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Bob Neill
Positive Feedback Online, July 2010

SCHUMAN, W.: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 / Judith (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559317
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9 / Circus Overture / Orchestra Song (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559254
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphony No. 6 / Prayer in a Time of War / New England Triptych (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559625
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 10 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559255
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphony No. 8 / Night Journey / IVES, C.: Variations on America (orch. W. Schuman) (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559651

Just as many of the twentieth century pastoral English composers take a lot of grief from tough minded modern critics for getting the English dream right, their American romantic counterparts get slammed for getting the American dream comparably right. I have no idea what Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and William Schuman sound like to Europeans. Probably something like what Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Gerald Finzi sound like to Americans. Meaning it is likely the case that you have to be an American to hear it the way we do. It plays to our national self-confidence and love of simplicity and innocence (in all senses of the word). Unless my personal irony machine is turned on, this music takes me home, home to a place that never was but surely is. Innocent sexuality that is not in the least puritanical; sentiment that is poignant and not sentimental; pathos which is not pathetic; martial and heroic fanfare that spills not a drop of blood; conflict without irony; simplicity that is not reductive; darkness that hides no evil; a rural landscape with no tics (!) All is ultimately well, which is essential to the dream.

To write music that captures this dream for an audience who know it is a dream but who can be moved by it nonetheless, a modern composer must be sure-footed. We are not less romantic than our ancestors but we have been taught to be more defensive about being so. Modern romanticism shares some of the affected sophistication of late adolescence. In modern American romantic music that is successful, the dream comes with chromaticism, dissonant shading, and cross rhythms.

The Naxos series of the symphonic music of William Schuman (1910–1992), five CD’s so far, is a continuation of the Gerard Schwartz’s landmark American symphonies project with his Seattle Symphony begun for the late Dorian label toward the end of the last century. All of these recordings of Schuman’s work were done in the first decade of the twenty-first. Schwartz and his musicians have a way with modern American romantic music that is respectful rather than indulgent, which is much to their credit and our benefit. To overplay this music would kill it dead, which has been done.

Schuman’s romanticism is tougher and less melodic than that of most of his peers, especially in the latter half of his symphonic output. Symphonies 6–10 come out in essentially the same place as the earlier works, but they make us work harder to get there. They must also be more fun to play. Symphony No. 6, for example, is sufficiently bold, brassy, and craggy that its initial audience (in 1948), whose expectations of romanticism grew out of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss, couldn’t find the romanticism in it at all. And they hadn’t even heard symphonies 7–10 yet. If they heard it now, with a half century more of modernism in the books, they’d likely have a different experience. Schuman’s audiences much preferred his (most popular work) American Triptych (1956), which presents the composer’s romanticism undefended. This work is included (perhaps with a smile) on the disc with Symphony No. 6.

World War II definitely pushed Schuman to the edge of innocence, and while his imagination couldn’t take him over the edge, in Symphony No. 9 it definitely got him as far as anger. Symphony No. 10 (“American Music”) takes the furious anger of No. 9 and first redirects it toward a more positive kind of fury, then diffuses it into a restless but quieter section which seems to be buying time for some kind of concluding resolution or musical statement. When it arrives in the last section, it is far from innocent and less than confident, but it is the least troubled music we’ve heard from him since Symphonies 4 and 5. The twentieth century finally seems to have taken its toll on Schuman’s muse without showing him a new musical place to go. By the time we’ve reached this, his final symphony, it’s hard to call it modern romanticism anymore. The last notes are full of bravado rather than true confidence.

All of Schuman’s symphonic music is worth listening to, both for its own considerable musical appeal and for the story it dramatizes about why other composers found modernism necessary.

He was not unaware of modernist music around him—we can sometimes hear strong hints of Stavinsky-like neo-classicism wander into and out of a Schuman work. And of course Copland, the presiding spirit of modern American romanticism, is also present to be drawn on and resisted both.

