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William Schuman
Symphony No. 8; Night Journey; Variations on 'America'
Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz, conductor
Review By Joe Milicia
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  This new release completes Gerard Schwarz's recorded survey of the published symphonies of William Schuman for Naxos . (Schuman disowned his youthful First and Second Symphonies, so the survey includes Nos. 3 through 10.) A distinguished American composer known also for his leadership of the Julliard School and Lincoln Center, Schuman is not heard very often in the concert hall, except for his New England Triptych (based on old American tunes), his Third Symphony, and on occasion the Symphony for Strings (the Fifth). But the Eighth Symphony is a major work, written for the inaugural celebrations of Lincoln Center's Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall. The rendition of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, who premiered the work and recorded it five days later, can still be heard on a Sony CD [SMK 63163], paired with the Third and Fifth Symphonies — an indispensable disc for anyone who loves modern American music. For competition, Naxos offers a fine performance, superior sound, and a different set of companion pieces: a chamber arrangement of a Martha Graham ballet and a reissue of what might be called Schuman's Greatest Hit, his arrangement of Charles Ives' organ solo Variations on ‘America.'

The Eighth Symphony is unusual in having essentially two slow movements in a row (a Lento and a Largo, though both speed up in the middle), followed by a Presto finale. Every bar of the symphony is distinctively Schumanesque — most noticeably in the rich string sonorities, the stuttering brass outbursts, the angular melodies. And yet the Eighth is full of striking passages unique to itself, beginning with its strange, somber opening chord—strings, woodwinds and a haunting combination of glockenspiel, tubular bells, vibraphone, two harps and a piano — from which after a few quieter repetitions a mournful (and very challenging) French horn solo emerges. In all three movements the climaxes featuring the whole brass section, always exciting in a Schuman work, are especially memorable, and the Presto Finale is breathtakingly complex in its rhythmic patterns and full of quirky details, like an extended duet between bass clarinet and bassoon plus a brief vibraphone solo.

The sound on the 1962 Bernstein/New York Philharmonic recording is still impressive, though a little muddy in the louder ensemble passages. But the new Naxos recording is superb in every way, capturing both the colors of the solo instruments and the power of the full ensemble, with excellent balance throughout. As for performance, I have to say that Bernstein's has more momentum — more drive from one moment to the next, with a more thrilling final page. Part of this may be a matter of tempo: Bernstein takes the first and third movements faster than Schwarz (10'16" vs. 11'09"; 8'20" vs. 9'30"), though his Largo is slower (12' 34" vs. 11' 49"). (Both exceed the estimated 30" listed in the score, Bernstein at 31' 06", Schwarz at 32' 28".) But the Seattle Symphony is certainly up to the challenge, as the outstanding sound reveals.

Schuman composed several ballet scores, including one in 1945 for Anthony Tutor with the great film-noir title Undertow, and four for Martha Graham. (Naxos' program annotator, Joseph W. Polisi, interestingly proposes that Schuman's work with these great choreographers led to his music becoming "more complex, intense, and emotionally charged.") Night Journey, the first of the Graham ballets (1947), is based on the Oedipus myth but told from the perspective of Jocasta. In 1981 Schuman reduced the score to chamber ensemble (rather the opposite of Aaron Copland beefing up his original score for Graham's Appalachian Spring) and cut some passages to create a piece called Night Journey: Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments, which is what Schwarz and Seattle have recorded here. After several hearings I'm not convinced that it's one of Schuman's major scores. I hesitate even to mention Samuel Barber's great score for Graham's Medea, composed the same year, let alone Copland's 1944 ballet, though it works very well with Graham's choreography, as far as I can judge by an 8-minute YouTube excerpt. Most of the music of the shortened score is very slow-paced, as if portraying Jocasta's stunned silence after learning the truth about her husband-son, though with agitated passages. The Seattle ensemble is again vividly captured by Naxos' engineers, but I wish Polisi's otherwise valuable notes had listed those fifteen instruments.

To fill out the disc Naxos has reissued Schwarz and Seattle 's 1991 Delos recording (issued in 1992) of the Ives/Schuman variations on "My Country ‘Tis of Thee." The original piece — the classic recording is by E. Power Biggs — is a hilarious nose-thumbing send-up of both organ music styles of 1890s America and of the traditional form of the variations-on-a-theme. Schuman's jaunty orchestration, premiered in 1964, is great fun, though the original organ work is even more satisfying. The sound of the reissue is adequate but the orchestra sounds boxed in, compared to the sonic fullness of the symphony and ballet. In short, the powerful performance of the Eighth Symphony is what makes this CD well worth acquiring.

 

 

Performance: 

Enjoyment: 

Sound Quality:    for Symphony No. 8 and Night Journey

                        for Variations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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