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Merlin Patterson
Fanfare, November 2010

SCHUMAN, W.: Symphony No. 6 / Prayer in a Time of War / New England Triptych (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559625
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphony No. 8 / Night Journey / IVES, C.: Variations on America (orch. W. Schuman) (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559651

Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra began their cycle of William Schuman symphonies well more than a decade ago on the Delos label. They bring the cycle, now on Naxos, to a magnificent conclusion with brilliant performances of two of the composer’s most challenging works, thus completing one of the most significant series of recordings in recent memory.

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, May 2010

The Symphony No. 6, composed in 1948, represented a crucial point in Schuman’s compositional career. This was the symphony that marked his emancipation from the syntax and rhetoric of Roy Harris, and was the first one to fully proclaim Schuman’s own individual creative voice (although it was preceded by several other works—notably the ballet Undertow—that had already staked that claim). It is a very challenging work: contrapuntally dense, structurally complex, highly dissonant harmonically, and atonal, for the most part, in its impact on listeners. Most serious musicians and critics typically cite it as the greatest of Schuman’s symphonies, but many listeners have found it to be coldly mechanical, impersonal, and unpleasant to listen to. For the former group, it is a major step forward, affirming Schuman’s dominance within the pantheon of American symphonists; for the latter group, it marks the point (among the symphonies) where Schuman abandoned his audience by renouncing a concern with communication in favor of seeking acceptance from the advocates of modernism…

Lawrence A Johnson
Gramophone, March 2010

An exceptional recording of the Sixth from Schwarz and his Seattle forces

William Schuman’s Symphony No 6 had a less than rapturous reception at its unveiling in Dallas in 1949. The composer wrote that the audience found the work “utterly without appeal”, and some were so upset they questioned whether Schuman’s commission should even be paid.

This fourth release in Gerard Schwarz’s cycle of the complete Schuman symphonies centres on the craggy Sixth, and offers the chance for a timely re-evaluation of this underrated work.

Symphony No 3 may be the most celebrated of Schuman’s symphonies—and even that work is infrequently programmed nowadays—but the Sixth Symphony stands as one of Schuman’s most impressive achievements. It’s tough, flinty work but Schwarz draws a quite sensational performance from the Seattle musicians, even besting the Ormandy/Philadelphia account (Albany), the sombre eloquence coming through with great impact.

The patriotic Schuman was devastated that a muscular condition kept him out of uniform for the Second World War but, following his publisher’s advice, channelled his disappointment into music, the Prayers in a Time of War (1943). This 15-minute work, premiered by Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony, unfolds with a solemn opening punctuated by bell-like tolling in winds and strings, leading to a melody for solo horn. The music becomes faster and more agitated, with a brass summons leading to a con moto section for strings, which bestows a more optimistic expression. After another frenzied passage, the music slows and a valedictory solo trumpet is heard, melancholy yet stoic, ending the work with the same notes with which it began. Prayer in a Time of War is one of Schuman’s finest works and remains strangely neglected, especially considering its current timeliness. Schwarz and the Seattle players deliver a moving, beautifully played performance.

While the symphony and Prayer recordings are new, Naxos has licensed the 1990 Schwarz/Seattle Delos recording of New England Triptych to fill out the disc. It’s a worthy performance, capturing the rugged, brooding qualities and American sensibility very well…this entry is the finest to date in the invaluable Schuman series with fizzing, bravura performances, most skilfully directed by Schwarz and very well recorded. Is it too much to hope that Naxos will some day allow Schwarz to also complete traversals of the symphonies of Walter Piston and David Diamond?

Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, March 2010

…it is well worth owning…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Michael Barone
Minnesota Public Radio, January 2010

Orchestrations of three choral scored by pioneering American composer William Billings, Schuman’s triptych is likely the most-often played of this exceptional composer’s impressive catalog of works. Schwarz and his Seattle players also showcase Schuman’s Sixth Symphony and a Prayer in Time of War, more challenging, but also more original scores. Exceptional performances and recordings.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, January 2010

