WILLIAM SCHUMAN (1910-1992) Symphony No. 3 (1941) 30:56 rec 1960 Symphony No. 5 (1943) 16:35 rec 1966 Symphony No. 8 (1962) 31:10 rec 1962 NYPO/Leonard Bernstein Bernstein Century series SONY CLASSICAL SM2K63159 2CD £11.75 78:57


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Sony Classical deserve every praise for opening up their archives and reissuing this finely constructed and satisfyingly memorable music. The disc is superbly well-filled both in terms of timing and musical quality. The third symphony is amongst the strongest and most dazzling of American symphonies but little trumpeted.

William Schuman’s consistently athletic, muscular music has strong architectural features and is not short on beauty and excitement. It is a pity that Schuman and Piston who have both written music of great beauty, tragedy and power have so often been bracketed as producers of arid music. This could hardly be further from the truth.

Listen to the Tippettian long lines of the first (of the two) movement of the Third Symphony finding unknowing pre-echoes in the British composer’s Concerto for Double String orchestra and predicting string textures in Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia. Schuman was clearly influenced also by Roy Harris’s own third from four years earlier. There are the same striding long lines and the resonant eerieness of the coursing echoing strings seems to reach out towards the masterful Roy on many occasions. This is also a symphony of conflict completed in the year in which the USA was drawn into World War Two. Great brass monolithic figures are also in fulsome supply creating the impression of towering canyons. Sibelius also comes into play in the chirping woodwind figures (12:00 in Track 1) and surely this is part of the impact of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. I also detect a dash of Shostakovich in turbulent mood. Rather like the Schuman violin concerto (definitely worth hearing in the DG performance - Zukofsky, Boston SO, Tilson Thomas) first impressions of some of this music may be off-putting.

Persist though and the rewards are very great. Schuman occasionally goes into Quiet City mode and his way with the chaste solo trumpet is distinctive (track 2 2:50). His slippery quiet strings (5:20) are also a Schuman hallmark. At about 9:50 the mood changes and a sinister running and rattling energy rushes across the canvas. The woodwind dance, slide and sing linking into a strongly punctuated figure for horns, offset by a warm cosseting lyricism, jangling percussion and jagged strings. A motoric energy is released in the last five climactic minutes with yet more of the Harris-like string chorales hymning a desolate Sibelian sadness. All rises to a rushing helter-skelter close, explosive pizzicato strings, fast-tramping strings, anthracite-edged brass, coruscating into yet more rushing and tumbling string figures gathering into a drumbeat-driven, gun-shot-syncopated close making one of the most exciting finales in all music. This gives me that frisson of excitement I associate with grand moments in music. I recommend this and the Bernstein/NYPO performance without reservation. The dynamism and mood-creation of this performance out-points Bernstein’s later recording on DG.

The short 3 movement Fifth Symphony is for strings alone. It again recalls Tippett and there is much less Harris now. Occasionally Holst seems to be an influence. The music is only a tad less openly tuneful than the third symphony but still very approachable. Sometimes the music reaches out towards Vaughan Williams (Concerto Grosso or Partita - not Tallis - that comes at the end of the second movement) or Elgar (Intro and Allegro). The introspective sauntering middle movement is back to Roy Harris ‘night on the prairie’. Four years later Karl Amadeus Hartmann was to write his own fourth symphony for strings and much of the mood of the first two movements of the German work is similar to that in the Schuman. An awkward forward-slashing pulse opens the last movement which seems to have learnt the odd lesson from Britten’s string writing. A delicacy characterises the music somewhat like Simple Symphony or Sir Roger de Coverley but with uncanny harkings back to Tippett (Concerto for Double String Orchestra) as well as Schuman’s sterner material. The ending is unconvincing but this should not obscure much attractive music.

In the words of Dumas ‘Twenty Years After’ Schuman’s fifth symphony muse is darker and grimmer. In the three movement eighth we seem to get a picture of some lost Cimmeria of Edgar Rice Burroughs, faintly oriental and minatory. The bell noises remind me of the Tippett of Praeludium. As the music becomes increasingly complex and intricate we realise that Schuman’s world has not changed but his language has been transformed into something akin to that of Benjamin Frankel in the symphonies and later period Alan Rawsthorne. This is not as approachable as the other two symphonies on this disc. In the second movement mountainous string themes seem to struggle up precipitous cliff-faces or meander across forbidding mental landscapes with visions approximating to those grainy pictures of devastated WW1 battlefields. Gripping and bellowingly angry brass provide a contrast at 6:50 (track 7). Is this a reflection of Schuman’s life-experience or a synthetically-produced mood? Third movement big bouncy brass - feverish strings - gamelan clatter at 1:52 track 8.

The booklet provides superb precise discographic detail as well as being a model of good design and legibility. Economies have been made on the notes. They have been assembled from the original issues. Edward Downes’ notes for No. 8 are especially strong and engaging.

This is quite simply a disc full of wonders and chief among these is the treasurable and living third symphony which eagerly awaits your ears and your affections.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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