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Robert R. Reilly, January 2011

…the Naxos label has been doing a great service to American contemporary music (which owes a huge note of thanks to German founder Klaus Heymann) with its American Classics series of CDs. It has issued excellent recordings of what are the acknowledged classics…along those lines, it recently wrapped up its outstanding survey of the complete published symphonies of William Schuman (1910–1992) with the release of Symphony No. 8, accompanied by the ballet Night Journey (Naxos 8.559651). This is not my favorite Schuman (start with the great Symphony No 3), but Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony give superb performances.

John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, December 2010

The conductor’s survey of the published symphonies of William Schuman concludes triumphantly with this brooding and powerful work.

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.

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, November 2010

The Seattle players complete their survey of a great American symphonist

William Schuman (1910–92) deserves a good centenary. He was a great American—his first opera was about baseball—and he made his way to the top of musical administration and continued to composer. He became president of Lincoln Center in 1962, the year he completed his Eight Symphony. He must have been busy because the last two movements are reworkings of some of his Fourth String Quartet, which he considered unreasonably difficult. All the same, the symphony comes off in Schuman’s granitic idiom stemming partly from Varèse and the more dissonant Copland, whose gritty orchestral Connotations is an exact contemporary. Bernstein conducted the premiere of Schuman’s Eight and recorded it in the same year. This new recording completes the Naxos series of the symphonies—the composer withdrew the first two—which now also becomes available in a five-CD box-set.

Schuman said: “I really feel at home with the orchestra; I think that’s my metier.” He attached importance to what he called “form” but employed it in a completely instinctive way. This comes over as a long line of continuity, imposing and intense in the opening movement, drawing on Schuman’s characteristic chords of major and minor triads superimposed. The finale is rhythmic and lighter, but what might have been a consonant ending is torpedoed by superimposed elements.

Night Journey (1947) was the first of Schuman’s four ballet scores for Martha Graham. He condensed the original orchestral score to this version for 15 instruments. The story is the Oedipus legend so there’s a consistent astringency alleviated by a calm resolution at the end. Schuman’s witty scoring of Ives’s Variations on ‘America’—a true American classic—then takes the taste away. These are committed performances throughout.

Walter Simmons
Fanfare, July 2010

With this release, Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony complete their comprehensive survey of the symphonies of William Schuman (minus Nos 1 and 2, which the composer withdrew), along with a variety of his other orchestral works. A significant achievement for the performers, this survey—if nothing else—reminds listeners of what a powerful and distinctive body of work Schuman left us. Unfortunately, aside from the New England Triptych, his orchestration of Ives’s affectionately satirical Variations on “America” and, perhaps, the Symphony No. 3, Schuman’s music has largely fallen from view since his death in 1992. I fear that younger listeners are barely aware of his name, let alone his music. It may be hard for them to believe that 50 years ago Schuman would probably have been among the first to be mentioned in any discussion of “great American symphonies” (which were discussed a lot more often in those days than they are today). This year marks Schuman’s centennial, which has prompted a flurry of attention, at least in the New York area. But Naxos’s contribution is probably of more lasting value and significance; those who digest the extant eight symphonies and the half-dozen or so other works included in its survey will have a pretty thorough impression of Schuman’s musical style and scope of expression. Schuman may not have been America’s greatest symphonist, but he was certainly among the handful of top contenders.

Probably one of the main reasons that most of Schuman’s music has not found a permanent place in the repertoire is that, while he did not join the serialists who exerted so much influence between 1955 and 1975, much of his music is quite dissonant harmonically and dense texturally, while the later works in particular are largely atonal, although they typically conclude with a clear tonal focus, which often seems somewhat incongruous. The symphonies from No. 6 through No. 10 would, I suspect, be quite jarring to most audiences hearing them for the first time today. When they first appeared, critical opinion was divided between those who felt that the music was deeply profound and those who felt it was straining to seem profound.

The Symphony No. 8 is a case in point. Completed in 1962 for the opening of New York’s Lincoln Center, of which Schuman had recently assumed the presidency, the work is quite challenging. Much of it is an elaborated transcription of his own String Quartet No. 4—probably the most impressive of his five efforts in that medium—although its orchestration is so dazzling and seemingly essential that only those who are quite familiar with the quartet are likely to suspect anything. The symphony begins with two searing slow movements—long, speculative reflections—while concluding with a brilliant finale.

