4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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This is another superb St Louis Symphony recording among many others. In particular, the Jesus Wept movement in New England Triptych is an incredibly beautiful, moving rendition by the orchestra; the oboe and bassoon duet/solos, by Peter Bowman and George Berry, respectively, are a perfect example of the finest playing I have ever heard in my many years---truly, a work of fine art.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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William Schuman's music is nothing if not energetic. Full of syncopated excitement, brass punches and tons of percussion, it tends to work itself into determined, surging cheerfulness and gritty determination. It is thoroughly American and works both as a depiction of America in terms of steely cityscapes and open prairies, and as a description of rugged pioneer spirit, creativity and confidence. So who better to choose for writing an American Festival overture? It is a pretty exuberant affair where even moments of civility are interrupted by brashness and with some pretty exhilarating writing for full orchestra. Eventually the energy resides into a pastoral phrase that slowly, gradually builds up to a surging conclusion.
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.
3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
D. Jack Elliot
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The New England Triptych and American Festival Overture I like less than the other works on this album. They both embody a one-dimensional, naïve sort of Americana, a Main Street parade, national anthem kind of patriotic enthusiasm that I don't think serves the aesthetic of sophisticated orchestral music well; nor, for that matter, is it served well itself by the compositional forms and dissonant harmonic language of 20th century neo-Romanticism. Schuman's transcription of Ives' Variations on America is better, with a bit more depth to it: it's ironical, witty, angular.
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.