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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
finale, again following without a pause, bears the indication Scherzando
. 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.
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.
score is cast in three movements. The first, marked Con
, 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.”
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”.
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,
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.
See also review by Rob Barnett