Contributing greatly to the positive impact made by Schuman’s music was the advocacy of Leonard Bernstein. Eight years younger than Schuman, Bernstein was galvanized by this music from the moment he heard it, when he was all of 20 years old. He remained devoted to Schuman’s music throughout his career, his own music was clearly influenced by it, and he identified with it so strongly that his performances seemed to capture fully both its spirit and its expressive essence. Most of Bernstein’s recordings of Schuman have been reissued on CD, and any new performances must inevitably face comparison with those pioneering efforts. I suspect that most of those reading this review who are already partisans of Schuman are familiar with Bernstein’s recordings of the Symphonies Nos. 3, 5, and 8…So how does Schwarz’s reading of Schuman’s Eighth compare with Bernstein’s? Schwarz provides a credible and creditable reading, somewhat more precise and more smoothly and carefully phrased than Bernstein’s, but in the process sacrifices Bernstein’s edge-of-the-seat energy and excitement. Somewhat paradoxically, Schwarz’s performance reveals more details, while Bernstein’s displays a more transparent sonority; there is an opacity to Seattle’s orchestral sound that may be more the result of the engineering than of the performance itself. But the result is that Schwarz’s rendition evinces a sense of massiveness and power, while Bernstein’s emphasizes energy and brilliance.

Some of Schuman’s best work was done in collaboration with choreographers—Antony Tudor and, especially, Martha Graham. In fact, the composition I consider to be Schuman’s masterpiece—Judith—was a collaboration with Graham. But preceding that by a couple of years was his first effort for her, called Night Journey. Graham based her work on the Oedipus myth, presented from the mother’s point of view. Although composed in 1947, the music was not made available for concert performance until 1981, when it was published in a scoring for woodwind quintet, piano, and strings…What emerges most remarkably from the juxtaposition of this work with the Eighth Symphony is how much this piece from Schuman’s “middle period” anticipates the later symphony. A most austere work, Night Journey displays the same sort of long, slow reflection that characterizes the first movement of the Eighth Symphony. Schuman biographer Joseph Polisi describes Night Journey as “introspective, pensive, jagged, and dissonant,” and that pretty much captures it. These long, barren stretches may be viewed by some as self-indulgent, and can try a listener’s patience; they are arguably one of the composer’s chief weaknesses. Perhaps an awareness of this is what led Schuman to wait so long before releasing the work for concert performance. On the other hand it also reveals some arresting dramatic effects, such as the striking consonance of a sustained minor triad in the strings, heard against a descending motif on pitches in sharp tonal conflict with that triad. Schwarz’s performance makes a strong case for the work.

The performance of Variations on “America” was actually taken from a 1992 all-Schuman Delos release and was reviewed favorably at that time…the other pieces on that disc have been distributed as fillers among the recent Schuman releases on Naxos.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2010

As the last installment of Naxos’s Schuman series, we are given a deep and deeply felt performance of his superb Eighth Symphony. Typically of Schuman, much of the music has a dark and slightly sinister feeling to it, particularly in the first two movements, but the concluding Presto is surprisingly buoyant and almost light-hearted. Schwarz follows the emotional contours of the piece with wonderful alacrity, never for a moment losing contact with the meaning behind the notes…the CD concludes with Schuman’s orchestration of Ives’s popular Variations on “America”. Schuman didn’t change a note in Ives’s score, but sped up the tempos and had fun with the orchestration. Schwarz very obviously had fun with it too; his performance has both buoyancy and joie-de-vivre. Every musical joke that Ives wrote, and Schuman orchestrated, is played tongue in cheek but never overplayed. Anyone who thinks that William Schuman didn’t have a sense of humor should hear this piece, and particularly this performance…for a combination of a powerful reading of the symphony and an emotionally light but clear performance of the rare Night Journey, however, you really can’t go wrong with this release.

Don O’Connor
American Record Guide, July 2010

The general emotional mood of the work is pensive, then triumphal. The harmony is often dissonant, but that dissonance serves expressive ends, orchestrated as it is with sonorities not only fascinating, but beautiful…the sound is fully integrated…

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

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.

