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William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Symphony No. 3 (1941) [27:28]
Symphony No. 5 Symphony for Strings (1943) [17:54]
Judith (1949) [22:22]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, September 2005 (3); Seattle Center Opera House, 20 January 1991 (5); 5, 7 January 1992 (Judith). DDD
NAXOS 8.559317 [67:44]

Two of the items included here were originally part of the series of recordings of American orchestral music that Gerard Schwarz made for the Delos label in the 1990s. The Fifth Symphony and Judith were issued, together with other Schuman pieces, on DE 3115. I’m delighted to see them restored to circulation. The recording of the Third Symphony, however, is brand new – and just as welcome.
It’s worth noting, I think, that Schuman himself approved at least some of the recordings that were on that original disc. A note in the Delos booklet records that he heard an advance copy of part of it in January 1992, just a month before his death, and he wrote to the producer “The performance has so many superlative elements …. It is rare indeed to have the combination of intellectual depth, technical superiority and emotional involvement to the degree that any composer would hope for. Gerry [Schwarz] achieves those desiderata in a seemingly effortless way. What he has accomplished with that orchestra is outstanding.”
The Fifth Symphony comes from that Delos disc. It’s cast in three movements. The first is vigorous and strongly rhythmical. It’s a movement of sustained energy. The central slow movement lasts for 8:25, nearly half the length of the entire piece. There’s a somewhat febrile central section but the outer paragraphs are calmer, especially the closing pages when the music dies away virtually to nothing. The finale is, once again, energetic; the music scurries along. Both the annotator for this release and his colleague who wrote of the Delos disc rightly point out the parallel between some pizzicato passages here and the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Fourth. This is an exuberant movement. Schuman’s music very often has a serious countenance but this time the music smiles. The ending sounds positive but not as emphatic as you might expect.
It was at that point that I made some comparisons with Leonard Bernstein’s 1966 New York Philharmonic reading - Sony Classical SMK 63163; I’m unsure if this is still available. In Bernstein’s hands the music sounds quite different. In part this may be due to the closer recording. The extra weight of the NYPO strings no doubt contributes also. But I have to report that Bernstein seems to me to impart more passion to the music, to dig deeper. Good though Schwarz is, Bernstein, as so often, adds a different dimension.
Judith was also originally issued by Delos. This score dates from 1949 and represented Schuman’s second collaboration with Martha Graham – they’d previously worked together in 1947. The tale, from the Biblical Apocrypha, is a gory one. Judith, an Israelite widow – the role was created by and for Martha Graham – decides to take action to rescue her people from the oppression of the Assyrians and their leader, Holofernes. She infiltrates the Assyrian camp, seduces Holofernes and then slays him in his own tent, decapitating him and carrying the head back as a trophy to her people. Schuman illustrates this story with vivid, sometimes graphic music. Schwarz and his orchestra play it strongly and, it seems, with a good sense of drama. The Naxos notes are quite helpful in describing the action – though the Delos essay has a slight edge – but it would have been helpful if some cuing points had been provided and linked in to the notes.
The brand new release is that of the Third Symphony. This dates from 1941 and it was first performed – as was the Fifth – by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. As befits a wartime work it’s a powerful piece, cast in two movement though each of these is further subdivided into two. The scoring reflects Schuman’s frequent predilection for brass and percussion. The first movement is entitled ‘Passacaglia and Fugue’. In the Passacaglia the strings and brass predominate. It’s strong, sinewy music of great purpose. The fugue, when it comes (6:09), is launched by the horns and the material is quite jagged. It’s only at 7:40, when the music enters a quieter episode, that we really find the wind coming into their own for the first time but when Schuman does bring them into the picture he does so by means of some effective, twining writing. Eventually the timpani launch more propulsive music which, over the next three minutes or so, brings the movement to a bracing, exciting end.
The second movement is called ‘Chorale and Toccata’. As Steven Lowe observes in his note, the Chorale is “a haven of comparative serenity.” The music is gravely beautiful and a haunting trumpet solo, supported by hushed strings (1:21) really catches the ear. Is this, I wondered, music of the Great Outdoors or of the City? However, at the risk of being pedantic I must point out one small but very important slip in the notes. Schuman is quoted as saying that the Chorale “really represents the spirit of composition.” That statement does make sense. However Michael Steinberg has the same quote in his essay on the work (The Symphony, A Listener’s Guide. (1995), p. 498) and he gives it with the insertion of the definite article before the word “composition”. This seems to me to make even greater sense and it’s quite an important distinction. The Toccata begins at 7:47 with a low, quiet note on contrabassoon over which a very quiet side-drum tattoo is played. This is a moment of very effective tension. From these quiet beginnings the woodwinds whisk us away into an energetic display piece, punctuated at one point by a slower interlude for the strings. The ending is explosive and jubilant, led by Schuman’s favourite brass and percussion sections.
Schwartz conducts a very good performance of this work, I think. Once again, however, he faces competition from Leonard Bernstein and the NYPO. Bernstein’s first traversal is on the aforementioned Sony disc and dates from 1960. He’s broader and weightier than Schwarz, taking 30:56, more than three minutes longer. By the time he set the piece down again, live in 1985 for DG, his interpretation had lengthened further, coming in at 32:20. Despite the more modern sound this, I think, is a bit too much of a good thing and I prefer Bernstein’s first thoughts. As in the Fifth I think Bernstein finds a bit more than Schwarz in terms of drama and thrust. But perhaps it would be fairer to say that he finds different emphases in the music.
This is a very valuable disc and a worthy follow up to Schwarz’s previous discs of Schuman symphonies. Anyone who has the original Delos disc may baulk at the duplication but it would be a pity to miss out on the new performance of the Third. I couldn’t detect any significant differences between the sound on the two discs. Both are very good. I can recommend this disc with confidence, especially to those collecting the series, for William Schuman is a considerable symphonist and it’s good to find his works becoming widely available and in such good performances. However, I’d also urge collectors to hear Bernstein for his insights into these fine symphonies. I look forward to the completion of this Naxos cycle with some impatience.

John Quinn 

see also review by Rob Barnett

Naxos American Classics page


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