Two hundred years since the birth of Robert Schumann have seen every company celebrating with new disc or re-packagings. One of the most splendid of those is the massive DG Schumann Edition - a box we would very much like to cover here if only However the centenary of another Schuman (one N this time) also falls in 2010. How many music-lovers have heard of the American composer William Schuman?
For me Schuman spells kinetic power, dark-hued massed strings, a tragic weighty expressive charge and a top-dead-centre symphonic momentum. His Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 3 won me round in an instant. OK so the Violin Concerto did take a bit longer. In the 1980s foreign record lists were still exotic. Even so I tracked down a Schwann catalog and ended up ordering the CMS Masterworks LP of Bernstein conducting the NYPO in the Third Symphony. The devastatingly supercharged optimism of the finale of the Third Symphony was a revelation - it still is. In 1973 I picked up in a secondhand shop on Whiteladies Road in Bristol a DG LP of the Schuman Violin Concerto and Piston Symphony No. 2. played the Concerto side to gnarled destruction but came away completely under the spell of that work.
It falls to Naxos to produce this complete cycle of the Schuman symphonies. If you were wondering what happened to symphonies 1 and 2 (1935, 1937) they were withdrawn by the composer - rather like those of Roy Harris although in Harris’s case the Second Symphony has been recorded (Albany). Schuman’s Second was performed and there’s even an ancient 1930s air-check of that event by Howard Barlow and the CBS orchestra and it’s by no means negligible.
Naxos picked up the Seattle/Schwarz recordings made by Delos before their first collapse but then picked up the reins making new recordings in Benaroya Hall to take us to a complete run. This box simply and in a very stylish way gathers up the five separately issued CDs (each individually shrink-wrapped) and puts them in a card box. There’s no saving in shelf space. In that sense the set is rather like the also just issued Barber/Alsop series.
Schwarz and Seattle have the cojones to grapple with Schuman’s mountainous epic symphonies. His wartime Fourth Symphony blasts along strongly with more weight than the Louisville folk could command on First Edition but with a shade less propulsion. The Tenderly, simply middle movement has one of those caressing string threnodies so typical of the best of the American 1940s. Roy Harris was surely an influence. It is this gentle vein to which Schuman was to return almost a quarter century later for the Postludium of the Ninth Symphony. The Fourth’s finale is full of gurgling mercurial fantasy - a delightful counter to the composer’s tendency to lean on fugal character.
The Orchestra Song sounds like an updated serenade or Mozartian cassation which would cosy up nicely against the Posthorn Serenade. In the Circus Overture Schwarz really lets his players rip and gives free rein to those canyons and monoliths of raw brass fanfares so typical of this composer.
The Ninth Symphony is a very late work. After this there was to be only more. This is a bleak enough piece inspired by the murder by the Nazis of 335 innocent Italian men women and children in reprisal for the Italian resistance’s killing of 32 German soldiers. Schuman’s long lines and pattering tension, gaunt brass writing and high piping woodwind hallmarks are all there but until we get to the deeply moving finale - postludium - I remained and remain unconvinced. The Ormandy RCA recording issued during the LP era has never been reissued on CD.
The Seventh and Tenth have never sounded as good from an audio viewpoint as they do here. In the case of the Seventh Symphony the typically explosive Vigoroso, while clearly powerful, lacks the feral attack of Abravanel in his Utah Symphony version on Vox. The Schwarz reading is a mite more relaxed and less searing. Things hot up for the Scherzando brioso but overall this is Schuman served up cooler than white hot.
The Tenth Symphony was recorded on a mid-1980s RCA disc deleted some years ago. That version was conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Once again the temperature is limited and although there is a gritty strength as in the con fuoco first movement. Much more successful is the Larghissimo - any Schuman largo is potentially a force to be reckoned with - which has the same intense virtues as the parallel elegiac movement in the Ninth Symphony. The finale is invigoratingly brusque in Schuman's best toweringly colossal manner. More delicate is the bell-chiming wonderland that lies at the centre of the movement.