Ballet Review, June 2010

Night Journey, Schuman’s second score for dance and first of his four for Martha Graham, is a brooding work full of jagged rhythms and themes to match Jocasta’s vision of the horrors of her life before killing herself. This concert version for fifteen players slightly condenses the piece without losing its passion and momentum.

Many of the same qualities are felt in his Eighth Symphony, from 1962, although the last movement becomes livelier. It, too, is a strong work and both pieces are strongly portrayed by Schwarz and his orchestra, as is Schuman’s popular orchestration of Ives’s cheeky Variations on “America.” Joesph Poliesi’s notes are most informative.

Joe Milicia
Enjoy the Music, June 2010

The Eighth Symphony is unusual in having essentially two slow movements in a row (a Lento and a Largo, though both speed up in the middle), followed by a Presto finale. Every bar of the symphony is distinctively Schumanesque—most noticeably in the rich string sonorities, the stuttering brass outbursts, the angular melodies. And yet the Eighth is full of striking passages unique to itself, beginning with its strange, somber opening chord—strings, woodwinds and a haunting combination of glockenspiel, tubular bells, vibraphone, two harps and a piano—from which after a few quieter repetitions a mournful (and very challenging) French horn solo emerges. In all three movements the climaxes featuring the whole brass section, always exciting in a Schuman work, are especially memorable, and the Presto Finale is breathtakingly complex in its rhythmic patterns and full of quirky details, like an extended duet between bass clarinet and bassoon plus a brief vibraphone solo…the new Naxos recording is superb in every way, capturing both the colors of the solo instruments and the power of the full ensemble, with excellent balance throughout. As for performance, I have to say that Bernstein’s has more momentum—more drive from one moment to the next, with a more thrilling final page. Part of this may be a matter of tempo: Bernstein takes the first and third movements faster than Schwarz (10’16” vs. 11’09”; 8’20” vs. 9’30”), though his Largo is slower (12’ 34” vs. 11’ 49”). (Both exceed the estimated 30” listed in the score, Bernstein at 31’ 06”, Schwarz at 32’ 28”.)…Schuman composed several ballet scores, including one in 1945 for Anthony Tutor with the great film-noir title Undertow, and four for Martha Graham. (Naxos’ program annotator, Joseph W. Polisi, interestingly proposes that Schuman’s work with these great choreographers led to his music becoming “more complex, intense, and emotionally charged.”) Night Journey, the first of the Graham ballets (1947), is based on the Oedipus myth but told from the perspective of Jocasta. In 1981 Schuman reduced the score to chamber ensemble (rather the opposite of Aaron Copland beefing up his original score for Graham’s Appalachian Spring) and cut some passages to create a piece called Night Journey: Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments, which is what Schwarz and Seattle have recorded here. After several hearings I’m not convinced that it’s one of Schuman’s major scores. I hesitate even to mention Samuel Barber’s great score for Graham’s Medea, composed the same year, let alone Copland’s 1944 ballet, though it works very well with Graham’s choreography, as far as I can judge by an 8-minute YouTube excerpt. Most of the music of the shortened score is very slow-paced, as if portraying Jocasta’s stunned silence after learning the truth about her husband-son, though with agitated passages. The Seattle ensemble is again vividly captured by Naxos’ engineers, but I wish Polisi’s otherwise valuable notes had listed those fifteen instruments.

To fill out the disc Naxos has reissued Schwarz and Seattle ’s 1991 Delos recording (issued in 1992) of the Ives/Schuman variations on “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” The original piece—the classic recording is by E. Power Biggs—is a hilarious nose-thumbing send-up of both organ music styles of 1890s America and of the traditional form of the variations-on-a-theme. Schuman’s jaunty orchestration, premiered in 1964, is great fun, though the original organ work is even more satisfying. The sound of the reissue is adequate but the orchestra sounds boxed in, compared to the sonic fullness of the symphony and ballet. In short, the powerful performance of the Eighth Symphony is what makes this CD well worth acquiring.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, May 2010

