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William Schuman: Symphony No. 10; New England Triptych Import
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|1. American Festival Overture|
|2. New England Triptych - I. Be Glad Then, America|
|3. New England Triptych - II. When Jesus Wept|
|4. New England Triptych - III. Chester|
|5. Variations On 'America'|
|6. Symphony No. 10 - 'American Muse' - I. Con Fuoco|
|7. Symphony No. 10 - 'American Muse' - II. Larghissimo|
|8. Symphony No. 10 - 'American Muse' - III. Presto; Andantino; Leggero; Pesante; Presto Possibile|
This is another Slatkin/SLSO release on RCA Victor, highlighting American composers and using extraordinary cover art by Thomas Hart Benton. The works on this release range across Schuman's entire career and it include the one work for which he will probably most be remembered--New England Triptych (1956). It is based on three hymns by William Billings (1746-1800). Also here is the quirky, orchestrated version of Ives's hilarious Variations on "America," which Ives originally composed for organ. Schuman dabbled in most of the trends of Modernism, but his heart was always Romantic. Symphony No. 19 (1975) is an example of that. Excellent music. --Paul Cook
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The New England Triptych is stronger in its buoyant outer movements than the more reflective middle one, but Schuman manages to add exactly that touch of nostalgia for a world that is no more, even in the more energetic movements, that makes the music so effective. I am less taken with his orchestral version of Ives's Variations on "America" - the scoring is surely skillfully done and effective but I am less sure it adds anything but an air of taking the music slightly too seriously.
This was the premiere recording of Schuman's tenth and last symphony (I haven't heard any other version) and those familiar with the idiom of his earlier symphonies know what to expect. This is music of sinewy, craggy, gritty strength and determination, unquenchingly optimistic and resolute through any hardships or dark movements that may come its way. The brass rattles away with lightning flares and steely punches and the percussion hammers on in Schuman's trademark wildly syncopated rhythms - but the effects are definitely put in service of the overall narrative and form (there is surely more than surface effects at work here), culminating in what is even by Schuman's standards a blistering riot of wild triumph.
The performances are first-rate throughout; the St.Louis Symphony Orchestra comes across as a band of virtuosi and Slatkin is an ideal cheerleader in the lighter works (charming but gritty in the Triptych), quick on his foot and whipping up the energy while never losing sight of how the works hang together. The symphony is as energetic, ferocious, and muscular as one could hope for (I think, without having heard any alternatives), and the sound is clear and detailed. A very welcome release.
Slatkin conducts with vigor and clarity, and the sound from Powell Hall in St. Louis has warmth and airiness. If you're interested in exploring American music, and if you like Sibelius and Shostakovich, you should like this. It's a bit warmer than the work of these composers, and maybe finally it lacks the tragic power of their best work, but it's a delight to hear.
The really compelling offering here, then, is Schuman's Tenth Symphony. In fact, I think it may well be the equal of a few of Shostakovich's lesser symphonies. Each of the three movements emphasizes the extensive variation, development, and transformation of certain key motives, and Schuman carries this off with compelling (if perhaps not quite Lisztian) skill. The St. Louis Symphony play it with conviction and good taste.
Yet my reservation with regard to the pep-rally atmosphere of the minor works on this album still applies here, to a lesser extent. I find the dissonant angst characteristic of 20th century harmonic language somewhat incompatible with the naïve optimism of the American ethos. Bartók and Shostakovich, by contrast--to name two of the composers who used the language most effectively--came from cultures shaped by thousands of years of sufferings and hardships unknown to the affluent, born-yesterday culture of American whites. How many barbarian and imperial armies swept across the Russian steppes, century after century through history? How many centuries of ethic hatred and violence have plagued southeastern Europe? How much have the peoples of both regions suffered in stark rural poverty as the West has enjoyed its many centuries of comfortable affluence? Russian and Eastern European folk melodies and Orthodox Christian chant evince their dark pathos with good reason, and it's no accident that Eastern composers like Bartók and Shostakovich were the ones who found the most poignant things to say with the aggressive dissonance of 20th century writing.
So, while his Tenth is a worthy composition, next to those great Eastern European masters who found so much to say with the dissonance common to the Modernist harmonic language, there's some extent to which Schuman sounds out of his element. It's good writing, but not great.
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