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Schuman: Symphony No 6 / Schwarz, Seattle Symphony

Release Date: 11/17/2009 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8559625   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  William Schuman
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUMAN Symphony No. 6. Prayer in Time of War. New England Triptych Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO NAXOS 8559625 (60:51)

I was working as office administrator for a church at the time of 9/11, and can still remember the shock and angst following the attack and its aftermath. The minister came to me one day and mentioned how horrible things were. I remarked that at times like this I thought of Olivier Messiaen and his three fellow musicians, held prisoner in a Nazi POW camp, Read more thinking that not only their own ends were near but the end of the world, and how Messiaen responded, artistically, with his masterly Quartet for the End of Time. The minister looked at me as if I had just said I came from Mars and said, “Well, I don’t know how to rock and roll any more!”

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. I respond more to Messiaen and those other works written as a response to the angst of a war that shattered mankind to the very depths of its soul. William Schuman’s response was his 1943 Prayer in Time of War and, afterwards, his abstract but darkly soul-shattering Symphony No. 6. The Prayer met with good critical response when it first appeared, the symphony with antipathy bordering on outright hostility. Its premiere with the Dallas Symphony conducted by Antal Dorati on February 27, 1949, incensed the audience so much that, in Schuman’s words, “They questioned whether they should even complete payment of the commission.”

The symphony, following the dark music he wrote for ballets by Antony Tudor ( Undertow ) and Martha Graham ( Night Journey ), is similarly black and angst-ridden. Like Vaughan Williams’s own Sixth Symphony, it is a highly personal reaction to a postwar world in which so many thousands of lives were ended or disrupted, a world dominated by power struggles with the Soviets, the atomic bomb, and the intense effort it took to pick up shattered lives and move on. The fact that Vaughan Williams’s work was understood and appreciated in England while Schuman’s was vilified in America probably has something to do with the level of property destruction the former country suffered. America itself was largely protected, at least physically, and like the onset of the Depression, the postwar years created a market for soft, soothing music. Schuman’s existentialist bombshell was not what audiences wanted to hear.

Even today—perhaps especially today, in an uncertain world caught between Islamic jihads on one side and an economic freefall on the other—Schuman’s symphony and Prayer speak to us deeply unless, of course, you are one of those who just don’t know how to rock and roll. The Prayer is gentler in expression. Despite a dangerous-sounding Più animato section in which the storm of war is depicted, its overall mood is soothing in its multitonal, Ives-like expression. The second outburst, consisting of brass fanfares and animated strings, is more hopeful than nihilistic, and it ends with the same soft chord with which it began. Conversely, the symphony is consistently dark, a tunnel with no light at its end but only the quietude of resignation and emotional defeat. One of the more furious outbursts at about the 20-minute mark didn’t seem to me as well composed as the rest of the work, but even this somewhat spurious moment seemed to me to indicate our powerlessness against forces too strong to fight.

Gerard Schwarz has developed over the years into an outstanding conductor, with only a few of his recordings sounding emotionally shallow. This music is very much his métier as, apparently, was the Mahler Seventh he recorded a while back. These performances lack nothing in drama, feeling, or outstanding orchestral balance. Schwarz’s only rival in the symphony with which I’m familiar is the recording by American conductor Hugh Keelan with the New Zealand Symphony (Koch 7290), a fine performance as well if, to my ears, a little less seamlessly joined than Schwarz’s. The Prayer is combined with Schuman’s Fourth Symphony and Judith on First Edition 11, played by Jorge Mester and the Louisville Symphony, but the splendidly professional polish of the Seattle Symphony surpasses Louisville’s playing capacity of that time.

After two such melancholy works, Schwarz ends this CD with one of Schuman’s most popular pieces, the New England Triptych , three pieces for orchestra after William Billings. Here the language is also bitonal but the overall mood more positive. It’s a wonderful way for the disc to end and, again, Schwarz gives a performance comparable to the best available, including Howard Hanson’s classic account for Mercury Living Presence (432755) and Leonard Slatkin with the St. Louis Symphony (RCA 61282). Their versions have, perhaps, a trifle more swagger, but Schwarz is not eclipsed; and, when combined with these shattering performances of the symphony and Prayer, it makes for an indispensable disc for those who admire Schuman’s unique musical aesthetic.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

If we set to one side the disavowed first two symphonies Gerard Schwarz has now completed recording the Schuman symphonies. Only the Schwarz-Seattle-Naxos Eighth awaits issue. The series began with a handful of Schuman symphonies recorded by Delos in the 1990s. Naxos has picked up the baton dropped when the gloriously ambitious Delos project stumbled and fell. That they are doing this at bargain price is remarkable as with so much that Naxos does. Naxos have reissued all the Delos session symphonies and continued and completed the cycle in Seattle. This disc mixes the Delos-originated 1990 session for the Triptych with newer Naxos fixtures in 2005 and 2008. The transcript of an interview with Gerard Schwarz can be found on the Naxos website.

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; 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 Andre 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.

Let’s not write off those first two symphonies (1935, 1937). I have heard the Second Symphony in a 1930s broadcast by Howard Barlow and the CBS orchestra and it’s by no means negligible. Then there are other works which will be worth revival – principally theConcerto on Old English Rounds and the spectacular symphonic cantata Casey at the Bat, superbly revived by Dorati in Washington as part of the American centennial event diary.

It’s a pleasure to report that this disc was generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts who seem to have moved away from a policy that appears at one time to favour only the work of the adherents of academic dissonance.

The notes are by Joseph W. Polisi, currently sixth president of The Juilliard School and author of “American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman” (Amadeus Press, 2008).

Keep watching for the Naxos Schuman Eighth secure in the knowledge that Schwarz and his Pacific Edge orchestra are fully equal to the challenges set by Schuman. Naxos will again, I am sure, provide a stunning recording as they have done here across a span of eighteen years – session to session.

-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 6 by William Schuman
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948; USA 
Prayer in Time of War by William Schuman
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1943; USA 
New England Triptych by William Schuman
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1956; USA 

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