My latest batch of discs to review has included completions of two impressive and stirring symphonic cycles from Naxos by Albert Roussel and here from William Schuman. Whilst the Roussel enters a relatively competitive field…and proves itself to be the equal of any…this Schuman cycle is if anything more valuable for providing the only coherent and complete survey of his symphonic output…The great thing here has been the unifyingly powerful and consistent vision of conductor Gerard Schwarz and his fine Seattle Symphony. Great credit too must go to Naxos who initially licensed the early releases in the cycle from Delos but then took up the baton of completing the series with recordings that are every bit the equal artistically and technically of the early ones. If you do not believe me try the first and last tracks on this disc…the Symphony No.8 dating from 2008 Naxos sessions and the Variations from Delos supervision in 1991…I have grown to respect admire and enjoy Schuman’s individual and wide-ranging musical voice as this series has developed…On its own merits though the current recording is very fine. Given that Schuman writes for a very large orchestra of triple woodwind and expanded brass and percussion to match the quality and clarity of the recording is as essential as it is welcome. The Symphony was written for the inaugural concerts of the Philharmonic Hall at the Lincoln Center in 1962. Don’t expect some festive romp though. This is darkly serious and rigorously argued music. From the opening bars this is music that seems to lament more than it celebrates. An extended horn solo grieves over unforgiving blocks of strings and brass. The idea of a lost soloist pitched against an implacable group repeats with oboe set against brass and violins against horns and piano. Joseph W. Polisi in his informative and authoritative liner note draws similarities with other Schuman works. As elsewhere in this cycle I enjoy very much the way Schuman sets up conflicts within the orchestra; it’s the orchestra as battlefield with opposing forces ranged against each other. The occurrence of increasingly tense and violent brass fanfare writing heightens this sense of aggression; as on other recordings in this series the Seattle lower brass are captured with thrillingly resonant power. Throughout this movement the Seattle strings are particularly impressive creating a sonorously solid wall of unified implacable tone. After the crisis of battle is reached with an aggressive timpani solo the music subsides into uneasy calm before moving without a break into the second movement. For spiritual and/or musical reasons that are not made clear the remaining two movements of the Symphony are extended re-workings of material from Schuman’s String Quartet No.4 of 1950. A further self-quotation is pointed out by Polisi; Schuman transforms the melody of the closing chorus of his 1953 baseball opera The Mighty Casey into what Polisi describes as “a lament unto itself”. The terse, rage-contained mood of the opening movement continues. Clearly there must be an extra-musical motivation for the use of the other works’ material here; I only wish I knew what it was. Polisi is quite right to point out that the function of this movement is far removed from the traditional central slow movement of standard symphonic form. It is almost as if it is a self-contained musical picture. Throughout its eleven minute span the mood remains unrelentingly sombre although expressed in a variety of textures and tempi. Schuman has a clear predilection for the imposition of varying materials. Often this results in the conflict alluded to above but there are many fascinating passages where the material runs in tandem seemingly refusing to acknowledge the presence of any other music. Try track 2 at around 8:30 for an example of this. The low strings and brass start a figure that could almost be a slow fugal subject in earlier more formal times. Above and around them the upper strings skitter and buzz like some annoying insect with light (but not light-hearted) scurrying figurations. Other orchestral sections ally themselves and a more direct conflict ensues. All of the Seattle orchestra play Schuman’s complex unpredictable rhythms with total ease. As in the first movement out of the height of battle some kind of calm appears although here the movement reaches a more definitive end with a held loud and soured chord from the full orchestra.

After two unrelenting movements of anger and sorrow the final Presto-Prestissimo is undoubtedly welcome. As mentioned the musical material is again mined from the earlier quartet but here the instrumental forces answer rather than overlap. Although still jagged and dissonant that little change alone makes the music more playful and lightened in spirit. It is the movement where Schuman’s orchestrational skills are most apparent. Again the playing is neat or powerful as required and the balance is finely achieved. The Naxos engineers have been able to maintain internal detail within a believable overall balance. As the movement develops so does the complexity of the contrapuntal texture…indeed there is another similar ‘fugal’ passage to the one described above but here the musical strands are more intertwined and the result is more symbiotic than destructive. There is a sense that the various orchestral groups are taking turns to display their prowess to admiring colleagues. The momentum is maintained through the movement to a final display of (relative) unity until a final held chord again coloured by dissonance. As mentioned above this is my first encounter with this score and indisputably powerful though it is I do not feel I have got under the skin of it yet. But experience tells me that all of Schuman’s works repay repeated listening and attention and certainly the performance here seems to exude authority and conviction with technical excellence taken for granted.

