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William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Symphony No. 4 (1941)* [24í50"]
Orchestra Song (1963)** [2í59"]
Circus Overture (1944)** [7í53"]
Symphony No. 9 ĎLe fosse ardéatineí (1967)*** [27í43"]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Recorded at the S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle *Sept 2003, March 2004; **March 2004; ***Nov 2003; February 2004 DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559254 [63í25"]

 

Back in the early 1990s Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony made a highly valuable series of recordings of American music for Delos. These included a fine cycle of the symphonies of Howard Hanson and several symphonies by David Diamond as well as music by Hovahness and Piston. There was also a single disc of music by William Schuman, including the Fifth Symphony and the New England Triptych (DE 3115). I bought every one of these CDs and enjoyed them greatly. When I saw this disc advertised, and knowing that Naxos has already reissued some of those Delos discs (with more to come, I hope), I just assumed that this was another original Delos release that Iíd missed at the time. However, a glance at the recording dates confirmed this is a genuine new release. Best of all, a note on the back of the jewel case announces this as the start of a complete cycle of the Schuman symphonies. That is truly excellent news. All the symphonies (with the possible exception of the first two) have been recorded before, with fine versions of the Third from Bernstein and the Tenth from Slatkin among them. However, so far as Iím aware there has never been an intégrale before. If this CD, and its Delos predecessor are anything to go by the Schuman symphonies will be in safe hands here.

William Schuman was an extremely influential figure in twentieth century American musical life. Of particular note was his work as the long-serving President of the Juilliard School of Music (1945 Ė 1968) as well as his tenure as the first president of the Lincoln Center (1962-8). Readers wishing to know more about his life and works are referred to www.williamschuman.org. He left a large body of compositions but live performances of them are not easy to come by these days and I have only ever encountered his music on disc. What I have heard of his output has impressed me as the product of a composer with an original voice, a searching mind and an excellent ear for orchestration. Schuman used quite a degree of dissonance in his music, and increasingly so as the years passed, but his language is always accessible. This CD does nothing to change that view.

The Fourth Symphony dates from 1941 and is cast in three movements. The first begins with a slow introduction that builds impressively. The main body of the movement is much more vigorous and rhythmically propulsive. Eventually a powerful, brass-dominated conclusion is reached. The second movement is marked "Tenderly, simply." As the liner notes put it the mood is "melancholy yet infused with mediating warmth." Itís an expansive and eloquent creation, which is played with noble intensity here. The final pages, introduced by an oboe solo, are especially dignified and satisfying. The finale is mainly extrovert and punchy. Thereís a good deal of hustle and bustle before a boisterous conclusion, in which once again the brass section is well to the fore.

The Ninth Symphony is a tougher nut to crack for two reasons. In the first place, as Iíve mentioned, Schumanís style evolved over the years and became much more gritty. Secondly, this work was his response to a harrowing experience. In 1967, while on a trip to Europe, he and his wife visited the Ardeatine Caves near Rome where, in 1944, the Nazis murdered over 300 Italian civilians and attempted to hide the corpses. Schuman himself said that while the symphony that he subsequently penned was "directly related to emotions engendered by this visitÖ[it] does not attempt to depict the event realistically". The work plays continuously but is in three clearly defined sections, helpfully tracked separately on this disc.

The first section begins with a threnody, a long, angular melody on violins and celli. Jagged punctuations by the wind section fail to disrupt the progress of this theme. The music grows in intensity and volume. Itís disturbing stuff, especially when the horns contribute another angular line. Eventually Schumanís trademark use of brass and percussion in blocks of sound adds real power. In due course the tumult subsides but the mood of disquiet and unease is not dispelled and thereís a last eruption, dominated by brass and timpani, before the second section begins in a faster tempo. I must confess that I donít feel Iíve fully assimilated this part of the work yet. Schuman himself wrote of it that the section "with its various moods of fast music, much of it far from somber, stems from the fantasies I had of the variety, promise and aborted lives of the martyrs". Perhaps itís the composerís description that has created the problem for me. This is also highly unsettling music, jagged, fragmentary and dissonant. Had I not read Schumanís words before listening I would indeed have assumed that this part of the work depicted the actual atrocity for so it sounds. It seems to me that a dark energy, often violent, prevails throughout most of this section. The concluding section of the work consists of slow, sombre music of considerable power. Often this power is suppressed, at least in terms of volume of sound, and itís all the more effective for that. It sounds like an Elegy for the Innocents. Itís deep and sincerely felt music and rather profound.

This is a disturbing and demanding symphony. Listening to it requires some effort on the part of the listener but the effort is worthwhile. Since the work is a response by an American composer to a wartime atrocity it was perhaps fitting, if entirely coincidental, that I finished my period of listening to this work while in the USA on Memorial Day, the day when that countryís wartime sacrifices are recalled. Certainly in this work Schuman has recalled and reflected on the horrors and sacrifices of war in a moving and sincere fashion.

To fill out the disc Schwarz and his team give us two short works. Orchestral Song is a slight piece, an arrangement of an Austrian folk song. It doesnít add much to our knowledge of the composer but itís pleasant listening and itís nice to have it available. Like its companion it offers a bit of relaxation between the rigours of the symphonies and its inclusion was no doubt planned as such. The other piece is the Circus Overture. Leonard Bernstein once said that conducting Schumanís American Festival Overture (1939) was "like leading a cheer". This is a similarly unbuttoned piece, extrovert and colourful, and itís great fun.

This is a disc that has left me hungry for more. All the music is splendidly played. Schwarz and his orchestra perform it with assurance and great commitment. The engineers have preserved the performances in excellent sound and Steven Lowe contributes a very useful liner note.

I hope that Naxos will go on to complete this promised series. (I see there have been some very recent performances of the Third symphony in Seattle so I hope a recording will be linked to those.) I also hope that Naxos will, through a mixture of reissues and new recordings, give us more releases by this team of music by Piston and, most pressingly of all, that they will make available a complete cycle of David Diamondís hugely impressive symphonies.

For now, this Schuman cycle has been launched most auspiciously. There is fine music here by a composer who really had something to say. I await further instalments with impatience and in the meantime recommend this CD urgently.

John Quinn

See also review by John Phillips



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