William Schuman is one of the major American symphonists among the generation that came to prominence in the years around World War II, and whose most significant members include Copland, Barber, Piston, Harris, Hanson, Sessions and Mennin. This position Schuman attained not only through the number of symphonies he wrote - ten in all between 1935 and 1975, but if count was the yardstick then Hovhaness and Cowell would easily win the prize - but because each one represents a significant and serious statement, and also because, like Mennin's and Sessions', Schuman's style evolved, bravely embracing its times by growing increasingly complex and dissonant, while remaining true to the basic parameters established in the earlier works.
Always in evidence is the dramatic sweep and the sense of the American Epic so characteristic of the composers of that generation, to which Schuman, at his best (as in the Third and Eight Symphonies), adds unexpected twists and turns that challenge the listener's expectations and capture his attention. At his not so best (as, in my opinion, in the Fourth and Seventh), I find Schuman's developments a little too predictable and/or cliched.
Except for the first two, withdrawn by the composer, individual recordings of the symphonies trickled throughout the LP years: the 6th (1948) was the first to be recorded, in 1953, by Ormandy and the Philadelphians, released in the mid-fifties as Columbia ML 4992 with Piston's 4th Symphony, and reissued on CD as Piston: Symphony No4; Schuman: Symphony No6; a few years ago the New York Philharmonic Special Editions also published a 1958 broadcast performance by Leonard Bernstein as part of an invaluable, 10 CD box called "An American Celebration". In 1960 came Bernstein's landmark recording of the Third (first published alone as MS 6245), which apparently remained the conductor's preserve, as no other recording appeared until Lenny's remake for DG in 1985 (Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3 / William Schuman: Symphony No. 3 - Leonard Bernstein / New York Philharmonic). It was followed in 1962 by the recording of the Eighth Symphony by the same forces, released as MS 6512 with Barber's Andromache's Farewell (Thomas Schippers conducting). In 1966 came again Bernstein's recording of the Symphony for Strings (5th Symphony), paired then with his recording of the Third on Columbia MS 7442; the composition had to wait another 27 years for a new recording, by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra on Delos (A Tribute to William Schuman). The three Schuman-Bernstein recordings can be conveniently found on one CD, possibly THE one to have if you have only one CD of Schuman: Schuman: Symphony No8; Symphony No3. Much happened in 1968, including the release of the Louisville recording of the Fourth Symphony (1942), conducted by Jorge Mester, reissued on CD as The Louisville Orchestra-First Edition Encores and as W. Schuman: Judith / Symphony 4 / Prayer in Time of War. Jump to 1971 and you find again Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphians in the Ninth Symphony (paired with Persichetti's Symphony No. 9 "Symphonia Janiculum" on RCA LSC-3212 and regrettably not yet reissued on CD), and Maurice Abravanel and the Utah SO in the Seventh (now on CD as American Orchestral Music) - New World Records released another recording of the 7th by Lorin Maazel and the Pittsburgh SO in 1987 (William Schuman: Symphony No. 7; Leonardo Balada: Steel Symphony). Schuman's Tenth and last symphony from had to await the CD era to get its premiere recording, by Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis SO on RCA in 1992: William Schuman: Symphony No. 10 / New England Triptych / American Festival Overture.
So everything had been commited to disc, but still it is great to have Naxos and Gerard Schwarz embark onto this project of a modern recording of Schuman's complete symphonies.
As I commented in my review of Jorge Mester's recording, I don't think the 4th belongs to the composer's best inspirations. It is well-crafted and has some impressive moments (including some passages for timpani and brass reminiscent of the finale of Nielsen's 4th), but also features many cliches one associates with American symphonic writing in the 1940s, the brooding introductory lament with English horn solo, the vigorous Coplandesque dance-like rhythms in colourful orchestration, the sweeping romantic string gestures, the motoric brass, the powerful and bombastic climaxes and the moments of pastoral repose. Schwarz and the Seattle forces play it with more sonic comfort, luscious sound and consequently sense of grandeur but, for all of the Louisville Orchestra's coarseness of tone, less raw excitement than Jorge Mester's pioneering recording.
The 9th Symphony (1968) was inspired by the composer's visit to the Ardeatine Caves in Rome, the site of a horrific Nazy slaughter of innocent Italian civilian hostages in 1944. As befits its subject the symphony is very dramatic, thorny, angular, dissonant. Its first movement, Anteludium, starts with a mysterious and restrained introduction scored mainly for strings, progressively rising to a dramatic climax announced by powerful timpani strokes, by way of increasing agitated activity from the woodwins over long string and brass lines, in a fashion reminiscent of Hindemith and Isang Yun. It then suddenly recedes (6:30) to an appeased but menacing conclusion with still more ominous brass and timpani outburts. As in the orchestral works of Karel Husa (with whose style Schuman here shares many similarities), the formal procedures may not be very original, but they are expressively very effective. The next movement, Offertorium, starts without a break, a mischievous scherzo with agitated winds in jagged rhythms and snappy orchestration including piano, bass-string pizzicatos, angry brass and furious timpani. This movement again leads whithout a break to the next, "Postludium", starting with long-held, dissonant choral-like chords for winds and brass underpinned by soft cymbal crashes, piano interjections and drum tatoos. It develops into slow dirge of mostly appeased long lines for strings and brass, interrupted at one point (6:27) by a sudden, violent scream from the full orchestra and (8:56) a final, dramatic outburst introduced by bell and timpani. The 9th may not be on a par with the best symphonies composed in those days - by Lutoslawski, Isang Yun or Dutilleux - but it is a fine work nonetheless.
The two short pieces that complete this program are less substantial works, with the Circus Overture a boisterous, joyous and motoric symphonic etude. They present a more complete image of Schuman's various compositional styles and lighter mood.