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William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Symphony No. 8 (1962) [32:28]
Night Journey - Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments (1947) [25:28]
Charles IVES
Variations on ‘America’ (arr. W. Schuman) (1891/1964) [7:08]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, 21 October 2008 (Symphony); 3 October 2007 (Night Journey), Seattle Opera House, 15 October 1991 (Variations on ‘America’)
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559651 [65:04]

Experience Classicsonline

My latest batch of discs to review has included completions of two impressive and stirring symphonic cycles from Naxos by Albert Roussel and here from William Schuman. Whilst the Roussel enters a relatively competitive field - and proves itself to be the equal of any - this Schuman cycle is if anything more valuable for providing the only coherent and complete survey of his symphonic output. Prior to collecting this series, my knowledge of Schuman was sketchy and based on the popular orchestral works and a couple of the symphonies released either on CBS or Vox/Turnabout as those labels used to be. The great thing here has been the unifyingly powerful and consistent vision of conductor Gerard Schwarz and his fine Seattle Symphony. Great credit too must go to Naxos who initially licensed the early releases in the cycle from Delos but then took up the baton of completing the series with recordings that are every bit the equal artistically and technically of the early ones. If you do not believe me try the first and last tracks on this disc - the Symphony No.8 dating from 2008 Naxos sessions and the Variations from Delos supervision in 1991. As an aside, one of music’s great mysteries is how Schwarz has clearly established an enduring and hugely successful relationship with his Seattle orchestra but failed to ignite the same response from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic now flourishing anew under Vasily Petrenko.

But to the music. In the past I have felt Naxos have used the phrase ‘American Classics’ rather too loosely. Not here. I have grown to respect admire and enjoy Schuman’s individual and wide-ranging musical voice as this series has developed. None of the performances are first recordings and indeed the symphony is in direct competition with a classic performance from Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I have not heard that recording but received wisdom relates that having given the premiere only days before they were on creative fire when they arrived in the studio in 1962. On its own merits though the current recording is very fine. Given that Schuman writes for a very large orchestra of triple woodwind and expanded brass and percussion to match the quality and clarity of the recording is as essential as it is welcome. The Symphony was written for the inaugural concerts of the Philharmonic Hall at the Lincoln Center in 1962. Don’t expect some festive romp though. This is darkly serious and rigorously argued music. From the opening bars this is music that seems to lament more than it celebrates. An extended horn solo grieves over unforgiving blocks of strings and brass. The idea of a lost soloist pitched against an implacable group repeats with oboe set against brass and violins against horns and piano. Joseph W. Polisi in his informative and authoritative liner note draws similarities with other Schuman works. As elsewhere in this cycle I enjoy very much the way Schuman sets up conflicts within the orchestra; it’s the orchestra as battlefield with opposing forces ranged against each other. The occurrence of increasingly tense and violent brass fanfare writing heightens this sense of aggression; as on other recordings in this series the Seattle lower brass are captured with thrillingly resonant power. Throughout this movement the Seattle strings are particularly impressive creating a sonorously solid wall of unified implacable tone. After the crisis of battle is reached with an aggressive timpani solo the music subsides into uneasy calm before moving without a break into the second movement. For spiritual and/or musical reasons that are not made clear the remaining two movements of the Symphony are extended re-workings of material from Schuman’s String Quartet No.4 of 1950. A further self-quotation is pointed out by Polisi; Schuman transforms the melody of the closing chorus of his 1953 baseball opera The Mighty Casey into what Polisi describes as “a lament unto itself”. The terse, rage-contained mood of the opening movement continues. Clearly there must be an extra-musical motivation for the use of the other works’ material here; I only wish I knew what it was. Polisi is quite right to point out that the function of this movement is far removed from the traditional central slow movement of standard symphonic form. It is almost as if it is a self-contained musical picture. Throughout its eleven minute span the mood remains unrelentingly sombre although expressed in a variety of textures and tempi. Schuman has a clear predilection for the imposition of varying materials. Often this results in the conflict alluded to above but there are many fascinating passages where the material runs in tandem seemingly refusing to acknowledge the presence of any other music. Try track 2 at around 8:30 for an example of this. The low strings and brass start a figure that could almost be a slow fugal subject in earlier more formal times. Above and around them the upper strings skitter and buzz like some annoying insect with light (but not light-hearted) scurrying figurations. Other orchestral sections ally themselves and a more direct conflict ensues. All of the Seattle orchestra play Schuman’s complex unpredictable rhythms with total ease. As in the first movement out of the height of battle some kind of calm appears although here the movement reaches a more definitive end with a held loud and soured chord from the full orchestra.

