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William SCHUMAN (1910 - 1992)
Symphony No. 4 (1941) [24’50"]
Symphony No. 9 Le fosse ardeatine (1969) [27’43"]
Orchestra Song (1963) [2’59"]
Circus Overture (1944) [7’53"]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
recorded in September 2003 and January 2004 (Symphony No. 4), March 2004 (Song and Overture) and February 2004 (Symphony No. 9) in S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle. DDD
NAXOS 8.559254 [63.25]

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At last! I have been banging on for ages as to why Naxos do not record and issue American symphonic works of the calibre of those by William Schuman. Well, here at last, is the first in a series of the complete symphonies, presumably to be played by the same ensemble as the present release. Although the Seattle Symphony is not in the top league of American orchestras, I cannot think that any of them would have done a better job than Maestro Schwarz and his band.

William Schuman is one of America’s premiere symphonic composers and most of his ten Symphonies have been available before, although as far as I am aware this is the first recording of No. 9. (If I am wrong, I am sure someone will get in touch to correct me!) (Editor’s note: The first on CD. The premiere recording was made by RCA with the Philadelphia conducted by Ormandy. That was issued on LP. I am sure I have heard rumours that the Philadelphia RCA had been issued on CD in Japan but I cannot be absolutely sure. RB).

Naxos have re-issued some of the Seattle recordings of works by other American composers originally set down by Delos, but this current release appears to be one of Naxos’s own. They do however, appear to be using the same engineer as Delos; so it could be that apart from Naxos’s producer, it is essentially the same crew. The sound quality is indistinguishable from the American label and so there is no cheapening of the product. Prospective buyers can go ahead with no reservations on that score.

William Schuman is a bit of an enigma in the field of American music. He started off by specialising in jazz and pop. After hearing Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in 1930, his direction of studies changed from commerce to music. He studied first at Columbia University and then at the Juilliard with Roy Harris. Later, at the Sarah Lawrence College, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his Cantata A Free Song; that was in 1943. Not content with that, in addition to his writing activities he managed to find time to be both the President of the Juilliard School in New York and Director of Publications at G. Schirmer.

Both of these symphonies have war as their major influence. The Fourth Symphony was premiered by Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra, a month or so after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Its relatively optimistic flavour must have provided a positive approach after such a dark time. The first movement moves gradually from a sombre opening to a brilliant brass climax with the scenery being that of Copland and Harris although with Schuman’s distinctive tone colouration in the orchestra. The second movement is tender in character, again with complex strands of texture making for an extremely interesting journey. The movement is again subdued but its overall temperature is warm – a lovely episode. The finale begins with an animated dialogue between wind and strings. This develops by increasing the temperature and complexity with all sections of the orchestra joining in to produce a riot of colour in true Schuman style. The virtuosity of the orchestra is most impressive, and there is also a spirit of genuine excitement in the playing.

The Ninth Symphony is an altogether darker work, but none the worse for that. It was inspired by a visit the composer and his wife made to the Ardeatine Caves, the site where the Nazis slaughtered 355 Italian men, women and children, and then tried to hide the evidence by bombing the site. The place has now become a shrine. Schuman was so moved by it, that this symphony resulted. It does not set out to describe the shrine in any way, more than that, it re-creates the emotions felt by the composer and his wife during their visit. The three movements are played without a break: slow, fast, slow. The symphony was premiered in Philadelphia by Eugene Ormandy in 1969, and the New York premiere was by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic the following year.

The two fillups are short incidental pieces, and although marvellous to have, do not change my response to this disc in any way. This is an auspicious start to a series which deserves every success, and at last allows us to hear the works of this major American symphonist in first class sound. I don’t need to add that they are at a ridiculously cheap price.

Schuman’s symphonies are not immediately accessible, but more than pay back any effort that the listener devotes to them. Existing fans of the composer, and I consider myself to be one of them, will be ecstatic.

Recommended with all possible enthusiasm – thank you Naxos!

John Phillips

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