resolve of Rawsthorne (as in the First Violin Concerto) and the high surging tragedy of Stanley Bate's Third Symphony of 1940. There are quite a few moments of dolce tenderness and these often seemed to be an extrapolation (not always that remote either) from the Elgar concerto, of all things. The end of the work is one of the most adrenaline-exciting yet substantial among all violin concertos - rushing, clamant, breathless, triumphant, defiant.

Quint's is not the first recording. The Zukofsky reissued on DG 429 860-2 and possibly on a more recent disc as well, is to be preferred by the finest of margins. The orchestral contribution is molten and Zukofsky's squelching, cleanly-produced, fruity tone is glorious. There are some harsh sounds now (a hint of squawk in the climactic passages at fff) with the passage of the years. Quint however has all the necessary pugnacious delicacy and can weave steely filigree with the best. The Bournemouth Orchestra who must have been playing the concerto for the first time at the recording sessions in Poole are in really good form. Serebrier, a conductor for whom I have very high regard, takes no prisoners and gives the music both the drive and the caressing tenderness it needs. He also wrote the useful booklet note. Quint is to be preferred over the 1989 EMI CD (Robert McDuffie / St Louis SO / Leonard Slatkin). Although the Angel orchestral sound is very good and McDuffie is the equal of the work's technical and emotional hurdles he uses a vibrato which, while not as disfiguring as, say, Boris Belkin or Eugene Sarbu, is, for this listener, a distraction. Duffie's vibrato is closer to Zino Francescatti. In any event the EMI is not currently available.

Comparative Timings for the Concerto:


Zukofsky 15.00 16.10

McDuffie 15.48 16.50

Quint 1543 1729

This is a wonderful disc and only in 'reviewer-land' would one be tempted to look this gift-horse in the teeth and ponder what a disc this would have been if Serebrier had added the Third Symphony and the Triptych. At bargain price it is anyway an essential addition to your collection and listening pleasure. Schuman's is one of the great twentieth century violin concertos. Now, please tell me that Naxos will be doing a complete cycle of the ten symphonies alongside the Roy Harris 13 and the Piston 9.

Rob Barnett

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