SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 4. Symphony No. 9 "Le fosse ardeatine." Orchestral Song. Circus Overture.
Seattle Symphony Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
NAXOS 8.559254 (B) (DDD) TT: 63:25

BARTÓK: String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7. String Quartet No. 2, Op. 17. String Quartet No. 3. String Quartet No. 4. String Quartet No. 5. String Quartet No. 6
Vermeer Quartet
NAXOS 8.557543/44 (2 CDs) (B) TT: 75:49 & 78:23


While the classical disc-business is showing faint signs of life abroad, especially, Naxos has taken up the reins and charged ahead with multiple releases every month of a wide repertoire that rivals the Golden Age of last century’s final-quarter surge. Among late spring releases are installments in what promise to be complete documentation of a vast range of works.

To a long list of recordings on Naxos by the Vermeer String Quartet, founded in 1969 although personnel has changed significantly since (Shmuel Ashkenasi is now first violin), the group has added Bartók’s Holy-Ghost six, which spanned a 30-year period from 1908-09 through 1939. Nos. 1 and 2 began the series as Impressionistic works in the tradition of Debussy and Ravel, although the Second (completed in 1917) was about to yield to The Miraculous Mandarin ballet and a dissonant, folk-derived style unmistakably “Bartókian” that dominated his output until prewar-2 emigration from Hungary to the U.S. He had begun to sketch a Seventh by 1945, the year of his arguably premature death, but it was so fragmentary that no one attempted a completion (as Tibor Serly did with the final measures of the Third Piano Concerto, or the materials on paper for a Viola Concerto that William Primrose had commissioned ). The Third Quartet of 1927, contemporaneous with the First Piano Concerto albeit less venturesome stylistically, set a benchmark for Nos. 4 (1928) and 5 (1934), whereas No. 6 – Bartók’s last completed work in Europe – was a more ruminative work without as many thorns.

In the history of discs, virtually every major (and no end of minor ) string quartets have recorded at least one or more – and in many cases all six – of the quartets. Arkiv currently lists 20 available versions of some, and no fewer than 17 of No. 6. The styles have ranged from prickly – the second of the Juilliard Quartet’s two complete series (1950 in mono; remade during the ‘60s in stereo) – to the mellower, more “European” early versions by the Hungarian and Vegh Quartets. The most recent neo-Juilliard version was the Emerson’s on DG, which replaced the cool expertise of the Tokyo Quartet. Now we have, on Naxos, a new version in the “Hungarian-Vegh” tradition – if not top-drawer interpretively, in any event the cheapest on two discs in a duopack, vividly recorded in the bargain. So vividly in fact that certain interpretive anomalies (from Ashekanasi in particular) are clear to hear. What I’d like to hear, however, is the second version from 1996 by the reconstituted Tacaks Quartet, replacing a version made in 1985 by different personnel, especially in light of their recent, awesome illumination of Beethoven’s last Quartets (REVIEW). But I don’t have $30-odd to spare for music I respect but won’t pretend to love, not in the way I return time and again to the greatest string quartets by Shostakovich, or Benjamin Britten’s 2 through 4. But let the matter rest there; this is neither the place nor the time for a word-war about Béla Bartók’s place in the pantheon of 20th-century composers.

Among the in-progress sets that Naxos offers, much needed and welcome currently is an overview of William Schuman’s eight symphonies, Nos. 3 through 10 (he withdrew and disowned Nos. 1 and 2 without, however, eliminating their numbers from his catalog). With “generous support from the William Schuman Music Trust,” Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony have begun the project with Symphones No. 4 (1941), of which there are two other recordings currently available, and No. 9 (The Ardeantine Caves; 1968), missing since RCA withdrew Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra recording, following the premiere in January 1969. (In the same fell swoop, Leonard Slaktin’s St. Louis recording of No. 10 was deep-sixed.) Without pretending that Seattle’s is a Philadelphia Orchestra, or in truth that Schwarz is Ormandy, No. 9 receives a gritty and unsparing performance of music inspired by a visit to the caves where the Nazis murdered, a la Lidice, 335 innocent Italian men, women and children in reprisal for an underground ambush of 32 German soldiers. The symphony’s three movements are played without pause – “Anteludium,” “Offertorium” and “Postludium” – which seem to end quietly but conclude with an anguished, unmistakably angry outburst. It is not “easy” music to listen to, but is gripping and grows on one as the work is heard and reheard. One can argue that Schuman in his later 50s (his dates were 1910-1992) had emerged a greater composer than the popular – and to an extent populist – composer of the Third and Fifth Symphonies.

No. 4, which came just a year after the Third, never seemed to capture the public’s fancy as No. 3 did, but is a masterpiece of construction (see S.J.S’s REVIEW of David Allen Miller’s Albany recording, which I don’t know but need to). I find less of Schuman’s sometime-teacher Roy Harris in his music than S.J.S. does, but they belonged to the same century and shared a war-whetted spirit. Schwarz recorded No. 4 in 2003-04, during the same autumn-spring period as No. 9, but it hasn’t the surge or quite the propulsion of No. 9, or for that matter of two welcome fillers: a 3-minute Orchestra Song (Austrian, from 1963), with rich string sonority indeed, or the rowdy Circus Overture of 1944 (the only work by Schuman that Fritz Reiner ever performed, although the composer delivered an eloquent eulogy at Reiner’s funeral in 1963). The latter has a bit more reverb than its texture quite needs, but otherwise the recording from Benaroya Hall’s Taper Auditorium is almost as fine as it could be (and was, on a private cassette of Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony, the first music recorded before Benaroya officially opened in 1998). This Schuman series promises, in the event, to be a landmark, long overdue.

R.D. (June 2005)