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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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William SCHUMAN (1910–1992)
Violin Concerto (1947/1959) [32.38]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918–1990)
Serenade
for violin, strings, harp and percussion (after Plato’s Symposium) (1954) [30.25]
Robert McDuffie (violin)
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 10-11 January 1989, Powell Hall, St. Louis, Missouri
EMI AMERICAN CLASSICS 2066112 [64.02]
Experience Classicsonline

The violin concerto is not the form which immediately springs to mind when you consider mid-twentieth century American classical music. But both William Schuman’s Violin Concerto and Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade date from the 1950s, being composed within a few years of each other. A key influential work, in this respect, is probably the Barber Violin Concerto. This was composed in the late 1930s but not premiered until 1941, following which it rapidly entered the standard repertoire.
 
Schuman’s Violin Concerto was originally written in 1947 for Samuel Dushkin and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky, but had to wait until 1950 for its premiere. By that time Charles Munch had taken over from Koussevitzky and Isaac Stern played the solo part. The work comes between Schuman’s 6th and 7th symphonies and could be considered a symphony for violin and orchestra. As originally written it consisted of the traditional three movements, but Schuman’s revisions in 1959 brought the work to its present form: just two substantial movements. Though the work was popular at its 1950 premiere, Schuman did not like the three movement format. In particular he was dissatisfied with the middle Andantino movement. In the end he dropped this and created two substantial, independent but interdependent symphonic movements.
 
In terms of its material the concerto is an unabashed Romantic one, though Schuman does not write with his heart on his sleeve quite as much as Barber. Where the work does not quite fit the Romantic mould is that the main ethos of the piece is dialogue and symphonic development. It lacks the key 19th century concerto element of struggle between orchestra and soloist, though the soloist is ultimately engulfed by the orchestra at the end.
 
The writing is lyrical, but it is a rather tough lyricism. You don’t actually come out humming any of the tunes. As such the soloist needs fire and force to bring the performance off. Both soloist and orchestra are perfectly at home in this repertoire and give a sterling account of the work, bringing off its seriousness as well as Schuman’s quirkier touches. For instance try the section where the soloist is accompanied by three trombones. But it is a big bravura work and whilst McDuffie gives a fine, capable account of the solo part, he does not scorch the air-waves. His is a capable and musical account. He always sounds on top of the part, but never burns as fiercely as he could.
 
This is a shame, because the work has been given a fine recording which illuminates all of the Schuman’s orchestral writing. Perhaps the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra do not quite have the work in their blood the way the Boston Symphony Orchestra do, but theirs is a very fine account.
 
If you just want the Schuman then I would probably go for Paul Zukofsky’s account with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on DG. This si coupled with Piston’s 2nd Symphony and Ruggles’ Sun-treader. Zukofsky is not quite as polished as McDuffie, but he certainly knows how to scorch. Unfortunately this disc is unavailable at the moment.
 
McDuffie’s coupling is Bernstein’s 1954 Serenade for violin, strings, harp and percussion. This violin concerto in all but name is based on Plato’s Symposium and each of the five movements illustrates one of the dialogues in praise of love. In retrospect the work was something of a notable point in terms of Bernstein’s development as it covered elements of his own, conflicted emotional personality. We can see now how Plato’s work could have resonance for the composer, approaching middle age, and still trying to balance the elements of his life; not only the musical ones, but the different sides of his sexual personality.
 
The result, in musical, terms is rather an unshowy, almost understated work, very much a serenade. It has been something of a sleeper in Bernstein’s compositional output, gradually coming to have a greater importance than it seemed to have when Isaac Stern premiered it.
 
Frankly it is a work which I find admirable rather than loveable and McDuffie has not managed to convince me otherwise. Again he is well-mannered and not a little cool. Perhaps if he had played in the sort of highly coloured manner that I wished for in the Schuman, McDuffie might have convinced me a little more. In the Gramophone review of Hilary Hahn’s 1999 recording of the work the reviewer describes the work as ‘loveable’, so not everyone agrees with me.
 
Bernstein is rather omnivorous in his stylistic influences and the movement range from neo-Bergian lyricism to full-on Mahlerian moments. The most incongruous, though, is the jazzy, blues-influenced closing dance which seems to stand out; so much so that you wonder what underlying thesis Bernstein had in mind.
 
The recordings date from 1989 and this is a re-issue of a disc originally issued that year. It now reappears in EMI’s American Classics line.
 
McDuffie and the St. Louis Symphony are poised and lyrical, capable and musical, without quite setting me afire. In both works they are capably conducted by Leonard Slatkin who contributes to a pair of beautifully recorded well modulated performances.
 
Robert Hugill
 
see also review by Rob Barnett


 


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