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
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
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
also review by John Phillips