William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Symphony No. 6 (1948) [29:10]
Prayer in a Time of War (1943) [15:35]
New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings (1956) [16:06]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, 10, 16 September 2008 (Symphony); 7 September 2005 (Prayer); Seattle Opera House, 24-25 September 1990 (Triptych)
NAXOS 8.559625 [60:51]

This slowly developing cycle of the Schuman symphonies has been one of the undoubted highlights of the Naxos American Classics series. Initiated by the Delos label back in the early 1990s (following on from their earlier successful traversals of the Hanson and Diamond Symphonies using the same performers) it is greatly to the credit of Naxos that they took up the baton when Delos faltered. It is to be hoped that they will be able to record the first two symphonies in the cycle - Schuman withdrew them - and then we will be able to consider them as an organic whole. Certainly when the performances are as authoritative and assured as here the listener is able to be drawn powerfully into Schuman’s sound-world.

The disc opens with the craggy and austere Symphony No.6 of 1948. Excellent liner-notes written by Joseph W Polisi - one of Schuman’s successors as president of The Juilliard School and author of an extended biography of the composer - underline the fact that for contemporary audiences this was not an easy listen. Written in one continuous 29 minute movement (although this does in turn divide into six distinct sections) this is absolute music. There seems to be no underlying programme or message. What I particularly enjoy - and am recognising to be a Schuman compositional fingerprint - is the way he juxtaposes instrumental groups against each other in both timbral, rhythmic and tonal opposition. It has the musical effect of tectonic plates grinding over and against each other. I also like the way Schuman splinters and fragments rhythms. He avoids syncopation in a jazz-influenced way but instead throws accents and rhythmic groups across and around barlines in a way that disrupts the predictability of the basic pulse. The absolute prerequisite for this to work well is the security of the playing. The Seattle Orchestra has Schuman’s style thoroughly absorbed now. The strings are able to produce the cold intensity of the music perfectly. Likewise the low brass in particular are adept at voicing the chorale-like passages he often writes to perfection. Schwarz was a fine trumpeter himself so no surprise he takes particular delight in the (literally) brilliant brass writing. There is an aggressive and violent nature to this music that is disturbing yet compelling - the offsetting of opposing forces is an abiding impression. One group or motif gains temporary ascendancy but is then overwhelmed by a succeeding group. I particularly like the passage around 12:20 where complex contrapuntal lines in the strings and woodwind like some out of kilter poly-rhythmic fugue vie for dominance until the slowest moving violin chorale achieves some kind of unquiet peace. The jagged violence of the writing from 20:00 on is viscerally exciting with a side-drummer hurling rimshots at the massed orchestra ranged against him - listen for some brilliant tuba writing that is as muscular as it is unexpected. What was greeted in 1949 with incomprehension and positive disdain now emerges as one of the major 20th Century American Symphonies. My comparative version here is from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on Koch coupled with Roy Harris’ 7th Symphony. This is a good version too although not nearly so well recorded and the New Zealand strings do not achieve the sub-zero chill I allude to above. Generally the complex syncopation which dominates the faster passages of the score does not sound quite as secure in New Zealand as in Seattle. Interestingly the Kiwi side-drummer does not use rim-shots as in Seattle but not having access to a score I have no idea who is following the score more closely - all I would say is the rim-shots are more dramatic!

The piece that follows - Prayer in Time of War - was quite unknown to me. At fifteen minutes it is a substantial work in its own right. Although it emerges and ultimately ends in quiet and slow reflection the piece moves through a wide range of emotion. Polisi explains that it was written as the composer’s response to being rejected when he tried to enlist once America entered World War II in 1941 and he neatly characterises the work as encapsulating moods ranging from sombre, heroic, soulful yet ultimately solemn. The mournful lamenting horn-call over a gently pulsing string pedal early in the work is profoundly beautiful and superbly played here. Likewise the oboe solo which answers it [track 2 3:20 and following]. Again the brilliant brass writing is superbly executed - listen to how perfectly the trombones and horns voice their chords at 6:30. Although I have no other versions to compare this against I find it hard to believe it could find a finer exponent than here - this is a major work that transcends any sense of the occasional - a prayer for all times and all wars.

The disc is completed by Schuman’s best known and most performed work - the New England Triptych. I like Schuman’s terse comment quoted here, “I didn’t write the piece to make it a success, it just happened to turn out to be successful”. Naxos already have one rather fine version of this in their locker - as a coupling to the superb violin concerto performed by José Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Naxos 8.559083 (see review) - but it is such a fun work apologies to Mr Schuman if I like it more than I’m meant to! What is so interesting coming to this work after the seriousness of the two earlier ones is just how consistently Schuman applied his compositional principles across the broad spectrum of works he produced. So we hear again the juxtaposition of material and instrumental groups, the writing for instrumental “choirs” and the sense of music written in opposition to itself. The more I hear Schuman the more I like it and perhaps he wasn’t being curmudgeonly after all in the above quote! This is a beautifully performed version, perhaps not my absolute favourite - I rather liked the wildness of Sedares with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra on Koch - but very fine indeed in its own terms.

A quick word about the engineering; remember that there is an eighteen year span in the recording between the Symphony and the Triptych. Also worth noting that Delos was in 1990 regarded as an absolute premium label producing some of the best engineered digital recordings. Hats off to Naxos then for producing recordings every bit the equal of the earlier tracks. This is one of the finest sounding Naxos discs of recent years doing the music and the performers full justice. There is an extraordinary continuity too in the actual sound the orchestra produces - presumably there must have been quite a change in personnel over those eighteen years but the sound of the Seattle orchestra has remained remarkably consistent. Much credit for this must reside too with Gerard Schwarz whose vision of Schuman (and many other American composers too) is a model of care, musicality and passion. As already mentioned Joseph Polisi’s notes are a delight to read - full of musical detail balanced with personal insight - it makes me want to read his recent biography on the composer. Given the range of styles presented here I would say that this could act as a good entry point into the sound-world of William Schuman - hugely rewarding music performed with missionary zeal in demonstration quality sound.

Nick Barnard 

see also review by Rob Barnett

William Schuman review index