After two unrelenting movements of anger and sorrow the final Presto-Prestissimo is undoubtedly welcome. As mentioned the musical material is again mined from the earlier quartet but here the instrumental forces answer rather than overlap. Although still jagged and dissonant that little change alone makes the music more playful and lightened in spirit. It is the movement where Schuman’s orchestrational skills are most apparent. Again the playing is neat or powerful as required and the balance is finely achieved. The Naxos engineers have been able to maintain internal detail within a believable overall balance. As the movement develops so does the complexity of the contrapuntal texture - indeed there is another similar ‘fugal’ passage to the one described above but here the musical strands are more intertwined and the result is more symbiotic than destructive. There is a sense that the various orchestral groups are taking turns to display their prowess to admiring colleagues. The momentum is maintained through the movement to a final display of (relative) unity until a final held chord again coloured by dissonance. As mentioned above this is my first encounter with this score and indisputably powerful though it is I do not feel I have got under the skin of it yet. But experience tells me that all of Schuman’s works repay repeated listening and attention and certainly the performance here seems to exude authority and conviction with technical excellence taken for granted.

Not that the second work on the disc should be considered as any kind of filler. Described as a choreographic poem, Night Journey is a major score in its own right running to over twenty-five minutes of continuous music. It was the first of four collaborations Schuman had with the hugely influential Martha Graham. Apart from her impact on the world of dance Polisi quotes Schuman as saying; “… I was influenced tonally by her aesthetic, if not necessarily consciously … The subject matter of these works is so Graham-ish … the dark side and the fast side is very prominent.” The original orchestration of this work is not clear but in 1981 Schuman returned to it and produced the Choreographic Poem for 15 Instruments recorded here. It shares a very similar aesthetic to the Symphony although on a very different scale if judged by number of performers alone. The mid-1940s was the time when Graham also collaborated with composers such as Copland on Appalachian Spring and Barber in Cave of the Heart. Both of those great works in their original versions are also for reduced quasi-chamber instrumentations (with prominent orchestral piano parts) but Schuman creates a darker more unsettling musical world than either. As such it’s a brilliant and astute coupling for the Symphony although the result is a rather gritty listen heard at a single sitting. In many ways I find Schuman’s handling of the instruments more remarkable here than in the symphony. I often think the phrase “good orchestration” is confused or more to the point mis-used with the concept of writing for a large orchestra. Surely, truly skilful orchestration is the use of minimum instruments to maximum effect - just as Schuman does here. Heard ‘blind’ I suspect few would guess at 15 as being the number of players. The quality of playing and recording helps maintain the illusion to a great degree. Sensibly the engineering has brought the instrumental group closer into the foreground which serves to differentiate the musical strands. This is lithe and athletic writing superbly executed. Again, I don’t find myself instantly warming to the work - time will tell - but I can imagine Martha Graham being absolutely delighted with the work as it abounds in that kind of serious severity that characterises much contemporary dance. Certainly this is Schuman at his most angular and uncompromising - try track 4 around 16:30 to hear both the aggressive style of the music and how brilliantly performed it is. The chilled tolling bell-like hollow piano chords accompanying a hopeless string lament from around 24:30 to the end of the work is another musical highlight - a very effective passage achieved with the minimum of resources - hopelessness encapsulated. I am not clear if this version of the Graham ballet still follows the same narrative path - I for one would have appreciated some dramatic cueing of the music. Polisi does not provide a synopsis other than mentioning it is based on the Oedipus myth told from the viewpoint of his mother Jocasta. 

After such a rigorous hour of music the uproarious orchestration of Charles Ives’ organ bonanza Variations on ‘America’ provides almost too much relief. It really could not be further from the sound world or aesthetic of the other two works if it tried! As mentioned before, this was recorded some 17 years before the rest of the programme but it still sounds very fine indeed. The liner points out that Schuman changed not a note of the work harmonically or otherwise. For 1891 - pre-dating The Nutcracker or The New World Symphony this must have sounded like musical madness. What is so clever in Schuman’s treatment is his po-faced absurdity. It serves to accentuate both the modernity and inherent bizarreness of the original. In this performance I do feel the music is better served by a more unbuttoned raucous approach - this is beautiful but a tad civilised. Naxos have another version of this work in their catalogue - as a coupling to the Quint/Schuman Violin Concerto played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (review). But to be honest you will not be buying this disc for that coupling. For those who, like me, have been spellbound by the power and breadth of Schuman’s vision as captured by this cycle this is an automatic purchase. If you are new to this compositional landscape this might prove a daunting yet not unrewarding place to start although some of the other earlier releases provide less rocky foothills. This might not be the conclusion of the Naxos/Schuman cycle - Symphonies 1 and 2 remain tantalisingly ‘withdrawn’. My hope would be that the people who hold the Schuman legacy dear will realise that the strength and enduring value of that heritage can only be enhanced by knowing what came before. Even as it currently stands, this now-complete cycle is one of the true jewels of the Naxos catalogue; powerful music presented in exemplary sound and compelling performances.

Nick Barnard

see also review by Rob Barnett

 


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