I was not a fan of Naxos sonics in the earlier days of the label, especially on orchestral works. They’re very fine on these albums. Success may have increased the recording budget, which is all to the good. Naxos’ American Classics catalog is a rich source of music most of us would not otherwise have access to.

Walter Simmons
Fanfare, September 2007

…serving the highest goals of musical communication, are the most distinctive features of Schuman’s language: instrumental choirs moving in separate textural planes; an eerily effective use of polytonality; long, flowing, yet angular melodic lines that culminate in a highly personal, but at times expressively ambiguous counterpoint; jagged, brittle rhythms; and an extended example of hard-bitten brass hocketing that is especially effective. With a dramatic substructure that achieves lucid formal coherence, the work represents Schuman at his most individual, most concise, and most eloquent. …This Schwarz/Seattle reading stands as its best recorded representation to date. © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

William Zagorski
Fanfare, June 2007

Schwarz takes the symphony’s structure more literally than Bernstein. Its two movements are given Baroque sub designations—Passacaglia and Fugue; Chorale and Toccata. Schwarz is Baroque-ishly strict in terms of tempo, and revealingly evenhanded in his instrumental balances; Bernstein is more episodic, projecting the Amerikanisch hymnody underlying so much of Schuman’s thought…Bernstein’s two recordings are indeed hard acts to follow, but Schwarz does so with distinction. He achieves, throughout, stunning brass balances. He infuses the music with a wonderfully heady forward momentum, and his more modem recording conveys the loud low percussion with lease-breaking power. Over the years of his tenure as music director of the Seattle Symphony, Schwarz (himself a trumpet virtuoso, which accounts for his expertise in conducting his brass) has forged a fine ensemble able to rise to any and all musical demands.

American Record Guide, June 2007

The recordings of Symphony 5 and Judith were released on Delos 3115 over a decade (Sept/Oct 1992). Symphony 3 is new. Schwarz’s sound is lean and articulate. His conception of the opening melody in Symphony 3 has internal punctuations that remind me of baroque music. Since the symphony uses the baroque forms of passacaglia, fugue, morale, and toccata (these last two with considerable license), some listeners might enjoy Schwarz’s more finely-etched approach.

I also enjoy the mixing and production of the recording, which sometimes emphasizes individual orchestral colors over the whole—for instance, the wonderful contrabassoon pedal that opens II. What I miss in this performance, though, is the spaciousness and grandeur that Bernstein brings to it in his recordings for Sony (Jan/Feb 1998) and DG May/June 1988). The Sony (a re-release) is still available and includes impassioned performances of Symphonies 6 and 8. Under Bernstein, I sense a certain urban sophistication in Schuman’s music that edges it a few notches over his elder contemporary, Roy Harris. Still, Schwarz’s performances are worth owning for their clarity and their brash, immediate, and almost gregarious interpretations.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International, May 2007

Two of the items included here were originally part of the series of recordings of American orchestral music that Gerard Schwarz made for the Delos label in the 1990s. The Fifth Symphony and Judith were issued, together with other Schuman pieces, on DE 3115. I’m delighted to see them restored to circulation. The recording of the Third Symphony, however, is brand new—and just as welcome.

It’s worth noting, I think, that Schuman himself approved at least some of the recordings that were on that original disc. A note in the Delos booklet records that he heard an advance copy of part of it in January 1992, just a month before his death, and he wrote to the producer “The performance has so many superlative elements…it is rare indeed to have the combination of intellectual depth, technical superiority and emotional involvement to the degree that any composer would hope for. Gerry [Schwarz] achieves those desiderata in a seemingly effortless way. What he has accomplished with that orchestra is outstanding.”