Not that the second work on the disc should be considered as any kind of filler. Described as a choreographic poem, Night Journey is a major score in its own right running to over twenty-five minutes of continuous music. It was the first of four collaborations Schuman had with the hugely influential Martha Graham. Apart from her impact on the world of dance Polisi quotes Schuman as saying; “…I was influenced tonally by her aesthetic, if not necessarily consciously…the subject matter of these works is so Graham-ish…the dark side and the fast side is very prominent.” The original orchestration of this work is not clear but in 1981 Schuman returned to it and produced the Choreographic Poem for 15 Instruments recorded here. It shares a very similar aesthetic to the Symphony although on a very different scale if judged by number of performers alone. The mid-1940s was the time when Graham also collaborated with composers such as Copland on Appalachian Spring and Barber in Cave of the Heart. Both of those great works in their original versions are also for reduced quasi-chamber instrumentations (with prominent orchestral piano parts) but Schuman creates a darker more unsettling musical world than either. As such it’s a brilliant and astute coupling for the Symphony although the result is a rather gritty listen heard at a single sitting. In many ways I find Schuman’s handling of the instruments more remarkable here than in the symphony. I often think the phrase “good orchestration” is confused or more to the point mis-used with the concept of writing for a large orchestra. Surely, truly skilful orchestration is the use of minimum instruments to maximum effect…just as Schuman does here. Heard ‘blind’ I suspect few would guess at 15 as being the number of players. The quality of playing and recording helps maintain the illusion to a great degree. Sensibly the engineering has brought the instrumental group closer into the foreground which serves to differentiate the musical strands. This is lithe and athletic writing superbly executed. Again, I don’t find myself instantly warming to the work…time will tell…but I can imagine Martha Graham being absolutely delighted with the work as it abounds in that kind of serious severity that characterises much contemporary dance. Certainly this is Schuman at his most angular and uncompromising…try track 4 around 16:30 to hear both the aggressive style of the music and how brilliantly performed it is. The chilled tolling bell-like hollow piano chords accompanying a hopeless string lament from around 24:30 to the end of the work is another musical highlight…a very effective passage achieved with the minimum of resources…hopelessness encapsulated. I am not clear if this version of the Graham ballet still follows the same narrative path…I for one would have appreciated some dramatic cueing of the music. Polisi does not provide a synopsis other than mentioning it is based on the Oedipus myth told from the viewpoint of his mother Jocasta.

After such a rigorous hour of music the uproarious orchestration of Charles Ives’ organ bonanza Variations on ‘America’ provides almost too much relief. It really could not be further from the sound world or aesthetic of the other two works if it tried! As mentioned before, this was recorded some 17 years before the rest of the programme but it still sounds very fine indeed. The liner points out that Schuman changed not a note of the work harmonically or otherwise. For 1891…pre-dating The Nutcracker or The New World Symphony this must have sounded like musical madness. What is so clever in Schuman’s treatment is his po-faced absurdity. It serves to accentuate both the modernity and inherent bizarreness of the original. In this performance I do feel the music is better served by a more unbuttoned raucous approach…this is beautiful but a tad civilised. Naxos have another version of this work in their catalogue…as a coupling to the Quint/Schuman Violin Concerto played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (review). But to be honest you will not be buying this disc for that coupling. For those who, like me, have been spellbound by the power and breadth of Schuman’s vision as captured by this cycle this is an automatic purchase. If you are new to this compositional landscape this might prove a daunting yet not unrewarding place to start although some of the other earlier releases provide less rocky foothills. This might not be the conclusion of the Naxos/Schuman cycle…Symphonies 1 and 2 remain tantalisingly ‘withdrawn’. My hope would be that the people who hold the Schuman legacy dear will realise that the strength and enduring value of that heritage can only be enhanced by knowing what came before. Even as it currently stands, this now-complete cycle is one of the true jewels of the Naxos catalogue; powerful music presented in exemplary sound and compelling performances.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, April 2010

William Schuman (1910–92) had the misfortune of bearing a surname almost identical to that of the better-known German composer Robert Schumann. I well remember from decades ago seeing Schuman LPs filed under “Schumann” at record stores, and to this day the American’s recordings are no doubt still placed in the Schumann bins by less-discerning clerks. But of course Schuman deserves better treatment.