…excellent liner-notes written by Joseph W Polisi—one of Schuman’s successors as president of The Juilliard School and author of an extended biography of the composer—underline the fact that for contemporary audiences this was not an easy listen. Written in one continuous 29 minute movement (although this does in turn divide into six distinct sections) this is absolute music. There seems to be no underlying programme or message. What I particularly enjoy—and am recognising to be a Schuman compositional fingerprint—is the way he juxtaposes instrumental groups against each other in both timbral, rhythmic and tonal opposition. It has the musical effect of tectonic plates grinding over and against each other. I also like the way Schuman splinters and fragments rhythms. He avoids syncopation in a jazz-influenced way but instead throws accents and rhythmic groups across and around barlines in a way that disrupts the predictability of the basic pulse. The absolute prerequisite for this to work well is the security of the playing. The Seattle Orchestra has Schuman’s style thoroughly absorbed now. The strings are able to produce the cold intensity of the music perfectly. Likewise the low brass in particular are adept at voicing the chorale-like passages he often writes to perfection. Schwarz was a fine trumpeter himself so no surprise he takes particular delight in the (literally) brilliant brass writing. There is an aggressive and violent nature to this music that is disturbing yet compelling—the offsetting of opposing forces is an abiding impression. One group or motif gains temporary ascendancy but is then overwhelmed by a succeeding group. I particularly like the passage around 12:20 where complex contrapuntal lines in the strings and woodwind like some out of kilter poly-rhythmic fugue vie for dominance until the slowest moving violin chorale achieves some kind of unquiet peace. The jagged violence of the writing from 20:00 on is viscerally exciting with a side-drummer hurling rimshots at the massed orchestra ranged against him—listen for some brilliant tuba writing that is as muscular as it is unexpected. What was greeted in 1949 with incomprehension and positive disdain now emerges as one of the major 20th Century American Symphonies…

Robert R. Reilly, December 2009

By the time William Schuman (1910–1992) was composing, no one mistook American for German music. We had our own idiom by then, a trail blazed by Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. In its “American Classics” series, Naxos is filling out its recordings of Schuman’s eight symphonies—with the Seattle Symphony, under Gerard Schwarz—with the new release of No. 6, along with Prayer in a Time of War and New England Triptych (8.559625). Although I am critical of Schuman’s later symphonies, which I find desiccated, my reservations do not extend to the Sixth, which keeps continuity with his landmark, marvelous Third. New England Triptych truly is an American classic, and the Prayer is nearly one, and very moving. This CD is indispensible for any collection of American music.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, December 2009

William Schuman, Symphony No. 6, Prayer in Time of War and New England Triptych performed by Seattle Symphony and conductor Gerard Schwarz (Naxos). It’s fascinating, to put it mildly, that once upon a time, William Schuman was considered almost a composing apostle of Roy Harris, a specimen 20th century “outsider artist” before such things had a name. While Harris remained what he always was (and, except for this third and sixth symphonies, is seldom played now), Schuman’s full engagement with his era’s musical establishment (he headed Juilliard at one point) has meant that a lot of his work has been recorded and stays available. These performances from Schwarz and the Seattle Orchestra’s Schuman cycle date from as much as 18 years apart—a solid, if sober reading of his sixth symphony in one movement from 2008 and an equally dutiful 1990 performance of Schuman’s most accessible work, the “New England Triptych,” based on William Billings’ themes (it was, remember, commissioned by Andre Kostalanetz)…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2009

Don’t expect anything to be straightforward with William Schuman, his symphonies so wide ranging in style and content that his audiences never knew what to expect. Born in 1910, Schuman was to became highly influential during the second half of the 20th century, his appointment as President of the Juilliard School of Music and of the Lincoln Centre for Performing Arts in New York giving him the capacity to shape American music. Having started out as a composer of songs, his later output was mainly symphonic and at the time it enjoyed much success in the concert hall, though the present disc forms part of the first complete cycle of his published symphonies. The Sixth dates from 1948, and, though essentially melodic in content, its dissonances take us into a harsh sound world emanating from the Second Viennese School. The composer stated that it had no connection with the war recently finished, but its dark and sombre opening and the following craggy agitation is full of conflict that dominates the remainder of the work. Schuman’s advocates, myself included, would urge you to listen to the work several times, for it is a score slow to reveal itself. It is in complete contrast to the New England Triptych from 1956, his most popular and frequently played score. In content it looked towards a more populist market, as did the Prayer in a Time of War composed in 1943 as his musical contribution to those troubled years. Naxos already have an outstanding Triptych from the Bournemouth Symphony, but it here forms part of the Seattle Symphony’s invaluable cycle of symphonies. They and their conductor, Gerard Schwarz, seem to instinctively understand the composer’s many moods better than any others I have heard. The performer biographies suggest a previous release of this 1990 recording of Triptych, but the Symphony dates from sessions in 2008, and the sound throughout is of high quality. An important addition to the Schuman discography.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, November 2009

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…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 [8.559317] and the Violin Concerto [8.559083].

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 the Concerto 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.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group