The Fifth Symphony comes from that Delos disc. It’s cast in three movements. The first is vigorous and strongly rhythmical. It’s a movement of sustained energy. The central slow movement lasts for 8:25, nearly half the length of the entire piece. There’s a somewhat febrile central section but the outer paragraphs are calmer, especially the closing pages when the music dies away virtually to nothing. The finale is, once again, energetic; the music scurries along. Both the annotator for this release and his colleague who wrote of the Delos disc rightly point out the parallel between some pizzicato passages here and the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Fourth. This is an exuberant movement. Schuman’s music very often has a serious countenance but this time the music smiles. The ending sounds positive but not as emphatic as you might expect.

It was at that point that I made some comparisons with Leonard Bernstein’s 1966 New York Philharmonic reading—Sony Classical SMK 63163; I’m unsure if this is still available. In Bernstein’s hands the music sounds quite different. In part this may be due to the closer recording. The extra weight of the NYPO strings no doubt contributes also. But I have to report that Bernstein seems to me to impart more passion to the music, to dig deeper. Good though Schwarz is, Bernstein, as so often, adds a different dimension.

Judith was also originally issued by Delos. This score dates from 1949 and represented Schuman’s second collaboration with Martha Graham—they’d previously worked together in 1947. The tale, from the Biblical Apocrypha, is a gory one. Judith, an Israelite widow—the role was created by and for Martha Graham—decides to take action to rescue her people from the oppression of the Assyrians and their leader, Holofernes. She infiltrates the Assyrian camp, seduces Holofernes and then slays him in his own tent, decapitating him and carrying the head back as a trophy to her people. Schuman illustrates this story with vivid, sometimes graphic music. Schwarz and his orchestra play it strongly and, it seems, with a good sense of drama. The Naxos notes are quite helpful in describing the action—though the Delos essay has a slight edge—but it would have been helpful if some cuing points had been provided and linked in to the notes.

The brand new release is that of the Third Symphony. This dates from 1941 and it was first performed—as was the Fifth—by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. As befits a wartime work it’s a powerful piece, cast in two movement though each of these is further subdivided into two. The scoring reflects Schuman’s frequent predilection for brass and percussion. The first movement is entitled ‘Passacaglia and Fugue’. In the Passacaglia the strings and brass predominate. It’s strong, sinewy music of great purpose. The fugue, when it comes (6:09), is launched by the horns and the material is quite jagged. It’s only at 7:40, when the music enters a quieter episode, that we really find the wind coming into their own for the first time but when Schuman does bring them into the picture he does so by means of some effective, twining writing. Eventually the timpani launch more propulsive music which, over the next three minutes or so, brings the movement to a bracing, exciting end.

The second movement is called ‘Chorale and Toccata’. As Steven Lowe observes in his note, the Chorale is “a haven of comparative serenity.” The music is gravely beautiful and a haunting trumpet solo, supported by hushed strings (1:21) really catches the ear. Is this, I wondered, music of the Great Outdoors or of the City? However, at the risk of being pedantic I must point out one small but very important slip in the notes. Schuman is quoted as saying that the Chorale “really represents the spirit of composition.” That statement does make sense. However Michael Steinberg has the same quote in his essay on the work (The Symphony, A Listener’s Guide. (1995), p. 498) and he gives it with the insertion of the definite article before the word “composition”. This seems to me to make even greater sense and it’s quite an important distinction. The Toccata begins at 7:47 with a low, quiet note on contrabassoon over which a very quiet side-drum tattoo is played. This is a moment of very effective tension. From these quiet beginnings the woodwinds whisk us away into an energetic display piece, punctuated at one point by a slower interlude for the strings. The ending is explosive and jubilant, led by Schuman’s favourite brass and percussion sections.

Schwartz conducts a very good performance of this work, I think. Once again, however, he faces competition from Leonard Bernstein and the NYPO. Bernstein’s first traversal is on the aforementioned Sony disc and dates from 1960. He’s broader and weightier than Schwarz, taking 30:56, more than three minutes longer. By the time he set the piece down again, live in 1985 for DG, his interpretation had lengthened further, coming in at 32:20. Despite the more modern sound this, I think, is a bit too much of a good thing and I prefer Bernstein’s first thoughts. As in the Fifth I think Bernstein finds a bit more than Schwarz in terms of drama and thrust. But perhaps it would be fairer to say that he finds different emphases in the music.