His works list includes eight symphonies—Nos. 3 through 10, the first two having been withdrawn. The Third is probably the most popular, while the Eighth (1962) here is among the least performed and recorded. At slightly over a half-hour, it is an austere work, fairly dissonant and quite dark in mood. It isn’t as difficult for the listener, however, as the composer’s penultimate symphony, the Ninth, subtitled The Ardeatine Caves. For its time, in fact, the Eighth is not particularly advanced in its expressive language.

The first movement Lento sostenuto comes across as a tense lamentation. Following an insistent series of sustained chords in the opening, the horn spins out a dour melody, imparting a bitter and hardly consolatory mood. The whole movement remains tense, especially in the faster music that comes in the second half.

The second movement Largo isn’t any brighter, and the expressive character of the music remains deep and profound. The presto finale ushers in more coloration, at least in instrumentation and rhythmic activity, but the music cannot shirk the clinging darkness and tension. The piano, xylophone, glockenspiel and vibraphone try to brighten things, as do some playful winds, but to little avail. In the end, one views the music as close in character to that of fellow American Peter Mennin in his mostly dark and dead-serious symphonies.

Night Journey, subtitled a Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments, is derived from Schuman’s ballet Night Journey (1947), his most successful theater work. This scaled-down version—really a transcription without repeats—from 1981, exhibits a slowly-paced nocturnal character in the opening, which eventually gives way to menacing strings and piano. Later on the mood brightens, so to speak, amid much rhythmic activity and deftly-fashioned instrumentation, although the nocturnal character remains throughout the piece. Lasting 25:28 in this performance, this work is certainly worthwhile, and perhaps the strongest piece here.

The Ives arrangement is a nice filler of seven minutes duration. Finally the mood substantially brightens in this light celebratory piece. It is an arrangement of the Ives original for organ, which features variations on My Country Tis of Thee. It’s a delightful, often humorous work that goes against the grain on this disc of otherwise serious music.

Gerard Schwarz draws convincing performances in all works from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the sound Naxos provides is excellent. Recommended to fans of Schuman and 20th century American music in general.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2010

Those buying this complete cycle of William Schuman symphonies will be aware that you never know what to expect, the Eighth being a score that can explode at any minute before retreating inside itself. There is desolation and rugged vistas in the two opening movements that seem much at odds with the overly busy Presto finale. You may need to play the work a number of times, for it seldom offers the listener with a key to open the door of his thoughts. In his lifetime Schuman became the most influential person in American music, his appointment as President of the Juilliard School of Music and President of the Lincoln Centre for Performing Art, giving him enormous power in New York’s music. It was not conferred without just cause, and it is for that reason you should hear his music and allow it to seep into your memory bank. Night Journey is a ballet lasting almost half an hour and instigated by Schuman’s collaboration with the famous American choreographer, Martha Graham. The story is centered on the Oedipus myth when Jocasta came to realise she has the destiny of being his mother and his lover. Scored for fifteen instruments, the outer sections are slow and in muted colours, contrasting with the hectic activity and  brilliant lights that invade the central scene. The disc ends with Schuman’s orchestral arrangement of the Charles Ives’s organ work, Variations on ‘America’. Already zany in its original format, the orchestra adding to the fun of the piece, and in this guise has promoted both composer and arranger. It would be difficult to imagine more idiomatic performances than these from Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, and I commend it to you most strongly.

Gapplegate Music Review, March 2010

Schuman is a composer for whom a gestation period is necessary, I believe. This is perhaps especially true for his Eighth Symphony, first performed in 1962 by Leonard Bernstein for the opening days of Lincoln Center. The music is dense, somber, intensely brooding, rather complex, and (like many of Harris’s works), constructed on the principal of an unending melodic sprawl, made intriguing in the way the orchestration colors the phrasing with interesting aural combinations. It is a remarkable work, a work of pure invention, and perhaps its complexity has made rough going for the average audience.

Schuman’s Eighth is not a work to be absorbed fully in one sitting. The positive side of that factor is that increased exposure to the work leads to almost infinite pleasures. The more one listens, the more Schuman’s musical world reveals itself to the ears and the musical mind’s eye.

