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William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Symphony No. 7 (1960) [28:57]
Symphony No. 10 American Muse (1976) [31:51]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA. Nov 2003 (7); Sept 2004 (10). DDD
NAXOS 8.559255 [60:48]

Last year I gave a warm welcome to a disc from the same Seattle forces, which coupled Schuman’s Fourth and Ninth symphonies (see review). I’m delighted to see the second instalment of the Naxos cycle is now with us.
 
Both of these symphonies were written to commissions marking major anniversaries. The Koussevitzky Foundation commissioned the Seventh in celebration of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s diamond jubilee, and in memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky. Charles Munch led the BSO in the première in October 1960. Composition of the Tenth took place at the behest of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C. to mark the bicentennial of the USA in 1976. That orchestra, under their then-Music Director, Antal Dorati, gave the first performance in April 1976.
 
The Seventh has been recorded twice before, by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony (Vox 5092) and, more recently, I think, by Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony (New World 8034) but neither of those recordings have come my way. The Tenth was the subject of a fine recording in the early 1990s by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony for BMG RCA Victor and it was through their performance that I first came to know the work. I suspect that all these recordings, with the possible exception of Maazel’s version of the Seventh, are now deleted.
 
The Seventh is laid out in four movements but these play without a break – helpfully, each is separately tracked on this CD. The first movement, marked Largo assai, begins with imposing, dense chordal progressions - a call to attention if ever I heard one. As Steven Lowe comments in his very useful notes, the prevailing mood is “stern, even threatening”. This movement is intensely serious, craggy and undeniably impressive. I’ve nothing against which to compare the present performance, and though it seems to be very good I did wonder if there is not, perhaps, even more tension and grit in the music than Gerald Schwarz and his players seem to find. I wondered what Leonard Bernstein or, indeed, Koussevitzky himself might have made of it. The movement plays for 11:00 and from about 7:00 onwards the clarinet and bass clarinet have extremely prominent roles. In fact, at 9:22 they launch into a joint cadenza, which brings the movement to a most unusual close.
 
The second movement, Vigoroso, follows without a break. It’s short and explosive and much use is made of the brass and percussion sections. It’s described in the notes as becoming “increasingly festive and bright”. I’d agree with the second adjective but I’m not wholly sure that I’d describe the music as “festive”, which to me implies more jollity than I hear. Without a doubt, however, the music is extrovert.
 
At the start of the third movement, marked Cantabile intensamente, we seem to be in much calmer waters. This movement is scored for strings only. It’s fine, questing music that is aptly described as “tinged with mystery”. It’s splendidly written for the strings and I’m reminded that Schuman’s marvellous Fifth symphony (1943) is scored exclusively for strings. That piece was commissioned by Koussevitzky himself and I wonder if it’s any coincidence that this movement in the later work, commissioned in part to honour the conductor’s memory, should be similarly scored? An act of implicit homage, perhaps? This long adagio seems to begin calmly enough but it rises to an impassioned central section before, in an arch form, the music subsides once more into the calm from which it arose. However, at the end of the movement, when we look back, having experienced the power of the central section, we wonder whether the opening calm was quite as pacific as it seemed at first.
 
The finale, again following without a pause, bears the indication Scherzando brioso. It’s a vigorous, lively and extrovert piece of music in which the brass and percussion are once again to the fore. It’s played with an appropriate degree of brilliance by the Seattle orchestra.
 
The Tenth Symphony bears the subtitle, American Muse, no doubt reflecting the occasion which called forth the commission. It may have been commissioned for a celebratory occasion but there are no facile high jinks in Schuman’s score. The festivities are tempered with reflection and sobriety and perhaps that’s as it should be since an occasion such as the bicentennial of a nation is surely an event that demands a degree of reflection as well as celebration and self-congratulation.
 
The score is cast in three movements. The first, marked Con fuoco, is the shortest. It seems pointless to attempt to describe the music when it has been so well summed up by annotator Steven Lowe. He asserts that the music suggests “the brash and assertive spirit of the nation’s origins in revolution. Using a tonal vocabulary intensified with pithy dissonance, the music is emphatic, angular, lean-textured and propelled by packets of energizing clipped notes.”
 
The longest movement is the second, marked Larghissimo. It begins quietly enough, indeed very quietly indeed, with hushed strings and cool wind chords of subdued dissonance. Very gradually, almost imperceptibly, the dynamic level and the tension in the music increase as horns join the mix around 5:00. Midway through the movement there are important, haunting solos for flute and trumpet. Chattering winds prepare a huge, brass-dominated climax at 9:00 and at length the movement draws to a quiet close of “notable consonance”.
 
The finale is also a substantial movement. It begins in extrovert fashion with hyperactivity in the wind and brass sections. The music then slows and in the following section, although the melodic burden is borne by strings or by the woodwind choir, the ear is constantly drawn to the almost continuous accompaniment of chiming percussion. Then the skies darken in a passage dominated by heavy, dramatic brass chords. After this the tempo picks up with a vengeance and the work ends in a riot of steely orchestral colours and driving rhythms. Once again Schuman’s favoured brass and percussion are strongly featured and it’s the percussion that dominate the emphatic, exciting conclusion.
 
These are two fine and rewarding symphonies and it’s marvellous to have them available at budget price. Schuman is well served by Gerard Schwarz who obtains committed playing from his orchestra. Their playing is captured in very good sound. This CD confirms the impression of its predecessor that William Schuman was a major American symphonist of the twentieth century. Indeed, that sentence would read just as truthfully if one excised the word “American”. Naxos are to be congratulated on embarking on a cycle of his symphonies – the first ever, I’m sure – and I look forward keenly to further instalments.

John Quinn
 
See also review by Rob Barnett


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