The Tenth was written for the American Centennial in 1976 and was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. It is dedicated to “our country's creative artists, past, present and future”. The work owes its existence to the suggestion of the composer's wife that he should revisit for inspiration his early choral setting of Whitman's Pioneers! O Pioneers!
While the spirit and sense of flowing inevitability of the interpretations of 7 and 10 do not stand full comparison with previous recordings the issue is largely academic as the alternatives cannot be easily chased down and these readings are by no means unsatisfying.
The recording of the kinetically charged Schuman Third Symphony is projected with tremendous power. I rate this as amongst the most potent works of the mid-20th century. Its war-time origins are consonant with its primal violence and its soulfulness. While it has a steely and irresistibly euphoric joy it does not lack for elegiac substance. We can hear this in the throbbing Tallis-like singing of the strings in the Chorale. While it is wanting in that last ounce of quasi-hysteria to be heard in Bernstein’s still glorious 1960s version it is accorded a natural sounding recording with no shortage of oomph. Bernstein’s better recorded 1980s Third is available on a DG set. His unmissable 1960-session Third is on a very desirable Sony CD if you can find a copy. However Schwarz’s is no mere stop-gap as the squat brass, jazzy and ruthless syncopation, gun-shot side-drum ‘rounds’ and hyper-thrumming strings of the final five minutes of the Toccata instantly proclaim. Just superb!
The Symphony for Strings (No. 5) is in an idiom similar to that of the Third and has that same blood-rush. The string choirs are presented here with sonorous power from top to bass. One gains the sense of a nation’s soul at song and of boundless and bounding energy. Alongside this there is always an exciting and yielding humanity.
Schuman wrote Judith for a Martha Graham commission. The ballet was performed by Graham with the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney on 4 January 1950. They recorded it in 1972. What we now hear on this recording amounts to vintage Schuman in the manner of the Third Symphony but discursive and without the unrelenting grip that the earlier work exerts.
The Sixth Symphony was first recorded by Ormandy in the 1960s on CBS AML 4992 and reissued on Albany TROY256. It’s a work of nocturnal reclusion but not at all restful. Although Schuman has his lyric heart on display it is not close to his sleeve. The song is sweet but haunted and darkly clouded with Bergian strands - even a touch of Allan Pettersson about it. Barber in his most introspective brown study comes to mind and the tension never lets up. Kinetic fury has usually been part of the Schuman palette and so it is here (try. 20:00 onwards) although occluded lyricism dominates and acts as an indefatigable magnetic pull. The work is presented in a single half hour track. The Sixth was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra League and the Dallas orchestra premièred it with Antal Doráti conducting on 27 February 1949. It’s an impressive piece if without the compulsive concentration that bowls over listeners to the Third Symphony and the Violin Concerto.
Prayer in a Time of War first saw light of day with Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Orchestra on 26 February 1943. It’s a substantial movement of symphonic bearing and unyielding seriousness as befits the subject. The language is touched with some bleakness but it is less convoluted than that of the Sixth Symphony. This is the Schuman of the Third Symphony admitting and radiating facets that recall Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. The brass writing is gaunt, statuesque and excoriating; the drum-taps and cold fanfares referencing Lincoln and Whitman. It’s is a grand statement to put alongside his works of similar concision: Credendum, In Praise of Shahn and American Hymn. This is not its first recording; that honour goes to the Louisville and Jorge Mester - still to be had on Louisville First Edition.
New England Triptych is in three movements: I. Be Glad Then, America [5:05]; II. When Jesus Wept [7:53] III. Chester [3:08]. The outer movements are redolent of Tippett in zest, springiness and riotous exuberance. The Triptych was premièred in Miami on 28 October 1956, with André Kostelanetz conducting the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra. The next month Kostelanetz took it to the New York Phil. It is one of Schuman’s most accessible works despite its date. The three movements are based on hymns by the Revolutionary period figure, William Billings (1746-1800). Schuman refers to “a fusion of styles and musical language”; acidic-epic Schuman meets devout Hanoverian. The middle movement recalls RVW’s Tallis and Bliss’s Blow Meditations.