This is a very valuable disc and a worthy follow up to Schwarz’s previous discs of Schuman symphonies. Anyone who has the original Delos disc may baulk at the duplication but it would be a pity to miss out on the new performance of the Third. I couldn’t detect any significant differences between the sound on the two discs. Both are very good. I can recommend this disc with confidence, especially to those collecting the series, for William Schuman is a considerable symphonist and it’s good to find his works becoming widely available and in such good performances. However, I’d also urge collectors to hear Bernstein for his insights into these fine symphonies. I look forward to the completion of this Naxos cycle with some impatience.

Joshua Kosman
San Francisco Chronicle, February 2007

It’s been decades since the school of midcentury American symphonists that includes William Schuman, Howard Hanson, David Diamond and others has been a presence in our concert life. But this music has its champions, chiefly conductor Gerard Schwarz, whose recordings with the Seattle Symphony have made the best case we are likely to hear for this music. This disc offers an eloquent account of two of Schuman’s symphonies—the Third, which first cemented his reputation in 1941, and the Fifth, from 1943. Both are marked by a trademark combination of cunning technique and expressive but plainspoken rhetoric. There are passages that, more than a half century onward, can strike a listener as dry, but these are fleeting, and Schwarz and the orchestra play with stirring vitality. “Judith,” written in 1949 for a Martha Graham ballet, fills out the disc nicely.

David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 2007

Just because William Schuman ran the Juilliard School for years doesn’t mean he was an academic composer. Though he was of the Aaron Copland generation of composers—their harmonies have a family resemblance and both knew how to use the orchestra with big, bony strokes—Schuman was more abstract and far less prone toward the Americana atmosphere of Copland.

It’s not the most alluring music on first listen, but is extremely generous in repeated visits, thanks to Schuman’s ability to draw such dramatic and wide-ranging effects from traditional forms. Composers often save their most compelling moments for particular instruments, and Schuman comes into his glory with the lower brass.

Luckily, that’s one of the primary strengths of this orchestra, along with the radiance given to Schuman’s sound palette by Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, at least in the Symphony No. 3. The other recordings date from 1991 and ’91, and though Schwarz is a consistently authoritative interpreter, the orchestra struggles more audibly in the earlier recordings with densely contrapuntal moments.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, December 2006

This recording of Schwarz’s version of the kinetically charged Schuman Third Symphony is projected with tremendous power. I rate this as amongst the most powerful works of the mid-20th century. Its war-time origins are consonant with both its primal violence and its soulfulness. While it has a steely and irresistibly euphoric joy in power it does not lack for elegiac substance. We can hear this in the throbbing Tallis-like singing of the strings in the Chorale. While it wants that last ounce of quasi-hysteria to be heard in Bernstein’s still glorious 1960s version it is accorded a natural sounding yet potent recording. Bernstein’s better recorded 1980s Third is available on a DG set. His unmissable 1960-session Third is on a very desirable Sony CD if you can find a copy. However Schwarz’s is no mere stop-gap as the squat brass, jazzy and ruthless syncopation, gun-shot side drum ‘rounds’ and thrumming strings of the final five minutes of the Toccata instantly proclaim. Just superb! The rest is just as good.

The Symphony for Strings is in an idiom similar to that of the Third and has that same blood-rush. The string choirs are presented here with sonorous power from top to bass. One gains the sense of a nation’s soul at song and of boundless and bounding energy. Alongside this there is always an exciting and yielding humanity that often eludes composers such as Markevitch and Mossolov.

Schuman wrote Judith for a Martha Graham commission. The ballet was performed by Graham with the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney on 4 January 1950. They recorded it in 1972. What we now hear on this recording amounts to vintage Schuman in the manner of the Third Symphony but discursive and without the unrelenting grip the earlier work exerts.

The useful notes are by Steven Lowe.

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