There have been a number of recordings of the work. Bernstein’s NY Philharmonic version more or less set the standard. However, the new recording by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony certainly comes close to rivaling that original reading. Schwarz’s interpretation is a little more linear; he connects the musical-phrase-dots in a way that brings out the musical logic of the piece. The sonorous qualities of the large orchestra needed to properly perform this work is captured in a full sound stage and the balance seems quite right. Schwarz’s reading is expressive; it heightens the seriously somber quality of the work. In short, it is a lovely reading.

As a bonus, the disk includes the 1947 ballet Night Journey in its 1981 revision; and the marvelous Schuman orchestration of Charles Ives’s delightful Variations On “America”.

This is an indispensable installment of Naxos’s complete Schuman symphony cycle. It is great listening!

Cinemusical, March 2010

Back in the 1990s, Delos enticed us all with the expectation of a complete cycle of William Schuman’s symphonies. Gerard Schwarz’s work with the Seattle Symphony on a Hanson cycle in warm sound made the prospect of his Schuman approach quite interesting. A release of the third and fifth was as far as they got until Naxos revived the project of which this is the crowning and final achievement of this five-disc cycle. Schuman’s music wavers between astringency and accessibility and this disc allows for a bit of both sides of this great American composer.

The CD opens with an intense and near perfect performance of Schuman’s Symphony No. 8 from 1962. Schuman eschews traditional orchestral melodic writing instead creating an almost overwhelming study in orchestration, texture, and tempo acceleration. The piece has a distant cousin in the composer’s monumental fourth string quartet from 1950 whose elements are further explored and extended in this piece. The first movement is a study in dissonance and very close harmony that opens with a slow pulse that Schwarz allows time to flow into the silence with amazing power. As the movement builds in temporal intensity, the intervallic proportions begin to alter slightly and are almost pulled apart by the increased tempo. The movement essentially segues into an arch-like central slow movement with a faster central section. Here longer string lines ebb and flow in an angular idea that along the way is harmonized with extended chordal structures. Once again the music tries very hard to push its way faster into the center but is reigned in to its breaking point. Schwarz manages to create shape to Schuman’s seemingly disjointed lines here and the engineers have managed to capture the different instrumental groupings so that they can be easily heard in the overall texture. The third and final movement moves at a “Presto” tempo but aurally the effect of static motion still occurs. Skittish strings and brass alternate along with some truly fascinating pitched percussion work always referring back to those clashes of slow dissonance from the opening movement. Dissonance seemed to take over the first movement, but here tempo rules insistently driving to the close with the orchestra seeming to want to veer out of control. The winds get a chance to show off here for the first time winding their way around a small pitch level in fits and starts that gradually builds throughout the orchestra in a textural crescendo.

There is but one other recording of this symphony made by Leonard Bernstein back closer to the works premiere. The recording is available with Schuman’s 3rd and 5th symphonies and is worthwhile listening, but Schwarz’s new recording will be the one to beat if ever one decides to record this work again. Both performances are quite similar in their timings with Schwarz getting the better of a warmer acoustic and improved digital sound. Though playing to 32 minutes, the symphony is easily one of the composer’s finest pieces.

Bridging the gap between later-century symphonic writing and the post-Americana movement of the 1930s and 1940s is Night Journey. Written for Martha Graham in 1947, the first of four ballets he would compose for her company, Night Journey is perhaps the most familiar and played. The story takes the point of view of Jocasta, the lover and mother of Oedipus. It is both a seminal piece of American Ballet and a defining piece of music in Schuman’s career that allows us to see the fruition of his style in this miniature orchestral form. There are intriguing melodic ideas that spin out endlessly with an almost melancholic turn in the music. The scoring is quite intimate and introspective. Most fascinating for fans of other ballets commissioned by Graham is the overall shape the music takes. Consider comparing this to the more familiar Americana stories scored by Copland and there is a general dramatic structure that begins to emerge. Again, one is always amazed at the way Schuman can manipulate his orchestral textures so effortlessly.

There have been a few recordings of this work that come and go in the catalogue. The most recent was a Koch release from 1991 that featured additional ballets by Menotti and Hindemith also written for Graham. That version of Night Journey ran to nearly 30 minutes under the direction of Andrew Schenk. Both appear to have chosen a 15-instrument version of the score which Schuman prepared in 1981 for smaller ensembles which removes extra repeats and bridges necessary for stage production.