Schwarz has the conqueror-advocate’s measure of the bell-haunted Eighth Symphony. It was premiered in the Lincoln Center in 1962 with Bernstein conducting and was recorded by Bernstein the same year. That recording is easily and inexpensively accessible on a 1998 Sony CD alongside symphonies 3 and 5 via Amazon. While I still recommend that Sony CD for an unassailably vital and kinetic Third Symphony Schwarz is to be preferred in the often more tensely reflective Eighth Symphony. He takes a minute and a half more than the comparatively opaque Bernstein but the Seattle results positively glow. This is a work that can be difficult to approach but I find it completely accessible in this Schwarz-Naxos version. The lucid and directly engaging recording is a co-conspirator in the results. The prestissimo finale showcases the audio engineering which accommodates solo strands and florid climactic material with a natural ease and without any sense of perspective zooming. Even Schwarz cannot completely transform the rather hollow gestures of the last page or two of this score but overall the Symphony emerges wonderfully well - better than ever.
Night Journey was one of four ballets on which Schuman collaborated with Martha Graham. Its angularity and spareness of utterance is only partly accounted for by the score which specifies fifteen instruments. A diminutive orchestra was not an unusual restriction for Graham ballets of that era. The music has a Bergian astringency whether pensive, charged with nocturnal foreboding or fitfully frenetic. That inward quality echoes Barber’s tense dark-chocolate romanticism but presents in more transparent textures. Night Journey has been issued on CD before by CRI.
The Ives/Schuman Variations on ‘America’ is a brilliant showcase built around a song that most Brits will recognise as God Save the Queen. The familiar tune is put through some wheezingly irreverent transformations. This is in no sense a representative Schuman work but is full of left-field fun.
Inexplicably the Bernstein-McInnes Concerto on Old English Rounds for viola, chorus and orchestra (same forces as RVW Flos Campi but a very different work) on a Columbia LP (M 35101) never made it to CD. I hope that it has not fallen into the same seemingly irreversible vinyl oblivion as Tilson Thomas’s complete recording of the Ruggles orchestral music; that was also on CBS-Sony. Another Schuman work worth recording is the spectacular symphonic cantata Casey at the Bat, superbly revived by Dorati in Washington as part of the American centennial event diary in 1976.
Meantime we can look forward to another Schuman issue from Albany: Ian Hobson and the Sinfonia da Camera have made the first recording of On Freedom's Ground, the cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra commissioned to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. The disc will also include American Festival Overture, and A Free Song.
Schuman was one of the USA's most eminent symphonists. He deserves to be counted with Roy Harris, Paul Creston, David Diamond and Howard Hanson. His Third Symphony and Violin Concerto are works of instantly commanding mastery. Like Diamond he was unfairly seen as a bit of a 'suit' - a denizen of Academe. He may well have been a masterly administrator as Joseph Polisi’s magisterial biography points out but his symphonies are soaked in an uncompromisingly fierce intensity, raging violence, sable-dark melancholy and nervy kinetic euphoria.
Full list of works
Symphony No. 4 (1941) [24:50]
Orchestra Song (1963) [2:59]
Circus Overture (1944) [7:53]
Symphony No. 9 Le Fosse Ardeatine (1968) [27:43]
Symphony No. 7 (1960) [28:57]
Symphony No. 10 American Muse (1976) [31:51]
Symphony No. 3 (1941) [27:28]
Symphony No. 5 Symphony for Strings (1943) [17:54]
Judith (1949) [22:22]
Symphony No. 6 (1948) [29:10]
Prayer in a Time of War (1943) [15:35]
New England Triptych (1956) [16:06]
Symphony No. 8 (1962) [32:28]
Night Journey - Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments (1947) [25:28]
Charles IVES, arr. SCHUMAN Variations on ‘America’ (1891/1964) [7:08]
- Naxos reviews on MusicWeb International
Schuman reviews on MusicWeb International