Finally, the disc closes with perhaps one of Schuman’s most popular arrangements from 1964, Ives’ “Variations on ‘America’.” The piece was premiered at a New York Philharmonic Concert conducted by Andre Kostelanetz and had rarely flagged in popularity. It makes for a delightful and ear-relaxing encore to a quite satisfying performance. (This performance originally appeared on a Delos release of Schuman’s music with these same forces.)

No fan of American music will want to be without this quintessential series of music by one of our great composers of the 20th century., February 2010

Schuman’s eighth symphony, first heard at the opening of New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1962, is emotionally involving in its own way, especially in the first two of its three movements. Schuman uses a large orchestra—with plenty of percussion—not only to generate sheer volumes of sound (lots of fff) but also to create textures that range from the ominous to those of chamber music, as in the long lines of violins, oboe and trumpet in the first movement and the harmonic and rhythmic complexities of the second, which follows it without pause. The finale is appended a bit uneasily to the first two movements: its playful themes and interesting orchestral effects (pizzicato strings against glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone and piano!) do not seem to follow naturally from what has gone before, although they are certainly interesting in their own right. Gerard Schwarz leads the Seattle Symphony effectively throughout the symphony, doing an especially good job of bringing out the strong brass writing. But Schwarz is less convincing in Schuman’s orchestration of Ives, which also traces its origin to the opening season of Lincoln Center: Schuman suggested it at that time to fellow composer Henry Cowell, Ives’ artistic executor. Schuman’s orchestration is far flashier than Ives’ highly creative original set of organ variations—Schuman sometimes comes very close to the point of deliberate near-vulgarity. This work is a great crowd pleaser, one of two superb mid-20th-century encores or concert openers (the other being Leonard Bernstein’s Candide overture)…

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, February 2010

Rejoice! With this disc Naxos complete their survey of the numbered Schuman symphonies. You will look in vain for symphonies 1 and 2: they were disclaimed by the composer. That’s a pity as it would be fascinating to hear these works of the 1930s. I have not given up hope.

Schwarz here has the conqueror-advocate’s measure of the bell-haunted Eighth Symphony. It was premiered in the Lincoln Center in 1962 with Bernstein conducting and was recorded by Bernstein the same year. That recording is easily and inexpensively accessible on a 1998 Sony CD alongside symphonies 3 and 5 via Amazon. While I still recommend that CD for an unassailably vital and kinetic Third Symphony Schwarz is to be preferred in the often more tensely reflective Eighth Symphony. He takes a minute and a half more than the comparatively opaque Bernstein but the Seattle results positively glow. This is a work that can be difficult to approach but I find it completely accessible in this Schwarz-Naxos version. Schwarz’s reading is as much of a revelation as Walter’s Brahms 3, Oramo’s Sibelius 6 and Ormandy’s Nielsen 6. The lucid and directly engaging recording is a co-conspirator in the results. The prestissimo finale showcases the audio engineering which accommodates solo strands and florid climactic material with a natural ease and without any sense of perspective zooming. Even Schwarz cannot completely transform the rather hollow gestures of the last page or two of this score but overall the Symphony emerges wonderfully well—better than ever.

Night Journey was one of four ballets on which Schuman collaborated with Martha Graham. Its spareness of utterance and angularity is only partly accounted for by the score which specifies fifteen instruments. A diminutive orchestra was not an unusual restriction for Graham ballets of that era—no doubt sensitive to cost and touring practicalities. The music has a Bergian astringency whether pensive, charged with nocturnal foreboding or fitfully frenetic. That inward quality echoes Barber’s tense dark chocolate romanticism but presents in more transparent textures…the Ives/Schuman Variations on ‘America’ is a brilliant showcase built around a song that most Brits will recognise as God Save the Queen. The familiar tune is put through some wheezingly irreverent transformations. This is in no sense a representative Schuman work but is full of left-field fun.

It’s too easy to forget the sponsors without whose sense of judgement and even courage we would not hear the music. It’s much to the credit of the National Endowment for the Arts that they have financial sponsored this disc.

The more than capable notes are by Schuman biographer Joseph W Polisi.

For enthusiasts of the orchestral Schuman and the American 20th century symphony this disc brings the Naxos Schuman project to a close in style.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group